Logo Utrecht University

Philosophy of the Arts

hum 291

Propaganda or not?

…Whether or not someone addresses another person is between the addresser and the addressee…

In class, I posed the question whether or not Lenie Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is a piece of propaganda, or rather documentary as Riefenstahl herself has claimed.
Joseph Goebbels was the minister of propaganda. Propaganda, one could conclude from that, had not acquired the bad name it has today, yet (possibly it was the Nazis who gave it its bad name). So when Riefenstahl claimed that her film was documentary, not propaganda, she probably didn’t mean that there was no propaganda in it, but that she merely recorded whichever propaganda was in it, and did not add to it. That claim can be assessed by looking at the visual arguing going on in the film—like we did.

How might this film serve as source-material for Humanities researchers?

The next question would be whether Humanities researchers can use the film as a source to establish certain truths regarding the Nazi-party rally. That, I think, is still an interesting question. Which facts could be distilled from this film? There is obvious factual material in the shots, but which facts are proven to be true by this material?

Iconic images

After we discussed iconic images—and the thought that the persons in them do not address the camera-person—at one point we noticed that the visual material does not only not depict Hitler as a person (addressing the camera), but refrains from showing members in the audience as persons, as well. This is of course in part due to the fact that they simply weren’t aware of the camera (they used tele-lenses for most of these shots), but that is not relevant for the critical assessment of this film. What is relevant is that Riefenstahl chose to use these images in her film—surely, with the amount of money and cinematic apparatuses she had available she could easily have shot individual portraits of any one person present!

National Geographic girl
Steve McCurry “Afghan Girl” (The National Geographic girl).

Whether or not someone addresses another person is a subjective matter; something between the addresser and the addressee. How this is depicted is an aspect of visual argument. If we can establish that Triumph of the Will involved an elaborate effort to construct an iconic image, i.e. an image depicting an individual but sacrificing his individuality for the sake of allowing the audience to project a larger ideological tale onto the imagery, then we have identified an element of visual argument in the film.
Some photos seem to offer evidence of the photographed addressing the photographer. I am thinking of photos made by William Klein, and Rineke Dijkstra. (You might want to Google their names to see for yourself.)

When is a visual argument?

We watched the Delta Lloyd-ad and almost effortlessly identified visual arguments in it.
But we haven’t dealt with the question what a visual argument might be like? Can a picture assert (that something is the case)? Can it deny (that something is the case)? Can it question (that something is the case)? To all these questions the answers seems to have to be “no”. If that is so, then how do images argue?

Perhaps we want to conclude that the visual precedes the discursive in argumention? That propositions merely report the argumentation available in the perceptual world out there?

You must be logged in to post a comment.