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Propagate Autonomy: On Jonas Staal, Captain America and Willi Münzenberg

Studio Jonas Staal, in collaboration with DiEM25, New Unions: DiEM25, Athens, 2017. Photograph: Jonas Staal, Sporting Basket Arena, Athens. Courtesy the artist
Kim West approaches Staal’s practice through the question of propaganda and asks what a propagandist art could be. Drawing a constellation between the propagandist strategies of Staal, Captain America and Willi Münzenbergl, West reassembles their potential to rethink criticality as a position within the art system. Rather than denouncing art’s autonomy, the author champions a ‘socialist case for the autonomy of art’, claiming that ‘a truly progressive reform can only derive from it.’
Studio Jonas Staal, in collaboration with DiEM25, New Unions: DiEM25, Athens, 2017. Photograph: Jonas Staal, Sporting Basket Arena, Athens. Courtesy the artist

Propaganda art, says Jonas Staal, is ‘the performance of power as art’. 01 What does that mean?

In the finale of season one of the Marvel TV series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021), Captain America gives an improvised speech. He has just prevented a major terrorist attack in Manhattan: an international network of outlaw super soldiers has tried to blow up the headquarters of a sort of council of nefarious politicians and powerbrokers meeting to pass a law enforcing the ‘relocation’ of large parts of the world’s population. Captain America is conflicted: he sympathises with the outlaws’ cause, but is of course primarily committed to law, order and the USA, and so has had no choice but to reluctantly annihilate the ragtag rebels. In the immediate aftermath of the battle, he is in the street, facing two members of the council, surrounded by onlookers and the media. This gives him an unlikely opportunity to state his case to the omnipotent politicians, appealing to their reason and their sense of righteousness.

The only power I have is that I believe we can do better. We can’t demand that people step up if we don’t meet them halfway. Look, you control the banks. Shit, you can move borders! You can knock down a forest with an email, you can feed a million people with a phone call. But the question is, who’s in the room with you when you’re making those decisions? Hmm? Is it the people you’re gonna impact? Or is it just more people like you? […] You’ve gotta do better, Senator. You’ve gotta step up. […] Look, you people have just as much power as an insane god or a misguided teenager. The question you have to ask yourself is, ‘How are you going to use it?’02

The moral and rhetorical force of Captain America’s vaguely anti-elitist words convinces the council to abandon their indefensible relocation scheme – but we are neither invited to follow the council’s deliberations, nor can we see the effects or the ramifications of their radical policy shift. Instead, this particular story line ends here, perhaps to be picked up in a second season of the show.

The scene, of course, remains faithful to the conventions of the superhero genre. In both words and deeds, Captain America has the ability to act in a way that reaches beyond the limits of a single human being. When he hits, social movements are knocked out. When he speaks, laws are passed. When he lands on the Manhattan avenue, the structures really do descend into the street. He is an individual active on the level of historical process, a single monad rearranging the universe. And, we might note, he ascribes the same magical capacity to the politicians he confronts: you can move borders, you can feed a million people with a phone call. They are politicians without politics, as it were: in this world, there is no need for social organisation; decisions are somehow automatically realised; the individual and the structural are directly reconciled, bypassing society’s complex of mediations.

The scene, however, does introduce some factors that set it apart. What makes it possible for Captain America to hold the powerful council members accountable for their plans, is the improbable character of their chance encounter in the street. The politicians are simply there, passively available, perhaps wishing to express their gratitude to their saviour, in any case so distraught from the violent events that they allow themselves to be caught up in a consequential discussion about ethics and policy on camera. Indeed, the media also happens to be there, and not just citizens with cell phones, but actual news teams with reporters, cameramen, technicians, a whole apparatus of organised mass transmission, broadcasting the exchange live on national and possibly international TV networks. And so, the scene plays out as a sort of superpowered version of the archetypal Habermasian public sphere: there is a rational debate going on in an open urban space; it is being transmitted to the wider public through old school, centralised mass media; and the public’s opinion – displayed synecdochally through a quick montage of affected reactions – directly informs government policy.

William Klein, Mister Freedom, 1970, offset lithograph on paper. Courtesy Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library, Minneapolis

In other words, in this image of a performance of power, the bourgeois public sphere – and the media system that supports its function – is itself shifted into the superhero register, as another myth of magical agency. The logic of the scene is the same as the logic of any Marvel production, with militarised vigilante demigods defeating some extra-terrestrial threat. It serves, perhaps not to naturalise, but to accustom us, by the force of aggressive narrative saturation, to the absence of the dimension that it mythologises, which is the dimension of possible political intervention. And of course, this scene is brought to us through a global entertainment corporation’s new media platform – the new behemoth Disney+ service, a result of the digital agglomeration and metastasis of a number of ‘old’ networks and media archives – itself a vehicle in the process through which the social mesh of contemporary media is further atrophied and its possible political functions circumscribed. In order to function, then, this performance of power enlists an image of the performance of power. It is, in Jonas Staal’s understanding of the term, propaganda, and in this case it is hard not to agree with him.

One central claim in Staal’s recent study of propaganda as a cultural form, Propaganda Art in the 21st Century, is that the polyvalence of the concept should be restored. We should cease associating propaganda merely with dictatorships or ‘totalitarian’ regimes, he argues; we should stop seeing propaganda and democracy as mutually exclusive, the former denoting a practice of sinister brainwashing incompatible with a supposedly enlightened, liberal society. Instead, we should understand propaganda as something like the design – or, to use the word that Staal prefers, the construction – of the ‘filters’ through which social forms are mediated and defined. The line of demarcation therefore does not run between propaganda (bad) and, let’s say, democratic information (good), but instead between ‘elite propaganda’, which shapes ‘a new normative reality that serves the interests of elite power’, and ‘popular propaganda’, which, Staal writes, would permit us to ‘liberate ourselves from what we think the world is in order to enable the collective imagination of what we want it to become’.03

What would characterise such a ‘popular’ or ‘emancipatory propaganda’? Here, Staal proposes taking the model for understanding the term that Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman developed in Manufacturing Consent (1988), but turn it on its head. Against the monopolised mass media that Chomsky and Herman described, which was based on concentrated ownership, an ad-based revenue model that translated into a support for private interests, and a strict control over information sources, Staal sets out a ‘popular propaganda’ that enacts demands for democratisation, that promotes narratives emerging out of ‘grassroots’ concerns, and that maintains public information access, so as to ‘challenge structures of power’. 04 An element of popular propaganda’s ‘performance of power’, then, would be the establishment of something like a different or at least radically restructured media system, accountable to democratic principles and ideals – asserting popular control over precisely that complex of mediations that the Captain America scene mythologises and disavows. Crucial to propaganda, Staal boldly writes, is ‘control over infrastructure’. 05 But what image of the performance of power should such a popular propaganda enlist? And what form of art could respond to its democratic ideal?

A figure who perhaps more than anyone else embodied the contradictions and the ambivalences, but also the boundless aspirations of propaganda, was the German political organiser and publisher Willi Münzenberg, today known mainly, if at all, as the founder of the left-wing, antifascist weekly Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (1924–38) – famous for its pioneering use of John Heartfield’s photomontage techniques – and possibly also as a co-author and co-publisher of the Brown Book about the Reichstag fire in Berlin in 1933, an important document in the history of antifascist propaganda, which among other things helped secure the acquittal of future Comintern leader Georgi Dimitrov, who had been falsely accused of the timely arson.

For a long time a victim of cold-war-period intransigency towards figures either associated with, or critical of Stalinist Soviet – or, in his case, both – Münzenberg’s reputation is currently undergoing critical revision.06  The history of his multitude of activities is completely intertwined with the conflicted history of the international communist movement, as it wavered between being a force for social emancipation and a force for sectarian closure and brutality, during the interwar years. His communist career stretches from his association with the German communist party during the period of its factional formation, to his deep investment in the various popular front endeavours in the mid- to late 1930s, and to his infamously suicidal parting words to the Comintern in 1939: ‘The traitor, Stalin, is you!’

Reading the recent biography by journalist John Green – Willi Münzenberg: Fighter Against Fascism and Stalinism – it is difficult not to get the impression that, in spite of all, some individuals, through some coincidence of forces and events, find themselves at points of convergence in the field of causality, enabling them to act beyond human limits, at a superhero scale. 07 A list of the various committees, congresses, magazines, publishing houses, cultural associations, trade organisations, financial institutes, production outfits, distribution services and so on that Münzenberg – a ‘Marxist Rupert Murdoch’, Owen Hatherley calls him in his recent review of Green’s biography, but that feels somehow too restricted: we might call him Captain Comintern – initiated between the revolutionary years in Germany around 1920, and his death in 1940, would run a mile long. 08

In the early 1920s, at the direct request of Lenin, Münzenberg set up the International Workers’ Relief, an organisation designed to raise awareness and channel aid to famine-ridden, post-civil war Russia from supporting movements, parties and governments around the world. The Workers’ Relief went on to mutate into an all-purpose organisation serving as the main non-governmental conduit between the Soviet Union and its allies, relaying Comintern propaganda, funds and resources to and from sympathising forces in Europe and beyond. Later in the same decade, Münzenberg launched what would become known as the Anti-Imperialist League, also a Comintern-backed organisation, whose purpose was to ‘coordinate the fight of the oppressed nations’, connecting anti-colonial and international anti-capitalist revolutionary struggles.09 Exiled in Paris in the late 1930s, after he had fallen out of favour with the post-purge Soviet nomenklatura, he worked tirelessly, and at great personal danger, with setting up an anti-Stalinist, German Popular Front, founding what would become his short-lived, final magazine project, Der Zukunft (The Future).

Among persons who may have come close to ‘constructing reality’ through propaganda, as Staal phrases it, Münzenberg undoubtedly has a privileged position. He was not only a key orchestrator of the Comintern’s worldwide propaganda campaigns for almost the full duration of the organisation’s existence, he was also instrumental for creating the sprawling media system through which those campaigns were circulated, as well as for establishing the economic structures that supported it. But it would be misguided to describe what he did as ‘propaganda art’, or him as a ‘propaganda artist’. He left no such signature on the reality he constructed. Curiously, the more one reads about him, the less clear his image becomes. The accumulating data about his various projects and organisations, the wealth of unbelievable anecdotes about his different encounters and collaborations, do not combine into a fuller, richer, more detailed account of the person. Instead, the further you read in Green’s biography, the more you take in from the slate of recent studies, the more Münzenberg himself seems to disappear, to disintegrate as an individual, dissolving into the network of relations he facilitated.

A semi-fictional Münzenberg shows up in Peter Weiss’s The Aesthetics of Resistance (1975–81). The three-volume novel’s anonymous protagonist meets him in exile in Paris in 1938, in the midst of his ill-fated attempt to set up a German Volksfront (‘popular front’), sceptically reassessing his previous decades of unswerving support for the Soviet cause. I had laboriously ‘attempted to put art in the service of the Party’, he laments, but now I see that ‘art is the means’ of ‘loosening the rigidity of political institutions, and reminding us of the diversity of our perceptions’. 10 In The Aesthetics of Resistance, this late, Der Zukunft-period Münzenberg, becomes one of the central representatives for Weiss’s vision of a radically democratic socialism, of a politics that could respond to the experimental openness of art, without reducing either politics or art. There is undoubtedly truth to Weiss’s portrait of Münzenberg – but perhaps only insofar as it can be reconciled with the image that emerges out of the recent studies: of someone for whom the activity as a propagandist eclipsed concerns of authorship, and who appears to have been somewhat impatient with, maybe even indifferent to, the ruminations of critical intellectuals and artists, mindful to assert the autonomy of their work.

Front cover of AIZ, vol.IX, no.17, Berlin 1930, Photogravure, 38.1 x 26.7cm. Courtesy of Merril C. Berman Collection, Rye, NY

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