Propaganda Vs. Art Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

Propaganda vs. Art

Propaganda may be defined as "the activity or the art of inducing others to behave in a way in which they would not behave in its absence." central question in the debate about propaganda vs. art is - can the artist be separated from the art he or she produces and to what extent is the artist complicit with the use of their artworks for propaganda purposes?

Many feel that it is a healthy practice in the analysis of an artist's work to see the art in its own right "... separating the art from the artist is, as a rule, a healthy impulse. I simply question how much we should do so and why we seem to be willing to let some artists get away with more than others." The second part of this quotation alludes to a central problematic in the issue of propaganda vs. art. To what extent can we hold the artist accountable for the use and application of that art for other, possibly nefarious, purposes? The answer, I will argue in this paper, lies in intentionality through an understanding of the intent of the artist in the production of the work of art.

The important question, especially when dealing with art from German artists before and during the Second Word War, is whether they can be blamed for the appropriation, or misappropriation of their work by the powers that be. This is a particularly controversial area particularly when dealing with the work of Leni Riefenstahl.

Propaganda can be simply defined as the use of written, visual or verbal material for the promotion of a certain case or political interest. At times there is a thin line between art and propaganda and most artists can be seen to be propagandists for some cause or social concern. However, propaganda and art collide ethically when the art is seen to be solely an instrument of some political agenda or social doctrine with the intention of influencing the perception of people. The problematic of propaganda and art becomes even more complex when the artist is acknowledged to be an innovator in his or her field as well as being accused of being a propagandist. This is precisely the case with the work of Leni Riefenstahl.

Riefenstahl's work can be seen as innovative in a rather different and more theoretical sense in that she is also seen as central artistic precursor of the "aestheticization of the political." This concept is described by Brech as life, engineered as spectacle for but also by the masses."" (Schulte-sasse 1992, 140)

In debating the difference between art and propaganda one may enter into a minefield of contentious terms and complex ethical issues. The central concern that will be the focus of this paper is the intentionality of art in determining whether it is propaganda or art. If an artist is aware of and complicit in the manufacture and production of art for a specific political agenda, especially one that has been universally condemned, then he or she may be seen to be a propagandist rather than an artist. It is this qualitative and intrinsic difference in the artist and not in the use made of the art that is the central concern. Therefore, the criteria that will be used to ascertain the difference between art and propaganda is the underlying intention of the artist.

Leni Riefenstahl - "Hitler's filmmaker"- was a dancer, actress, cinematographer, and film director; and in the view of some critics, one of the great artistic geniuses of the 20th Century. Many consider her work to have been far ahead of her time. "Riefenstahl remains the most important female film director in history and the most controversial."

Her body of work also had a profound influence on a generation of artists that followed her. Some claim that her work is somewhat dated but it still exudes originality and perception. Riefenstahl was undoubtedly an innovator. One has only to consider the period in which she worked to realize that her choices were daring as a women and in the relatively new area of cinematographic art. She was invited by Hitler to make a film of the National Socialist Party's rally in Nuremberg in 1934, which resulted in the famous and contentious film Triumph of the Will or "Triumph des Willens." This film was instrumental in portraying the ideals and aura of the Nazi regime. "Her film not only glorified Hitler as a godlike 'Fuhrer,' it also captured the triumphant aura of the new Nazi regime and heightened it in worldwide public attention - literally sky high - as well."

The same claim can be applied to the documentaries that she made which include "Sieg des Glaubens" ("Victory of Faith"); on the Wehrmacht, "Tag der Freiheit" ("Day of Freedom"); and in the 1936 Olympic Games, "Olympiad."

While the propaganda value of the documentaries is obvious, the quality and creativity of the work as art is also widely acknowledged.

The Triumph of Will is seen by many as an astounding work of cinematographic art. "It's hard to capture the breathtaking beauty and stirring power of Triumph of the Will with still images. It has to be seen to be believed... it's brilliant, easily one of the greatest films of the 20th Century."

Importantly, during the making of this film and The Olympiad Riefenstahl succeeded in creating numerous innovative film-making techniques that are still widely used by cinematographers and film editors today.

Triumph of the Will however is not considered to be her greatest work. Many argue that her film The Olympiad is one of the greatest contributions to the film arts. This film is a documentary dealing with the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin preceding the Second World War. Riefenstahl created many film techniques that have made her famous. "Edited by Riefenstahl herself, over two years, from 250 miles of film, Olympia was showered with prizes at home and abroad. Her Meisterwerk was invaluable PR for the Nazis."

Riefenstahl's creative output and her technical innovation seemed to be beyond dispute. The following is an example of the technical innovations in the world of film that are ascribed to her creativity. You could even argue that Leni Riefenstahl invented the concept of the "docu-drama" or "infotainment," for her documentaries were generally heavily edited for dramatic effect. She freely intermixed actual documentary footage with carefully constructed dramatic images. For example, she carefully interspersed images of classic Greek statues with live actors, simultaneously showing the beauty of the great classical art masters and the timeless nature of athleticism. At times she did it so effectively, you weren't sure whether you were looking at an image of a statue or an actual athlete, until you saw one of them move.

Even some of her harshest critics such as Suzan Sontag claim that these films 'may be the two greatest documentaries ever made.'" [9] However, the applause is ameliorated by the fact that she is "branded with the stigma of Riefenstahl's sponsor, Adolf Hitler.

There are two ways of approaching her work: "To her admirers, Olympia and Triumph of the Will are works of auteurist power, innovation, and beauty; while to her critics, they are propaganda for a murderous regime."

Propaganda or Art

After the Second World War, Riefenstahl was seen as a Nazi propagandist rather than as a creative artist in her own right. Some see this as a contentious issue and many are is disagreement with this view of her work. For many critics the distinction between art and artist seems to have been ignored here. The intentionality of the artist was to create 'art and not propaganda'. There are also those who see a middle ground where the element of propaganda is being 'balanced' in her work with aesthetic qualities. "By systematically excluding rational elements in the films she made for the Third Reich, she succeeded in finding the balance between propaganda and its aestheticism and in combining both in a perfect symbiosis."

While her work and its obvious quality seems to have been largely ignored and overshadowed by their propagandist usage, many dispute even that the work themselves are overtly propagandist. "Oddly enough, The Olympiad is still usually referred to as a "Nazi propaganda film," even though Hitler and his cronies appear in less than 5% of the film, and it shows some things the regime didn't like. Indeed, her intention as an artist and not a propagandist is supported by evidence that she refused to comply with cuts in The Olympiad when she was instructed to do so by Adolf Hitler himself.

Adolph Hitler specifically asked her to excise footage of the black athletes in the 1936 Olympiad who embarrassed some of his vaunted white Aryans. She personally went toe-to-toe with him to dissuade him and he eventually relented.[

When using intentionality as a measure of propaganda or art one can also refer to the intentionality of those accusing the artist of propaganda. In the case of Leni Riefenstahl…

Sources Used in Document:


Bach, Steven. "The Puzzle of Leni Riefenstahl." The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2002, 43+. Database online. Available from Questia, Accessed 4 April 2004.

Berdichevsky, Norman. "The Politics and Aesthetics of Art." Contemporary Review, March 1999, 153+.

Bonnell, Andrew G. "Stephen H. Roberts' the House That Hitler Built as a Source on Nazi Germany." The Australian Journal of Politics and History 46, no. 1 (2000): 1.

Brower, Richard. "Dangerous Minds: Eminently Creative People Who Spent Time in Jail." Creativity Research Journal 12, no. 1 (1999): 3-14.

Cite This Term Paper:

"Propaganda Vs Art" (2004, April 04) Retrieved February 20, 2020, from

"Propaganda Vs Art" 04 April 2004. Web.20 February. 2020. <>

"Propaganda Vs Art", 04 April 2004, Accessed.20 February. 2020,