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Contemporary Issues Psychology

How Entertainment and Art become Propaganda through the Loss of Aesthetic Distance

Introduction

Aesthetic distance is the ability to consciously remember that the murder scene in a performance we are watching is not “real” even though we are emotionally caught up in the drama. That way, we don’t yell “Watch out!” when our favorite character is about to be shot in the back. Our emotions do not overcome our rational mind. “Rational” here might be understood from the quadrune mind perspective as a healthy “ratio” between two minds: an external logical mind (new mammalian) and an internal emotional mind (old mammalian).1 How we react in a given situation strongly depends on which mind is dominant.

Because aesthetic distance allows us to continue to engage our rational mind even in emotionally charged situations, propagandists will often use various tactics to encourage a reduced level of aesthetic distance in order to play on our emotions and circumvent our critical mind. Propaganda hopes to inflame our emotions, especially fear and anger, while simultaneously diffusing our critical thinking. In this way the propagandist acquires a greater degree of influence over our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, short-circuiting our sense of “rational” self-awareness.

In this blog we’ll discuss propaganda in entertainment and art, the loss of aesthetic distance, and how it relates to current social controversies regarding statues and monuments. Additional context for this post is provided in the Appendix and footnotes below.

Aesthetic Distance and Propaganda

I first learned about aesthetic distance many years ago at my home church. A retired minister spoke about how Christians sometimes have difficulty with the sexual content of entertainment.2 That is, they tend to judge the morality of the actors’ behavior out of its external context, losing sight of the behavior as “play acting.” The Christians condemn the performance, and perhaps the performers, for “doing” what they would condemn in “real life.” 

Propaganda sets itself apart from entertainment and art by striving to force an unaware loss of aesthetic distance in people. In this way the real purpose of the propaganda to directly influence the behaviors and attitudes of the audience in service of the propagandist is hidden. 

Loss of a healthy rationality can occur when our world of entertainment and art is heavily corrupted by propaganda. Because of this loss of aesthetic distance, we begin to believe that we must yell “Watch out!” all the time, or even take physical action to prevent a terrible story from playing out on the screen, which we interpret as occurring in our real lives. We become a people who live in a state of unwilling suspension of disbelief, resulting in a perpetual state of gullibility, paranoia, or both. Being unable to distance ourselves from what we watch on TV or read on the internet means we live in a constant state of stress as well, which wears on our brains and further encourages us to act from our pre-Human minds. 

Entertainment

In the quadrune mind model entertainment is primarily an old mammalian emotional experience. Miriam-Webster defines entertainment primarily as a diversion. The diversion allows us to escape from weightier “real world” concerns into an experience we choose to be enthralled by. One of the most insidious examples of entertainment as propaganda in American culture is commercials. As propaganda, commercials use elements of entertainment (funny scripts, colorful scenery) to “divert” us from its real purpose of making us purchase a product or service that we likely do not need. Public relations “commercials” (apologies) may not seem that entertaining, but they too aim to circumvent the rational indignation of consumers caused by corporations harming the public good and instead encourage a positive emotional reaction. (However, some corporate apologies may be sincere.)

Psychologists have long understood that it is the “subconscious” emotional reaction—that is, the old mammalian consciousness—that drives consumer “decisions.” Business people have taken aggressive advantage of neuroscientific research for decades to make their advertisements more effective. The typical consumer is usually only aware of how entertaining the ads and commercials are, without concern for the propaganda purposes of the sponsoring corporation or business.

Because of widespread propaganda in our nation (and much of the world), we have become a people who cannot discern the difference between external reality and internal emotions. If something makes us feel (internally) “bad,” then that (external) thing is bad. If something makes us feel “good,” then that thing is good. Consequently, some Christians will reject art that contains nudity or sex as “sinful” and call it evil propaganda because it makes them feel bad (i.e., uncomfortable). Propaganda, on the other hand, is enjoyed as entertainment by many because it makes them feel good. 

Art

Psychology Today describes art this way: “The foremost reason that artists create, and the rest of us value their art, is because art forms a priceless living bridge between the everyday psychology of our minds and the universal spirit of humanity. It’s important to make a clear distinction between art and merchandise, and to emphasize the wisdom of avoiding materialist contamination of true art.” 3

Art has been the center of activism for both regressive4 and progressive propaganda. Recently, we have seen how historically problematic statues and monuments have been defended as art rather than propaganda. Although some art historians may argue that we should appreciate the artistic merit of Confederate monuments, we should not ignore the fact that these works of “art” were created with a propagandistic purpose—to elicit the emotion of pride in one’s heroes with the intention of unifying the group around the South’s mythology of the “Lost Cause.”5

Art is transcendent, but propaganda can be, too! Of course, there is a difference between them. True art helps us transcend ourselves by activating our Human mind, which understands our connection to all other living beings, past, present, and future. Propaganda, on the other hand, feels transcendent (although it is not in the true, positive sense of the word) because it activates our emotional old mammalian mind and allows us to lose our isolated sense of self to the emotions of the herd. Although we are often told how uplifting it is to be part of something “bigger” than ourselves, we are rarely advised to make sure that we are part of something that is also better than ourselves.

Art can imbue us with a sense of the “sacred wholeness” of everything in the universe. Propaganda disguised as art (such as certain statues and monuments), however, makes us feel like everyone who thinks just like us is the whole universe. Being a member of such a group doesn’t encourage anyone to rise above (transcend) themselves to become a “bigger” person. Rather, the group simply multiplies the individual and makes them appear to be bigger than they are.

Conclusion

Perhaps it would help us have a more balanced, thoughtful perspective on monuments and statues associated with historical people if we remember Lord Acton’s comment, “Great men are almost always bad men….” We can better evaluate monuments and statues on the bases of historical and artistic values if we can retain our aesthetic distance. We can remember that “greatness” and “badness” are almost always inseparable in any person’s life. The monument can be appreciated or criticized for the historical context of its erection, and appreciated or criticized for its artistic merit. But the emotional response elicited by the statue will not cloud our rational criticism of what the statue represents. We neither idolize the subject of the statue nor demonize them. 

Our Human mind, aided by our aesthetic distance, can empathize with the pain that Confederate statues and monuments cause many people as well as understand why others find them reassuring. We can see monuments and statues as propaganda untethered to their emotional, hero-worshipping significance. We can begin to monitor our own lives for areas in which propaganda in entertainment and art may be circumventing our rational and compassionate minds and triggering our emotional and gut reactions. And we can make decisions based not on the emotional cues of propaganda, but on the Human mind’s imperative to reduce suffering and increase healing for all. 

Appendix

Following are links with excerpts from websites offering insights into why monuments and statues are erected and destroyed, perhaps theatrically, with sometimes unintended consequences.

Memorials and monuments. “Memorials and monuments punctuate our lives. Many of us are taught to revere them early on—in town squares, at museums, throughout our national parks, and everywhere in between. We may repeat the ritual with our own children, who may someday bury us beneath smaller though no less meaningful monuments. All the while, we live our lives before the silent gaze of granite soldiers, towering obelisks, historic buildings, roadside crucifixes, memorial bridges, and no end of scattered mementos. Some of them were left by ancestors for reasons that may be obscured by time. Some appear as if overnight, often born of grief for a loved one lost to violence or disregard. People have given their lives in the service of monuments; others have killed to protect them. Love, hate, fear, faith, determination, and deception all inhere in our nation’s commemorative landscape. But what do we really know about these silent sentinels?

“We know quite well from our vantage point in the early twenty-first century that memorials, monuments, and other expressions of our nation’s complex public memory are not, in fact, as silent as we might suppose. They have, rather, since the beginning of our national saga, witnessed and prompted impassioned dissent, vocal nationalism, and sometimes lethal violence. We know too from decades of scholarship that memorials and monuments trade in all matter of perceptual trickery. One person’s hero was another’s worst enemy. One town’s achievement meant another’s demise. One empire’s victory signaled the death of families and kingdoms and ecosystems elsewhere. Choices made about which of these memories to enshrine, and which ones to erase, are the messages that memorials and monuments convey today. In this sense, then, memorials are never silent, and they certainly do not reflect consensus. They are rather arguments about the past presented as if there were no argument [emphasis added].

“We need monuments, even despite their tendency to misrepresent. At their best, monuments can bind us together and fortify our communities in the face of tragedy or uncertainty. They can also remind us that to be great is worthy of aspiration. The meaning of greatness, however, is never fixed. Indeed, how we define it—how, that is, we choose to remember—has become a matter of pointed concern, especially as Americans seek to expand opportunity among those whose forebears were so long erased from public memory. Is it possible to change a monument’s meaning once it has been built? Is there such a thing as a public memorial that respects the infinite diversity of the American public? These and other questions underlie what headlines and pundits characterize as our nation’s ‘monument wars,’ longstanding contests of memory wherein the very meaning of citizenship is up for grabs.”

The toppling of Saddam’s statue: how the US military made a myth. “In 2020, statues across the world were pulled down in an extraordinary wave of iconoclasm. There had been such waves before – during the English Reformation, the French Revolution, the fall of the Soviet Union and so on – but the 2020 iconoclasm was global. Across former imperial powers and their former colonial possessions, from the US and the UK to Canada, South Africa, the Caribbean, India, Bangladesh and New Zealand, Black Lives Matter protesters defaced and hauled down statues of slaveholders, Confederates and imperialists….

“Some feared that this was becoming a frenzy….

“Statues are not neutral, and do not exist in vacuums. Our reactions to them depend on who they commemorate, who put them up, who defends them, who pulls them down, and why….

“The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard defined hyperreality as a state in which you cannot tell the difference between reality and a simulation of reality. In 1991, at the time of the first Gulf war, he wrote three essays touching on this theme, later published together as The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Baudrillard argued that the relevant events in the first couple of months of 1991 were not really a war, in the sense that ‘war’ was commonly understood: they were a simulation of a war… [emphasis in the original].

“There were two reasons for this. First, the events were carefully choreographed through the media: the coalition military controlled which images could be shown, and which journalists were allowed to report. The television-watching public audience in the west was shown non-stop video footage of firework-like bombings, and point-of-view shots of missiles heading to their targets.

“The effect was that of playing a computer game: clean, surgical, without consequences. Second, Baudrillard argued, the outcome of the war was never really in doubt: it was ‘won in advance’. The coalition was always going to win, and Saddam, for all his posturing, was in no position to fight back. This simulated war was ‘stripped of its passions, its phantasms, its finery, its veils, its violence, its images: war stripped bare by its technicians even, and then reclothed by them with all the artifices of electronics, as though with a second skin’….

“Bringing down Saddam’s statue was a greater feat of hyperreality. It would be presented to the world as a climax: the triumph of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The coalition forces were cast as liberators, allowing the Iraqi people to rise up at last and tear down the most powerful symbol of the dictator who had oppressed them. But the reality was not so simple….

“Baudrillard’s argument that the 1991 Gulf war did not take place was not an exact fit for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But the end of that war, as signified by pulling down the statue of Saddam in Firdos Square, was a perfect Baudrillardian simulation. The media turned an impromptu performance by a few American soldiers into a highly convincing television series finale in which the Iraqi people defeated their dictator. It was repeated in broadcasts and newspapers across the world. It was not true…’ [emphasis in the original].

“For those troops fighting the war, and those civilians living through it, the war had only just begun.”

Toppling statues is a first step toward ending Confederate myths: The statues rewrote history, reflecting the values of those who erected them. Removing them won’t erase history. “Coming at a time of a global pandemic and economic turmoil, the suddenness of the removals is leading to further disorientation and anxiety for some. For them, statues project the illusion of permanence, though they are in fact frequently removed during moments of social upheaval—by Romans after the fall of the tyrant Nero, by American revolutionaries against King George III, and by U.S. troops in post-Saddam Iraq. Still, the sense of loss some Americans have expressed when such totems fall is revealing. ‘Americans look for heroes, sometimes more than we look for the truth,’ says Mabel O. Wilson, a professor of architecture at Columbia University. ‘And as these statues show, we’re very good at mythmaking’” [link in the original].

POV: The neutral ground. “‘The Neutral Ground’ begins in 2015 as [Director C. J.] Hunt documents a raucous New Orleans City Council meeting about the removal of four Confederate monuments. It quickly becomes apparent just how divided white and Black residents are on the meaning of the city’s statues….

“When death threats halt the removals in New Orleans, Hunt hits the road, travelling across the South to try and understand why a losing army from 1865 still holds so much political and imaginative power in contemporary America.”

Downing of a flag. “Downing of a Flag is a two-hour documentary film that uses firsthand interviews featuring various perspectives and a wealth of historical footage to examine the impact of the Confederate Battle flag on the people, politics and perceptions of South Carolina and beyond.”

  1. See pages 5-10 of the Study Guide for detailed information regarding the quadrune mind’s model of the four minds of the human brain.
  2. Rick Steves’ Europe: The Making Of. Americans are famously prudish about “nudity/sexually-related” entertainment and art (apparently despite our current culture of ubiquitous pornography—which like propaganda—demands a loss of aesthetic distance).  The travel host, Rick Steves, has talked about censoring centuries-old great works of art on display throughout Europe, but which must be excluded from presentation in his American television shows because the art is “too fleshy” for American audiences.
  3. Link is in the original. Wisdom is considered by the quadrune mind as the “highest good” of the Human mind (page 9 of the Study Guide.
  4. Beacock, I. (2017, May 23). How the Nazis made art fascist: A new book looks at how the Axis powers shaped the art world to their own ends. The New Republic. [Link added]. “On November 1, 1937, Hermann Goering opened an exhibition of Italian art in Berlin—one of many events organized by the Nazis to bolster their vision of European culture. Goering, who liked to style himself a patron of the arts when he wasn’t commanding the German air force, explained to the gathered dignitaries that fascist Italy and the Third Reich both ‘considered cultural questions to be as important as political and economic questions….’ Within months of assuming power in 1933, the Third Reich began establishing new intergovernmental bodies for European arts and culture that would draw resources and leadership from Nazi Berlin: the Permanent Council for International Cooperation among Composers, the Union of National Writers, and the International Film Chamber. Italian fascists supported these efforts while founding cultural institutions of their own. These new organizations granted both powers a kind of ‘capillary reach’ across Europe, Martin contends, helping Rome and Berlin ‘to penetrate other nations’ cultural markets, influence their cultural policies, and steer their citizens’ attitudes and values to a new moral vision.’ A new aesthetics would usher in a new political order.” [Emphasis added].
  5. Cotter, H. (2017, August 20). We need to move, not destroy, Confederate monumentsNew York Times. “[T]he Charlottesville Lee monument is far less about mourning a hero and a gone-but-not-forgotten culture than about using elegiac sentiment to sugarcoat a secretly seditious present….

    “Our encyclopedic museums, like the Met, are giant warehouses filled with global objects designed to function exactly the way the Confederate images do: as instruments of ideological persuasion, with ethical messages we might well find repellent if we could read their visual symbols, that language above language. And we need to learn to be symbol readers with our eyes wide open in our own political moment of rapid-fire tweets and manufactured distraction. Museums can be training grounds for that reading, though to be truly useful schools they must be willing to identity [sic] themselves as historical halls of shame as well as halls of fame.”

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