Today I am thinking about Sam, but still pretty upset to find out he was dead. So I thought I’d use this 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, 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 it also contains 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.
Leni Riefenstahl with Heinrich Himmler at Nuremberg, 1934.
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? 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?
Leni and crew filming those all-important ’36 Olympics.
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, the undisputed grandfather of the spin and the catchy
slogan, answer, if he had not been tipped off as to his imminent arrest and killed himself rather than face trial in the liberated Germany? What are the implications of how 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 to people and philosophies and lifestyles?
Golden Globe and Academy Award winner Charlize Theron for Christian Dior, “J’Adore” parfum.
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.