The sculpture is question is The Smith by the Icelandic sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson and it stands in front of the Country Hospital by Hringbraut. It was not the first time I saw a work so strikingly similar to what I had learned to clasify as propaganda and not art. Some of it was work from Western Europe between the two world wars, and some of it was Scandinavian sculpture that made me shudder at the way it resembled the Nazi celebration of man.Since then I always wondered why would artists create something like this when they were not forced to do so by political circumstances?
Political leaders have always been aware of the explosive potential of art : the power to influence and manipulate. After all, much of the religious art that art connoisseurs of today like to admire was straightforward propaganda, be it church murals that were bringing the message of the Scriptures to the non-literate public, or the grandeur of the building itself, to remind the common man of how insignificant he was. Propaganda can be carried out in different ways and manipulation through art has its indisputable pluses It is not obvious at first hand, yet extremely effective. It creeps into our minds and affects our subconscious, particularly if it follows us from the cradle to the grave. Official art is not meant for private collections It decorates the railway station you commute from every morning and the school where you have spent nine years of your life, with the image eventually burning itself irrefutably into your mind. You may tell yourself again and again how well you are aware of being manipulated but your senses will beat the brain anyway, after all isn’t that what subliminal advertising is all about? You can see proof for yourself, even if you do not have a totalitarian regime handy: just pay attention to the art posters you are hanging on your children’s bedroom walls. Sooner or later, your choice will manifest itself and you’ll have your Much-exposed offspring well on their way to Kleppur… Believe me, I have had posters above my crib, too.
Some propaganda art is more obvious than other work and can be identified at first sight, communist art being a prime example. Europe, east of the Iron Curtain, was a realm inhabited by musculous supermen and superwomen, who were clutching hammers and sickles in their giant fists, standing firm on the newly nationalized land and looking with a determination in their eyes to the bright future.
Hand in hand with the uniformity of subject went the uniformity of form, or rather, the lack of form. For in propaganda art the emphasis is on the message the work of art conveys and, being meant for the general masses, the message needs to be delivered as simply and directly as possible. We can see examples of this every day – the Bónus pig, for example, does not really promise highly sophisticated shopping, does it? The same principle is hidden not only in advertising but in many subtle details. The next time you are near a newspaper stand, notice the typography of the individual papers – the ones that have a three-page analysis for each political issue will have headlines in some classical font, while the fact that Ms Spears is dating a new man is given point-blank sans-serif. In art for masses the forms are simplified, with clear outlines and bright colours. Human anatomy is destorted to place emphasis on the clues to the message, hence the giant fists, and muscles that are able to work immesurable amounts of steel as well as crush any enemy of the nation that comes their way.
Close reading of the simplified forms brings to mind another idea. Perhaps the simple forms are a visual expression of the belief that in this ideology there is no place for grey areas and doubt, that everything is either white or black: those who are not with us are against us. It is the form of an era when everybody had to take a stand, and decide which side they were on.
A third possible explanation, is that the artists repeated visual cliches for they simply could not do any better. After all, the term applied to some of these works is socialist realism, so perhaps they all were supposed to be realistic but some just did not make it. Artists commissioned by a totalitarian regime are not chosen because they are the cream of the artistic crop but because they are willing to conform. An artist’s political opinion and his work are considered inseparable, you simply cannot admire someone’s paintings when the man in question listens to Radio Free Europe in his leisure time. The idea presented in a work of art by an officially approved artist is not the artist’s personal vision but his contribution to ideology and a political statement.
Given the above, I always wondered why artists, who did not have the need to resort to propaganda cliches because they lacked the ability to do better and were notforced to serve the ideology, would adopt this style of expression? In my opinion the phenomenon can be explained in two ways.
First, communism looks like a really good idea in theory. ‚From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’, equality and common ownership are all very attractive concepts. When Israel was to be transformed from a barren land into a civilized independent country, it was this ideology that lead to the establishment of kibutz. Unfortunately, apart from such emergency situations the ideology never works. It also has the drawback of despising the elites though, frankly speaking, people can be given equal opportunities but they can never be equal as such.
The second problem is the thin borderline between an expression of personal enthusiasm and a ideological political statement. Enthusiam is a mighty drug, and can blur your thinking easily. Many people must have been drawn to communism because the ideology itself is so revolutionary, because it promises the possibility of individuals fighting for better lives in the here and now. It places faith in man and his power to change his fate. It is an ideology of a new beginning, and 20th century was full of turning points and new beginnings. In technology for instance it is not difficult to imagine how fascinating the leaps of progress mankind was making must have been. In politics, nationalism was a torrent sweeping the world and many small countrys like Iceland gained their independence, and of couse the horror of two world wars and the determination to wipe the political slate clean ,to start anew
It may be difficult to discern where art ends and sheer propaganda begins. Although the majority of works of art that look like propaganda in fact are, we should never make a judgement based on first impressions and condemn an artist as an ideological slave simply because of a superficial similarity. Art is a highly personal matter but artists are people, too, and as such they cannot help reacting to, and being influenced by, what is happening around them, be it specific political events or the emergence of new ideologies.