In this session we discussed what I dubbed the Paradox of Propaganda:
- To make propaganda you need to communicate your message in an unambiguous way
- Art is essentially ambiguous
- So if it's propaganda it isn't art
- And if it's art it can't work straightforwardly as propaganda
The point of this discussion was to introduce thinking about questions about art with a message or closed interpretation. Propaganda aims to persuade people of a position whether overtly or subliminally (see some examples of Nazi propaganda posters ). 'Propaganda' need not be reserved for works that instill a position you detest: anti-Nazi posters are as much propaganda as pro-Nazi ones.
If there's a lack of clarity of message, it is to that extent less effective as propaganda. The second statement in the list above assumes that art is essentially open to more than one interpretation - this is something that can be challenged (though some people argue that it is a quality of great art that its meaning is not fixed, but leaves scope for interpretation by the viewer) - some felt that religious art is essentially unambiguous in its messages, yet no less great as art for that. Others pointed out that you could produce works with an unambiguous main message that still had elements that were open to interpretation - Picasso's Guernica is a case in point.
We also discussed the nature of documentary photography. My view is that with a documentary photograph the combination of causal (indexical) and pictorial (iconic) elements give it a distinctive relation to the world. Documentary photographs are in some sense traces of what they depict, even if reading off precise information about their causes requires extensive contextual information. Some philosophers, notably Kendall Walton, have even claimed that the directness of causal connection between object and image allows us to quite literarally 'see through' photographs. Without going that far, we can still recognize that the tradition of documentary photography (within which both Simon Norfolk and Taryn Simon's work largely falls) relies on a relationship of trust between photographer and viewer - we believe that the photographer is not misleading us about how the image was made. Contextual information aids the reading of the actual causes - in the case of Simon Norfolk's group portraits, seeing a video in which he instructed individuals on how to stand and where to look makes us realise the degree to which his portraits are constructed rather than found; contrast this with the family group photographs of Thomas Struth (soon to be shown at the Whitechapel Gallery) in which he deliberately lets the families select their own group pose. The information about how the group pose was arrived at is important to a reading in both cases. In the case of Taryn Simon, information about albinoism helps us to read the images in one 'chapter' of her work. In other words, to understand what a photograph is of typically requires additional information beyond what it containst visually.
But understanding what it is of does not exhaust its meaning. Photographers use photographs in complex communicative acts. Building from their referential aspect, photographers intend meanings through the way they use photographs in relation to other materials (and viewers often go beyond these intended meanings in their interpretations). Whereas in Simon Norfolk's exhibition (which we visited last week) juxtaposition (of his own work with Burke's) and information presented via a video (together with the use of an oriental rug in the exhibition space) were his principal means of amplifying the implicit anti-imperialist message, Taryn Simon, whose exhibition we visited this week, in 'A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters' builds most of the information for interpretation into the works themselves. Dead-pan portraits of genetic descendants of people (and, in one case, rabbits) caught up in momentous and often horrific circumstances (photographed against a neutral background) combine with framed text and associated imagery (and also with absences) to produce a context of interpretation, one that is still sufficiently open-ended to require substantial engagement from the viewer. [listen to how another contemporary photographer Thomas Demand uses absence in his work here]
[If you are interested in the topic of intentions and meaning, there is a podcast on the Philoosphy Bites series that deals with this in relation to language: Stephen Neale on Meaning and Interpretation - there are also notes on artists' intentions from a previous Tate Modern course here]
Watch Taryn Simon discussing this piece.