Literature (art) and propaganda

14 July 2012

The writers workshop method was imported from abroad by NVM Gonzalez and the Tiempos whose workshops continue to train our writers in the formalist manner. Generations of students fell under the spell of this pedagogy and a few of them, now grey-haired, are the ones quick to tag as propaganda works with varying degrees of advocacy. 

By Elmer Ordonez

The PEN forum on what I thought would be literature and propaganda proceeded on a false start.

The invitation I got said the subject was literature (art) and propaganda. It turned out the other panelists received invitations to speak on “the uses of literature.”

When speaker after speaker spoke on such a broad topic I thought I was in the wrong forum. But moderator Bien Lumbera began his introductory remarks that in the early days oral literature was used to instruct the young on the moral values of the community. He then made a leap in time and alluded to propaganda as “falling into disrepute” in the 50s. He cited this as a result of the Cold War, the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States.

On the topic “the uses of lite-rature,” poet Gemino Abad cited his classic comment that without “language (or literature), we have no memory, no history, no culture, no civilization. But a people is only as strong as their memory.”

Another mentioned social realism but did not speak on it at length, and I remember that was what we discussed at the launching of Rony V. Diaz’s three part novel Canticles for Three Women – and comparing it with Jose Rizal’s novels, that were written during the Propaganda Movement, the prelude to armed rebellion waged by the Katipunan. Literature then was unabashedly propaganda but the term did not carry the stigma attached to it by art for art’s sake proponents and Cold Warriors in later years.

Jun Cruz Reyes ventured that all literature is propaganda. In fact, what imaginative literature has in common with outright propaganda is the appeal to emotion not to intellect. I was told that in the UP English department which taught literature for decades using formalist textbooks propaganda is no longer used as a tag for literary work with some kind of advocacy.

Corollary to Jun’s statement would be—no literature is ideology free. And this seems to be generally accepted..

We may well be beating a dead horse – the issue between literature and propaganda, which I earlier called “popular but banal.”

Mila Carreon Laurel of UP gave a periodization of lite-rature in the country, which with my emendations, started with the Propaganda Movement with the works of Rizal and the Solidaridad, the early decade of American Occupation with the “seditious playwrights” and Lope K. Santos’ Banaag at Sikat and early class conscious litera-ture, writing in both armed (e.g. Sakdal) and parliamentary struggles for independence, the proletarian trend pursued by the Philippine Writers League in the 30s, the formalist tendencies of the late 40s and 50s, the resuscitation of nationalist literature during the 60s, and the influence of Mao’s Talks at the Yenan forum on art and literature on national democ-ratic writers during the First Quarter Storm and martial law under which flourished under-ground literature.

Here was a literary and historical situation where indeed art and literature for art’s sake became totally irrelevant. When one professor of English said at a conference that the formalist approach was “non-negotiable” she sounded anachronistic. The professor was among the last survivors of the critical pedagogy developed by John Crowe Ransom, the father of New Criticism, in the early forties.

The Cold War at its height in the 50s saw the use of English text books written under the tenets of New Criticism. As a beginning instructor in the 50s I had to use the prescribed Approach to Literature by Cleanth Brooks, James Purser, and Robert Penn Warren, all New Critics. The writers workshop method was imported from abroad by NVM Gonzalez and the Tiempos whose workshops continue to train our writers in the formalist manner. Generations of students fell under the spell of this pedagogy and a few of them, now grey-haired, are the ones quick to tag as propaganda works with varying degrees of advocacy. During the 50s the literature produced by the left were invariably labeled propaganda by academics. The “free world” writers themselves like Ayn Rand and the disaffected ones in The God That Failed volume or Congress for Cultural Freedom were no slouches in the uses of propaganda.

Nowadays writers are urged to use their talents to combat environmental degradation (as in the last Philippine Pen conference on climate change), corruption in government, human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings. It is not enough for writers to bear witness; they are invited to take social or political action, write or sign petitions, join demonstrations, and even man barricades.

No more will writers just bask under the glory of prizes won in literary contests. Historically writers have given up their lives like Rizal (against Spanish tyranny), Andres Bonifacio (for independence), Manuel Arguilla (against Japanese fascism), Lorena Barros (for national democracy), or they have sacrificed their individual freedoms as did national democratic writers like Jose Maria Sison, Pete Lacaba, Bien Lumbera, Boni Ilagan, Petronilo Daroy, Luis Teodoro, Ed Maranan, Alan Jazmines, Mila Aguilar, and many others.

Hence, propaganda in its USIS and Cold War sense or formalist meaning should be laid to rest. Let it be used rather in the sense of the Propaganda Movement or the continuing people’s struggles for a safe and healthy environment, peace and social justice, freedom and sovereignty.

One Response to Literature (art) and propaganda

  1. July 15, 2012 at 6:46 am
    restyo

    caustic! incendiary! would love to hear the other side’s reaction, please!

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