Topics in Emerging Media and Communications

The Art of War

with 5 comments

In reading Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, I found myself feeling angry and frustrated at the realization of how art is used to manipulate the masses, especially with regards to war.

I admit that I am one of the masses. I remember watching Schindler’s List and bawling my eyes out at the sight of those red shoes.  When I watched the invasion of Iraq on television I bawled as the bomb blasts melted into city lights. I watched Fahrenheit 911 and bawled at the evidence of greed and fear mongering presented. These moments captured on film helped shape my perception of war (they also betray my propensity to cry), but they weren’t just captured, they were created to move the viewer toward a specific viewpoint, toward outrage, toward action. And not just one viewer, modern film is constructed and produced to appeal to the largest market possible.

No other example better represents Benjamin’s argument “Fascism sees it’s salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves…the logical result of Fascism is the introduction for aesthetics into political life…All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war (Benjamin IV).” than Leni Riefenstahl Triumph of the Will, a propaganda film documenting the 1934 Nazi Rally in Nuremberg, Germany.

Closing scene from Triumph of the Will (the entire film is also available on youtube.com)

In watching the film I found myself confused. I was at once entranced by the aesthetic and technical beauty and then horrified by the content.

“The characteristics of the film lie not only in the manner in which man presents himself to mechanical equipment but also in the manner in which, by means o f this apparatus, man can represent his environment (Benjamin XIII).”

Triumph of the Will is specifically designed to transport you to Nuremberg square. It is a visually stunning piece of art, replete with imposing views of swastika adorned flags, 30,000 spectators chanting in unison, and part of a speech given by Adolf Hitler. The film is so effective that you can almost, for a second, understand the incredible hold the Nazi’s had over the crowds, swept away in love of country and love for the Furher. You see what the camera tells you to see. You hear what the film’s sound allows you to hear. It is not just a film, it is art. Art that inspires thought, feeling, action on a massive scale.

This is what Benjamin is talking about. This is dangerous. As an individual I would like to believe that I have a pretty good radar for propaganda, but the media machine is highly attune, using aesthetic arts, pleasing sounds and mass appeal to avoid detection. These techniques are even more effective now than they were in 1934, and will continue to influence the collective perception of reality.


Written by HiuHiMedia

September 22, 2010 at 5:11 am

Posted in Politics

Tagged with , , ,

5 Responses

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  1. I’m so glad that you mentioned Benjamin’s discussion of war as it pertained to Triumph of the Will (TOTW). Today my presentation will more or less cover the artistic authenticity of war films and mementos, but it will do so using two narrative films as examples. Do you feel that propaganda documentary films such as TOTW have made way for retrospective narrative war films such as Schindler’s List and The Pianist? With each film on WWII that is released, save for a small humanizing element of the father in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Nazi germany is dug further and further into a hole, a stark contrast to the prewar enthusiasm of TOTW. As an art form designed to appeal to the “largest market possible”, not to mention all the atrocities the Nazis committed, this might just be an inevitable circumstance. But it is interesting how such vastly different films by opposing sides on the same topic can both generate very authentic feelings of terror and grandeur.


    September 22, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    • Unfortunately, in the interest of time, I probably won’t be referring to film in my presentation after all. But I still would love to hear your take on how certain aspects of war have been romanticized or cast in a specific light over the years thanks to various works of art.


      September 22, 2010 at 5:19 pm

      • I haven’t seen Gone With the Wind. (I admit, it’s VERY difficult for me to ignore racial predjudice for aestethic beauty). However, I have a just of the film and think it’s a perfect example of war being romanticized in film.

        Brianni Nelson

        September 23, 2010 at 4:58 pm

  2. Hey, it’s your friendly classroom contrarian — slash devil’s advocate…

    Just as frightening as it is to think the harm movies can cause when it provides propaganda …the medium is just as effective at creating positive change as well. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Blackboard Jungle,” “Thelma and Louise,” “Philadelphia,” “Norma Rae,” “Silkwood,” “Little Big Man (my fav!) …all significant movies that shifted attitudes and helped shape change.

    Then what about…”Bowling for Columbine” “”Feirenheit 911” as well as “An Invconvienent Truth”? There are many who would say those movies were masterpieces and created to “do good.” Others would call them good examples of propaganda that provide little or no balance of opinions…and not to be trusted since there the artist had “an agenda.”

    While none of those films are backed by governments and financially supported by political organizations like “Triumph of the Will,” artists can challenge prejudices and force audiences to face injustices.

    As I mentionened “Birth of a Nation” in class the other day, while it was by no means any attempt at being an objective documentary,” did the audience know that?

    In a culture where Freedom of Speech protects hate as much as compassion — just like reason and faith, audiences must learn how to be critical thinkers who are trained to recognize the differences between fact and opinion, data and emotion, fiction and non-fiction. Plus there’s the need for audiences to comprehend the difference between objecivity and subjectivity.

    That being said, when discussing art, is it the artist’s responsiblity to be objective? Most would probably say no…however; does the audience understand the difference between art and “reporting,” and take into consideration the objective of the artist and the desired outcome so they are able to recognize when someone is attempting to manipulate them and provide distortion…rather than a distraction…

    kevin sharpe

    September 24, 2010 at 6:44 pm

  3. I agree that it goes both ways. Michael Moore, while pointing out in Farenheit 911 “evidence of greed and fear mongering,” is himself partaking in manipulation of the masses (the incident at the K-Mart store in “Bowling for Columbine” comes to mind). I’m not coming out against Moore’s methods, I just think it’s easy to overlook when he does this because it’s usually done to point out what many who share the same views as Moore consider to be evil.


    September 25, 2010 at 2:29 pm

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