Propaganda: the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person; ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause. (Merriam-Webster)
Pop Culture: the entirety of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, images, and other phenomena that are within the mainstream of a given culture, especially Western culture of the early to mid 20th century and the emerging global mainstream of the late 20th and early 21st century. (Wikipedia)
One of the questions we ask ourselves here at Clapham is when does art and entertainment created with intention become propaganda, and in doing so lose its appeal and, ironically, it’s potency.
David Brook’s recent reflection on the power of beauty rightly says “artists have their biggest social impact when they achieve it obliquely. If true racial reconciliation is achieved in this country, it will be through the kind of deep spiritual and emotional understanding that art can foster. You change the world by changing peoples’ hearts and imaginations.”
This is what we strive when we work on projects from one of our first film projects, Amazing Grace, about our namesake William Wilberforce and his efforts to end slavery to the recent concert sponsored by A&E on racism hosted by music greats John Legend, Alicia Keys and Pherrell Willians called Shining a Light: A Concert for Progress on Race in America.
Propaganda or Pop Culture?
A few weeks ago we invited a few friends, mostly former military officers, to see a preview of Michael Bay’s film 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. I likened it as a cross between Lone Survivor and Zero Dark Thirty. Critics from the left called it propaganda, and critics from the right said it didn’t go too far. As Ann Hornaday noted “Despite its dog-whistle marketing, the content of the film might disappoint the most rabid Hillary haters. Secretary Clinton is never invoked by name in the film, and the president is only mentioned in passing, when a character says that “POTUS has been briefed.” Rather than a red-meat attack on the Obama administration, 13 Hours engages in a kind of diffuse, all-purpose cynicism about Washington as a familiar metonym for incompetence, corruption and bureaucratic inertia.”
I respect Ann greatly, and resonate with her reviews perhaps more than any other critic. However in this case, I don’t agree with her insinuation that the film’s integrity as story is undermined because “what Paramount only pretends not to have known all along is that, of course, “13 Hours” is political, even if it isn’t explicitly partisan.”
I think she makes an important distinction, but I have a different take on it. 13 Hours is not partisan. It is not propaganda. It is pop culture, and I enjoyed it as such. But it has political consequence, and this does not necessarily undermine its appeal or power.
I remember when Oliver Stone came out with his film World Trade Center in 2006, conservative friends refused to see it because of Stone’s previous work. Meanwhile, as a story it was poignant, as a tribute it was honoring, as a production it was stunning and as a story it was deeply spiritual. It was pop culture, and it was political but it wasn’t propaganda.
There is a wonderful book I read years ago titled Everything is Politics but Politics is Not Everything: A theological Perspective on Faith and Politics by H. M Kuitert in which he points out that virtually everything we do has an affect on the body politic, and to deny this is to pretend our words, engagement and cultural products don’t have the impact that they do. But that does not mean they they have partisan or even political intent in the way we commonly define politics to be.
Are Star Wars: The Force Awakens (the inner struggle with self and outer struggle with totalitarianism), the new Marvel film Captain America: Civil War(Freedom vs. Security and the Patriot Act) and Bridge of Spies (national security. patriotism and rule of law) partisan or propaganda? No. Do they have political ramifications? You bet.
Propaganda or Pop Culture? Maybe it’s in the eye of the beholder. I know it when I see it. And propaganda is never beautiful to see.