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. This kind of rhetorical deployment or rhetorical strategy in using powerful terms as propaganda represents other non-conformist African American artists as "proletariat." In fact, Du Bois might have been right in choosing propaganda to reflect what he perceives as needed for racial uplift, but this kind of vision contradicts with what was going on in Harlem.
African American artists, who did not belong to the talented tenth middle-class social environment, saw things differently. They already witnessed and live the suffering of an oppressed people under the harsh realities of a capitalist system. In other words, art as propaganda became an anachronistic deployment of Communist/social terms in the wrong context. The tension between the two ideologically and aesthetically different paradigms, or the two modes of conceptualization of what constitutes art, transforms into a debate about what is black aesthetics. Du Bois and other members of the "talented-tenths" call for art to serve as a racial and cultural propaganda for African Americans created opportunities for artists to both voice their own personal views about what counts as art for them and to argue against what many of them perceived as limiting in the idea of art as propaganda. Of course, the call for the creation of art for social uplift might have stimulated some new creative artistic energy. However, this call seems to have also heightened an already developing ideological tension between the two ideologically different groups: tension may have lead to a dispersion of these creative energies into more concern of what constitute art rather than "really" creating art that helped, developed and improved the social, political, and economical conditions of black Americans.
In this essay, I will examine the implications of the concept of propaganda in the Harlem Renaissance, its social, political, and racial implications, and explain how incompatible the objectives of this primarily idealist project were with what was really going on in the daily lives of African Americans. What makes the application/implications of the concept of propaganda interesting is that its historical use and connotations are controversial. In other words, one can argue that Du Bois' voicing of his message might have been only one way to create more incentives for African American artists to create literary and artistic works that reflect African American culture, aesthetics and life experience in the US. However, what is problematic in such a call is the implicit determination on Du Bois' part to "not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda." (5) Du Bois' determination not to give a damn about art if it does not serve as propaganda for the African American racial identity does not completely provide us with an accurate reflection about whether African American artists ever listened to him. As I have mentioned earlier, Du Bois' famous sentence, "not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda," does not reflect Du Bois' general or overall position about art, but only reflect his position at that particular historical moment, 1926. (6) However, even though this position reflects/states one particular public statement of Du Bois about art, it also generated very interesting contemporary reactions.
In other words, Du Bois seems to have adopted, whether consciously or unconsciously it does not really matter, a didactic approach to art. Didacticism is an educational perspective where teachers, particularly with a "moral" vision instruct their students with what they should do or learn. To be didactic is to have a specific set of ideological goals that correspond to a larger strategy in which educators, instead of helping …
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Publication information: Article title: Art as Propaganda: Didacticism and Lived Experience. Contributors: Aljenfawi, Khaled - Author. Journal title: Afro-Americans in New York Life and History. Volume: 29. Issue: 1 Publication date: January 2005. Page number: 55+. © 2007 Afro-American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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