There is something deeply propagandistic in the disappearance of the notion of propaganda from artistic discourse. The word only resurfaces bluntly to dismiss certain practices as one-dimensional, as pamphletism, or as ideological and doctrinal. In our capitalist-democratic age, art is merely expected to “hold up mirrors,” to “ask questions,” and to show the ambiguities of our existence. As Hito Steyerl succinctly stated: “If contemporary art is the answer, the question is: How can capitalism be made more beautiful?” Art’s answer comes precisely in the form of a permanent critical questioning insulated from affecting the foundation of violent exploitation that sustains the capitalist-democratic doctrine.
The disappearance of the notion of propaganda is the result of a delicate ideological operation meant to obscure the fact that modern propaganda was developed by capitalist-democratic countries, rather than by so-called totalitarian ones. Our unwillingness to speak of art as propaganda proves the success of this operation. The Venice Biennale and its relation to the phenomenon of the world fair is a case study that could help us both understand the inherent propagandistic role of art in capitalist democracy, and reactivate our political relation to the practice of art in the realm of global politics.
The organization of the Venice Biennale’s pavilions should be interpreted as a 118-year-old cultural allegory of the rise of the nation-state. The first edition of the Venice Biennale took place in 1895, making it the oldest biennial in the world. The 2013 edition consisted of seventy-eight national exhibitions, each attributed to a specific country. These pavilions function as embassies, where each country showcases the art it believes best represents current developments in its art sector. In Venice, art narrates the formation of what I will refer to as the democratist nation-state—one of the most dominant political constructs of our time. The artworks displayed in the increasing number of national pavilions aim to enforce the myth of a benevolent and culturally appreciative civilized state, thus legitimizing the “democratic” bona fides of autocratic, colonial, and fascist regimes:
The first countries to decide “to put itself on display” at the Biennale were large and powerful colonial powers such as Belgium, the first to erect a pavilion in 1907. During the twenty-year reign of Fascism there was an explosion of requests, and subsequent concessions for the pavilions. By 1942, a total number of 19 pavilions existed. Today inside the Giardini of the Biennale, there are 30 national pavilions representing 34 countries, the last having been built by South Korea in 1995.
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