Coco Fusco, A Room of One's Own: Women and Power in the New America, 2008. Performance, Whitney Biennial 2008. Courtesy the artist and Alexander Gray Associates, New York. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017. Photograph: Eduardo Aparicio, via DW.

Revisiting the concept of propaganda through art

While expressions like “fake news” and “alternative facts” are part of everyday doublespeak, the exhibition “After the Fact” in Munich fittingly explores different levels of propaganda as seen by artists.

The Lenbachhaus museum in Munich explores the diverse and often hidden forms of propaganda used to form and influence public opinion. The show features 35 exhibits – some comprising of several hundred parts – and works by 25 contemporary artists. Stephanie Weber, curator of “After the Fact. Propaganda 2001-2017,” discussed the exhibition with DW.

DW: Your exhibition “After the Fact. Propaganda 2001-2017” sees the 21st century as the beginning of a new era of political propaganda. How did you come to this conclusion?

Stefanie Weber: There are different answers to this complex question. I based this declaration on various data. Propaganda researchers specialized in periods of war see the 21st century as the beginning of a new era of propaganda because of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and the way the US reacted to them.

Another aspect is that the internet became widespread towards the end of the 1990s, creating completely new possibilities for propaganda. Many of the current propaganda tools are now online. Some of them can be used by all of us, such as the news we spread through social media, whereas other tools can only be administered by very few people.

You also say that propaganda as a strategic communication practice is omnipresent in current social processes. Could you name a few examples of this?

Propaganda is often used to refer to something negative, perhaps through its association with Nazi propaganda. Yet a broader definition of the term, which includes the way propaganda originally worked, would apply to almost all communication processes in which we try to convince others or to reinforce opinions.

A very obvious example currently is “fake news.” The expression has become a propaganda tool used by Donald Trump to try to cancel out criticism against him. “Fake news” is in my opinion a paraphrase for propaganda.

You point out that western democracies use euphemistic expressions such as “strategic communication,” “political management” or “marketing” to replace the negatively-connoted term “propaganda.” Which methods can be observed in these different forms of opinion-making?

We didn’t reinvent the wheel with the exhibition; it is based on preexisting research, theories and ideas. The exhibition is not trying to say, “This is propaganda.” The interesting thing about the term is that it has so many layers; it can be good or bad. Left-wing or right-wing propaganda, racist propaganda, feminist propaganda… There are many different ideological forms opposing each other.

How does the exhibition reflect the different interpretations of propaganda?

That was initially a difficult challenge for us at the beginning. How should this issue be dealt with – and how can this term be opened through an art exhibition? We then witnessed last year’s abrupt political developments. Trump was elected US President. “Postfaktisch” [Eds. the German equivalent of post-truth politics] was chosen as the [German] “Word of the Year.”

That’s when we decided that we didn’t want the artworks to necessarily interpret and document current events, but rather allow the art to occupy its own space. We preferred to follow the complexity as well as the abstraction of the artworks in relation to this topic. That meant that we looked for works without attributing them a fixed interpretation of propaganda. That’s how the exhibition features very different artists with very different works and positions, I believe.

How do the artists on show expose the different ways of dealing with propaganda?

They don’t do that directly. There are only a few artists who refer explicitly to propaganda. That was part of our approach. We wanted to try to uncover propaganda where it doesn’t obviously appear – not through waving flags and rallying cries, but rather through the ways our economized societies work and are manipulated. Those are finer undertones.

What are the art forms found in the exhibition?

There is almost everything. There is painting – and very different types of painting – there are video installations, there are sculptures, there are works on paper. Almost every imaginable medium is represented in the exhibition. We also aimed to combine renowned and little-known artists, as well as young and older ones, covering different themes. We found this more important than to try to impress through many renowned names.

The Lenbachhaus museum in Munich is famous for housing a collection of works by The Blue Rider group of artists. The temporary exhibition “After the Fact. Propaganda 2001-2017” is on show from May 30 to September 17, 2017.

Published by DW

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