Diana Nway Htwe (Art Critic and Art Historian)
Crowned and Bejeweled Buddha Seated on an Elephant Throne. Late 19th century. Burma, Gilded and lacquered wood with paint and colored glass, 144.5 × 85.2 × 49.2 cm, (Credit Line: James W. and Marilynn Alsdorf Collection / Art Institute of Chicago)
We will introduce the Abstraction of Breathing archives online one by one. This time, we would like to introduce the contribution of art critic Diana Nway Htwe.
All art is propaganda... The only difference is the kind of propaganda. Since art is essential for human life, it can't just belong to the few. Art is the universal language, and it belongs to all mankind. All painters have been propagandists or else they have not been painters... Every artist who has been worth anything in art has been such a propagandist... Every strong artist has been a propagandist. I want to be a propagandist and I want to be nothing else... I want to use my art as a weapon.
- Diego Rivera (Mexican muralist, b. 1886-1957) -
Art has been the driving force of Myanmar’s 2021 Spring Revolution against the military regime. The revolution has brought forth an influx of a new generation of artists and creatives. Never has there been a time in Burmese history where art and the general public functioned so closely together to condemn the injustices of the Burmese military. Hence, now seems to be the perfect time to unpack the relationship between art, politics and propaganda in the context of Myanmar. Of course, going in-depth with these topics would take books upon books. The purpose of this essay, however, is to at least open up this discussion and to remind people to maintain a critical but open mind during a time of political turmoil.
In Myanmar’s Spring Revolution, art is wielded as a weapon with many forms of creative resistance. The whole zeitgeist of the Spring Revolution can be studied as an overarching art movement from protesting, to poster campaigns, to meme culture on social media. Art seems to be everywhere in Myanmar these days pushing the revolution forward; guiding and informing the people, recording our struggles, commemorating our heroes and condemning the military. And along with art, it is important to recognize the sentiments of politics and propaganda are also in motion.
Propaganda in the contemporary era carries a largely negative connotation with heavy political overtones. When something is deemed as propaganda, immediate mistrust follows. The modern human understands propaganda as an exaggeration disguised as truth to meet political ambitions with a clear intention to brainwash. For the average viewer, recognizing a work of art as propaganda somehow makes the art less aesthetically-pleasing than before. The art, despite the intricate techniques, simply does not feel honest. Hence, there is a subconscious dichotomy within the viewer’s mind: art is pure, propaganda is not.
This essay hopes to challenge this dichotomy, enabling the reader to reconsider the assumed understandings of art and propaganda especially in the context of Myanmar. There are generally two types of art worlds in Myanmar: the apolitical and the political. What the general public considers to be apolitical art would be religious arts and still-life paintings of Burmese life and culture. Political art, on the other hand, would be the explosive art scene consisting of performance and experimental mediums tackling various socio-political issues. Similar to the disconnect between the understanding of art and propaganda, there is also a disconnect between these political and apolitical art worlds. Due to a near-century long state censorship under military rule, these disconnects have never been effectively reconciled. And although, for the average viewer, art being political at times is understandable, for art to be considered propaganda seems to be another level degradation entirely.
Although not all propaganda is art, those who completely dissociate art and propaganda or devalues a certain artwork because it is recognized as propaganda are simply deluded. There is, however, a good reason for that delusion: although there is no definite definition of art (a dictionary definition is never enough), the art of a particular period or time will inherently reflect the social and political spirit of that time. And, in representing humanity in some type or form, art dons an aura of justice and truth.
Despite the general disconnect in understanding art and propaganda, both art and propaganda share a prominent function: to influence. In order to influence the viewer, both art and propaganda inform, critique, document and guide the members of society in varying degrees and forms. Although the term “propaganda” only became widely used and gained notoriety during World War I, its concept of promoting a biased influence has been in existence for a long time.
The earliest form of propaganda is religious propaganda. This type of propaganda tends to be most successful as it is automatically justified by religious philosophies. It is subtle and has been naturally ingrained in our thought processes.
Take, for example, the Burmese crowned Buddhas that have been in existence since the Bagan era (849-1287 AD). The lavishly decorated sculpture represents both the Buddha and the Burmese King (Figure 1). The Buddha represents the Buddhist religion and the King represents the state. Disregarding the religious and mythological origin stories for an objective analysis, the act of a layperson kneeling and paying respects to a sculpture that inherently unites the state and religion has amplified the sentiment of Burmese Buddhist nationalism till this very day. Perhaps, it is too blasphemous to accuse Buddha sculptures of being instruments for propaganda but the purpose is to recognize the political undertones involved in the making religious icons. Hence, art is not innocent for it is a physical evidence of human power struggles.
 Elkins, James, Stories of Art (New York: Routledge, 2002), 54.
 Ralph D. Casey, “EM 2: What Is Propaganda?” published July 1944 at GI Roundtable Series, USA, https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/gi-roundtable-series/pamphlets/em-2-what-is-propaganda-(1944).
Figure 1: Crowned and Bejeweled Buddha Seated on an Elephant Throne. Late 19th century. Burma
As civilization gradually moves into the modern era, art also evolves to portray the lives of ordinary people and their affairs in addition to religious iconographies and vanity portraitures of the rich and royals. An apparent point in art history where ordinary citizens start to claim ownership over art is during the French revolution: Death of Marat (1793) by Jacques-Louis David (b.1748-1825) (Figure 2). The painting depicts the murder of a French revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat, showing the radical journalist lying dead in his bath on 13 July 1793. Painted in the neo-classical style, the painting commemorated Marat in a way Christ would be commemorated in biblical paintings. Using familiar Christian compositions and techniques, but substituting a revolutionary instead of Christ, a political martyr is created. Several copies of the original painting were made between 1793-1794 for propaganda, steering the revolution forward. Scholars like T.J. Clark (b.1943) would later argue Marat as the first modernist painting as it the first of its kind that was purposefully created to fulfill a political agenda.
Likewise, all the art of Myanmar’s Spring Revolution has been created with the pure intent of taking down the dictatorship. Before the coup on February 1, 2021, the Burmese art worlds—both apolitical and political—have been stagnant; never really communicating with one another and only taking on a reactive role. Now, for the first time in history, during this unprecedented political crisis, art has taken the offensive role and both art worlds have consolidated into one entity based on mutual respect. Hence, it is time for the assumed dichotomy of art and propaganda to also be reconsidered. Since art has an aura of innocence and propaganda has an impression of dishonesty, it is a natural instinct for humans to not admit art as propaganda if the message supports our values. However, with a revolution in motion and a new world over the horizon, it is important to realize the subtle but ingrained forms of political influence and propaganda embodied by the objects and art forms all around us.
 T.J. Clark, “Painting in the Year 2,” in Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 15-53.
Figure 2: Jacques-Louis David, Death of Marat, 1793, oil on canvas, 165 x 128 cm (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels)
Image: Jacques-Louis David, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons