Art as Propaganda: Didacticism and Lived Experience

By Aljenfawi, Khaled | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 2005 | Go to article overview
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Art as Propaganda: Didacticism and Lived Experience


Aljenfawi, Khaled, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


      "Thus all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing
      of the purists ... I do not care a damn for any art that is not
      used for propaganda"--Du Bois' Criteria of Negro Art. (1)

      "What was about to break was not the dam of segregation but the
      long suffering patience of those Harlemites who never read
      Opportunity and no longer derived vicarious pride from Walter
      White's presence at the Saint Mortiz"--Lewis' When Harlem was in
      Vogue. (2)

W.E. Burghardt Du Bois' essay "Criteria of Negro Art" (1926) is remarkable because in it Du Bois voices what seems to be one of his strongest ideological beliefs, that art should be used for propaganda, and that this apparently ideological use of art can uplift and improve African Americans' social and racial conditions in the American society. However, what is also more interesting is the context or forum through which Du Bois voiced his famous speech. Indeed "Criteria of Negro Art" was originally delivered as a speech or an "address" by Dr. Du Bois at the Chicago Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in 1926. (3) According to the editor of The Crisis, Du Bois' address was so popular to the extent that "so many people have asked" The Crisis' editor "for the complete text." (4) However, before I discuss the conference's context through which Du Bois delivered what became a landmark speech, I need to elaborate further on why art as propaganda was to become a controversial issue in the Harlem Renaissance.

What is significant here is that this kind of propagandist vision of art created a tension between Du Bois, the "talented tenth" and other African American artists who wished to reflect the social, political, and historical realities that many African American citizens experienced. Indeed, many contemporary African American artists' reacted to Du Bois' call, and produced literary works that reveal a deeper ideological rift between the "talented tenth" and many African American artists, play wrights, poets, and novelists.

It is also important to point out here that Du Bois' call for production of art for propaganda reflects his position about such an issue during that particular historical moment, 1926. In other words, I find it necessary when one discusses Du Bois' vision about art to recognize that Du Bois' theoretical positions about art and racial struggle changed dramatically through the years. Indeed, his call for art as propaganda for social uplift in 1926 does not represent a complete picture of his later views. Du Bois developed and took more radical positions about the racial struggle of African Americans. This radicalism eventually culminated in his self-exile to Ghana later on in his life.

For example, one can notice this rift between the two different intellectual and aesthetic paradigms of thoughts in the way these two groups perceived art. The "talented tenth's" position about art seemed to have reflected a bourgeois perspective in which art is deployed for racial uplift, but in reality this position reflected black middle-class biases. In other words, art for propaganda seemed to have included specific assumptions about the outcome of racial struggle. Instead of using art to uplift black Americans and empower them to get their social and political rights, Du Bois seemed to have associated the idea of social/racial uplift with economic prosperity.

Du Bois' was a highly educated individual, and as such it is legitimate to argue that he understood the implication of the words, terms or rhetorical strategies he used in his writings or speeches. Therefore, when he used "propaganda" he already knew the connotations, implications, and meaning associations of this word. Ironically, as an intellectual who represented the educated blacks in Harlem, who were already living in economically prosperous conditions, Du Bois deploys a communist vision of art as propaganda.

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