Sunday, 8 March 2009

Propaganda and art

Only two minutes' walk from the exhibition of American prints is a smaller, less flashy exhibition with much narrower scope. As its title suggests, Windows on War: Soviet War Posters 1943-45 looks at the development of a particular kind of propaganda poster in a narrow but significant period.

The collection of posters survived in Nottingham by a mixture of chance and generosity. A university professor - Vivian de Sola Pinto - was posted to Moscow on war service and collected a number of the window posters and printed posters which were produced by TASS (the Central Soviet Telegraph Agency). He collected more than 100 big window posters as well as some smaller printed posters and brought them home with them. Eventually he donated them to Nottingham University. They're a fragile collection and rare too - although major artists and poets collaborated on the work, the posters were a response to the war and intended to have an immediate effect.

I've never worried that artists of all kinds create work that is labelled "propaganda." Every work of art is propaganda for something, whether the work is loudly and ostentatiously political or quietly insists that art itself matters. All artistic creators have views, beliefs and prejudices - not necessarily comfortable ones - and these inevitably leak into their work. I'd rather deal with the unpleasant beliefs of Pound or the jingoism of Kipling, which are openly proclaimed, than the respectable-sounding class and racial sneers of T.S. Eliot or the deeply embedded prejudices of Philip Larkin. But it's the Eliot and Larkin who make it into school syllabuses while Pound and Kipling are judged too propagandist.

On the whole I can deal with overt propaganda, though I may dislike it and disagree strongly. I'm less comfortable when artists have been forced to produce propagandist art, not just because of the danger of bad art (though insincere art isn't necessarily bad; the compliments to Elizabeth I in A Midsummer Night's Dream are as delightful as they were - almost certainly - insincere). What I dislike is the power structure that harnesses art in this way and treats its effects as utilitarian and quantifiable. There's almost always something brutal about governments that do this.

The Soviet posters disturbed me for a range of reasons. Few of these were to do with power structures. To my surprise, Soviet leaders were rarely present in the posters though there was one in which a child held up a picture of Stalin as if brandishing an icon for veneration. The posters in the collection were largely focussed on hatred of Germans and the desire for vengeance. I suppose that in the years since World War II we've become so used to the evils of Nazism that we expect war posters to assert some sort of moral high ground. Looking back on British posters and cartoons of the period, they probably show the same desire for hatred and vengeance. I notice it less because it's rooted in traditions with which I'm familiar. But that desire to inflict known and unbearable pain on other human beings makes me feel sick and hopeless.

Occasionally the posters were gentler in tone. A headscarfed woman held her finger to her lips, warning that careless talk costs lives. A nurse gave water to a wounded soldier. A sturdy blond woman stood surrounded by her sturdy blond children. She was a "heroine of the Soviet Union," officially honoured for giving birth ten times. Her children, it was implied, would grow into new soldiers, replacing those who had died repelling the invaders.

Invading armies are not loved. It's not a new thought. From Sparta to the present day, mothers have sent their children to kill or be killed - and poets have praised vengeance as wel as lovel.

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