We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.
The line between art and propaganda is always a very thin one and there are many artists, thinkers and writers who think there is no limit between the two. I have been thinking about this for a long time and wonder where the line goes. What makes something art or propaganda?
The other week I was sent a video by a close friend of mine from a Youtube channel called The Closer Look. In it Henry Boseley takes a look at the difference between art and propaganda. He argues that the latest season of Dr. Who has been mostly propaganda and that is what has alienated the audience. The comparison he draws to probably one of my favorite games over the few years, Witcher 3, and the way it tells the story is also great. I highly recommend people watch the video.
Boseley argues that the reason Dr. Who at this time is not art, is because it is lecturing to the audience and presenting only a one sided argument about the issues it raises. In the episode he addresses there is a clear similarity to the antagonist and Donald Trump, and it is clear that the character only has the worst parts of what the writers think a capitalist leader is. Inconsiderate, brash and without any sense of guilt, a sociopath basically.
Now I have no problem with that in itself. You can make the character you want to write as bad as you want, but my problem is that these characters is so simplistic and shallow that you cannot as a writer really play around with them. They become cardboard cutouts and boring.
I can remember when me and my friends started making films in my teens. We used to do the same thing. The character would become everything that we hated. We would use that to push a narrative and the message in the direction we wanted. So I could argue that this kind of character is the sign of an immature writer, someone who still has a very black-and-white way of viewing the world, but I don’t want to presume anything.
The storyline Boseley picked from Witcher 3 contains completely different characters. The bad guy in the narrative, The Bloody Baron, is a character who at first seems like a real asshole. There is at first sight no redeeming qualities. He beats his wife, chased away his daughter and seems like he runs rough-shot over his people as well. As however the story moves along, you start seeing the reasons for his behavior. It does not justify it at all, but you start to understand and maybe even empathize with the character.
This is a character where the writers have had the opportunity to play with his bad and good sides. He becomes more human and there some depth to what he is. The player will gradually be pulled into some really uncomfortable truths about people, that the people you hate, may have something about them that explains there behavior.
After I had seen the video, I stumbled across another great video by the Youtube channel World War Two. In it Spartacus Olsson, one of the presenters, talks about the neurology of hate and how it works in all of us. It got me thinking about how propaganda plays into this inherent feature we all have in our brain. Propaganda often confirms what the us vs. them mentality may contain. “That side of politics is filled with evil people with bad intentions!” “These people have no empathy or love for those who are downtrodden.” “That race is dangerous and hoards all the money!”
We have all this innate in our psychology because it is part of our evolution and hence our biology. The good news however is that art can help combat this. By presenting characters in a more well-rounded manner, we as writers can help people realize that people outside of our in-group can be just as human as we are.
I think one of the major problems we have as writers, is that this is necessarily taught in writing courses. If you go to college or university, you are taught to argue your points, or even more common argue the teacher’s points. You aren’t really encouraged to play around with the arguments and present a more nebulous paper for instance. I remember when I handed in a term paper back in my college days, I was told that I swam too much in uncertainty and that I left too many questions unanswered.
Now I am not saying that papers shouldn’t be handed in that are assertive and sure, but I often think that in a writing course it is a good thing if the writer plays around what he or she thinks. Some of the greatest books ever written has never stated an absolute truth and you can tell that the author has really struggled with something. This is what makes great art. An artist is someone who starts out with a question and turns that question around as much as possible and maybe even leaves it unanswered at the end. Because there are certain things we will never know for sure.
I have for a long time thought that when we read we are practicing different scenarios that we may encounter in the real world, and by that I do not mean that dragons are real, but that the mythological creatures and characters represent forces we may have internally. When some characters are fighting, you are using those fights to organize conflicts within yourself, especially if it is written in a way that makes great art. If the arguments for a character and the understanding for the character are more human, meaning they have good and bad aspects, you can resolve those conflicts within yourself.
It also makes it easier to see people around you as more human. There are plenty of studies that show that reading increases empathy, but I don’t necessarily think that reading is enough. If you only read, watch or play propaganda products, then your empathy may not be increased. You may in fact become more rigid in how you view those who disagree with you.
The writer needs to present the main characters, protagonist, antagonist and main side characters, as fleshed out as possible to make the reader understand that you have really thought this through. You might need to spend a lot of time going back and forth, and this isn’t an easy task, but whoever said that writing or being a hero was easy.