The Limits of Propaganda: When Symbolism & Representation Replaces Direct Action

Flyering is usually associated with creating “awareness.” The tireless union workers, or religious folks, or the anarchists, the communists – basically everyone that wants to get a following considers flyers as the precursor with the revolution. Art is seen as a means to get more people “aware”, to get them on board with a cause.

But this is a false conception.

Propaganda is problematic. Despite the beautiful aesthetics, propaganda is stuck within the critiques of art that the Guy Debord and the Situationists cried out: that art, being representational, cannot afford to be symbolic. Art and creativity become co-opted for the reinstatement of capitalism, framing radicalism onto a painting rather than operating as direct transformations of life. Arte Util, a type of art that I rather enjoyed in my fellowship at the Yerba Buena Center of the Arts, also has a similar critique of mainstream art (let’s associate art here with “propaganda”). Also, I have to give credit to the Arte Util school for allowing me to find the semantics for these ideas.

What the construction of “propaganda” can do, however, is the open collaboration of people that bring it to life. For me, this is where the value of flyering or propaganda comes in. It is not that these avenues bring in more people, per say, but the confidence of organizers builds up as they engage together, giving each of them a taste of what it is to change social relations.

If we hope to undo capitalism, it cannot be through a proper marketing campaign. We can’t afford to put aesthetics by empty symbolic gestures, although it plays a part. We can’t afford to reengage art as simple symbolism and representation. We can and should, however, engage in it for its capacity to rebuild community.

Writing itself has to avoid falling down the pitfalls of consumer art. Radical journalism and its prospects should understand itself as a type of direct action, engaging with the possible aspects of transfomation. Writing a radical newspaper isn’t enough. What we should ask ourselves is how the whole project can be constructed to engage with communities on our principles.

We should consider flyering, but only to how it engages people in organizing. For example, anti-racist art is pretty cool, but how can anti-racism engage with art and still be direct action, instead of fighting on the level of representation with the canvas?

Direct action is the best propaganda. That is because direct action transforms life directly, not asking permission for the authorities. Transformation of life ripples through the community. The community engages not because they saw the flier, but because direct interventions in a life lacking social relations is being built from the ground up. Perhaps after that is met, maybe, just maybe, we can consider flyering for that one panel you were thinking.

Suggestions to avoid falling into representation/symbolism:

  1. Make your art project based. It is not the case where an artist, alone and separated from the community, and with all the ingenuity individualism brings, can come up with art. Not giving credit for your creativity is co-optation or appropriation waiting to happen.
  2. Have a program/event/action associated with the flyer. If you’re gonna waste paper, make it count. Empty phrases is a no-no (unless the project to do it is whole other story). Projects should be useful for the community!
  3. Direct action is the best propaganda! People become involved when the transformation of life becomes feasible, and have a taste of rebuilding communal relations.
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