This post orginally appeared in a less illustrated and much rant-freer form on December 2, 2009 at 9:46 am.
Today I am thinking about Sam, but still pretty upset to find out he was dead. So I thought I’d use this below shot of him and Leni Riefenstahl as a springboard to discussing a little bit about propaganda (obviously entire books and brilliant essays are devoted to this topic, I just want to think out loud a bit). So. Sam and Leni. They were not any type of friends, but they of course knew one another, because of the international stature both held as artists.
This picture with Leni was taken in Munich in the early 70’s. We were serving on the jury for a photographic competition organised by Der Spiegel. A friendly argument developed during a break in the judging activities. Postal sacks filled with the competition entries swamped the corridors leaving little room for chairs. (“Leni Riefenstahl,” Sam’s blog, entry dated 3/15/07)
Leni Riefenstahl is a divisive and problematic figure for me to wrap my brain around: while her career has been largely brilliant, and I suppose each piece of art ought be considered an entity unto itself? — ought it? a debate for a different day maybe? — she is a photographer and cinematographer from whom for me it is difficult to separate the facts of her life and her art. See, her body of work is great, but besides such feats of human architecture as Olympia, that body of work also contains within it The Triumph of the Will, a handy piece of pure propaganda which launched her to forever-infamy and helped sway many to the National Socialist way of thinking.
Yeah, that’s Heinrich Himmler and her at Nuremberg, 1934, setting up a cozy little scene for the camera. It’s significant and somewhat ironic to me and, you likely too, because, of course, she and Himmler and Joseph Goebbels, spinmeister, were busy here trying to launch some Nazi ships of popularity, and ultimately the career of many a Nazi ended there, eleven years later at the trials. Riefenstahl was arrested after World War II, but was not tried at Nuremberg, nor ever convicted of any crimes. Fair or unfair?
It has recently become popular to exonerate Leni Riefenstahl for her part in Goebbels’ games on either a) the strength of her large body of striking and unique work or b) the reasoning that she did what she must during a time when a lot of people swallowed their true opinion to avoid persecution by the National Socialist party.
I do not believe there is any way of ever knowing for certain about (b). I simply think people are shoehorning their own opinions in to those years of her life so that they can excuse loving her later work. In fact, I have got to say that fearfully holding one’s tongue to avoid losing a job as a bank teller when one’s boss rants against Jews, versus being an artist of international stature who can reasonably leave a country and travel to another with little fear of detention — and then maybe even announce her repatriation to a place where they do not abduct and murkily displace citizens based on religion, a course chosen by many artists and scientists during this time — but not doing that and instead turning around and shooting The Triumph of the frigging Will, thank you very much, are two totally different situations, pressure-and-force-wise.
So the lukewarmly advanced “oh, but she had to do it” part of the argument is fishsticks in my book, I’m sorry. Bull-fucking-shit. Until I see hardcore documents that Leni was told something like, I don’t know, that her mother was being held and she would be whipped and her teeth would be pulled from her head and force-fed back to her every day unless Leni continued churning out propaganda, oh, and that P.S., all the anti-Semitic things she said and did in the 1920s and early 30s before the Third Reich had seized power and employed her at her own request were just for funsies, because she is totally not a hater!, then I will not ever, ever support that specious (b) argument.
There’s keeping your frightened mouth shut and half-heartedly going along with a thing with a constant eye to getting away, and then there is willful participation in that same thing in order to benefit socially, artistically, and financially. Painting Leni with that brush of reluctance is shameful and disgraces the good people who were placed by circumstance and fear for their loved ones in that hellish and untenable position, which they no doubt regretted to the end of their days. I say again: it is shameful and disgraceful to humanity to claim Leni belongs in that camp. Period.
I tried to be neutral but I got worked up even attempting to sound nice about it. Whoops. Blarg, it’s all slipping away from me, I get so nuts about WWII. I’m sorry.
So … this was supposed to be about propaganda, both the first time and on this retread. I wanted to figure out what I think about art and propaganda, and it would seem that I think some pretty angry shit, but is that necessarily right or well-reasoned? Like, okay, Leni was arrested but not tried for her participation in the National Socialist campaign to conquer — you know … the globe. Leni won 50 cases of libel against her from people who said she had knowledge of war crimes like the concentration camps — which is weird, because if she was so innocent of this knowledge then I wonder why, when she was asked why she went along with the propaganda plans, she claimed it was out of her fear of being sent to a camp … a camp that she did not know existed. fascinating, yes? — and also claimed she would lament forever that people would associate her with Nazism. Can’t think why. But enough ranting, god, the main thing is: she was let go. So she never got a trial or did time. Ought she have?
via peternicholson, Leni was shooting establishing-shot footage for a rally documentary and was caught by a friendly cameraman on the ground beneath one of her striking set designs in front of which a horribly real not-a-play-at-all went on.
Question for discussion: is propaganda a crime? A con of the highest order, making it a physical and emotionally abusive crime of course, as any manipulative act must be, but also, and perhaps more strangely, a crime against art itself? A violation of its core function? If the purpose of art is to express yourself, and we see that for some being provocative is how they do it (I do not believe the work of shock artists violates or upheaves what I’ve just advanced as the core purpose of art; I believe their work still falls beneath the aegis of self-expression, whether they understand that or not), then is propaganda a gross perversion of the core purpose, forcing a perspective on the viewer rather than expressing one’s own, muscling and manipulating and violating the relationship between seer and seen?
We talked about what happens when art imitates life, and when art imitates art, but what about when life imitates art because art influences life? What would Leni’s dear friend Goebbels, great-grandfather of the spin and the catchy slogan, answer, if he had not been killed himself rather than face trial (or death at the hands of Dönitz) in the liberated Germany? What are the implications of how art as propaganda was used politically, with our historical understanding, when we look now at modern instances of using art to increase the popularity of a product or idea, from advertising of food and beverages and clothing to much more volatile and animate subjects such as people and philosophies and lifestyles?
Or am I all backward. Is the opposite so? Is all art propaganda of some kind? One of my favorite movies, The Cradle Will Rock, written and directed by Tim Robbins, which is set during the 1930’s, draws consistent symbolic parallels between artists and whores, and even has a line where William Randolph Hearst says, not sneeringly, but simply with a practical confidence, “And artists are whores — like the rest of us.” Has the relationship between art and advertising and commercialism and pop cultural consciousness come so far that there is no way to ever go back? And, fuck, what do I know, like is that so wrong?
“Tommy Hilfiger Celebrates Sam Haskins.”
“We have burnt our bridges. We cannot go back, but neither do we want to go back. We are forced to extremes and therefore resolved to proceed to extremes.” (Joseph Goebbels, 1943)
I do not have answers. I’m frustrated and bummed and totally confusing myself. I quit! I’ll regroup and come back to this a different day.