Edvardas ŠUMILA | Propaganda and Whether it is Necessary (to Be Afraid of It)? An Interview with Gintautas Mažeikis

Propaganda is one of those cbphenomena which is constantly renewing itself with the changing times and with the emergence of new political and historical dilemmas. It seemed for some time that it had been left behind somewhere in the ideological tensions of the 20th century – hidden in the illusions of the end of history or at least of the past century. However, in evaluating the past there is the question of the legacy of propaganda – whether it is the monuments of the old regime or other artistic and cultural products, and amongst them – music.

In the context of Lithuanian culture, as in that of the other post-Soviet countries, propaganda has additional, most often negative connotations, and it becomes unclear how to treat music written with propaganda goals in mind. However, propaganda and its functions have not disappeared anywhere and without giving it due regard, there is then the problem of a lack of political will and the inability to resist the influence of foreign powers.

Gintautas Mažeikis is a philosopher, theoretician and anthropologist, who closely studies propaganda. It’s not a coincidence that the theme of our conversation was propaganda and music appearing in large ideological projects. We also talked about how propaganda developed, how it was linked to opera and how it became one of the most used tools in influencing the masses. One of the angles of the conversation was the question about how one can better understand the meaning and importance of propaganda, perhaps explaining it and freeing it from just the negative field of meanings, while at the same time comprehending the role it plays and its power.

Music is a very suitable subcategory in speaking about propaganda, its origins and influence. As one of the last media to be employed for technological propaganda, it becomes particularly eloquent in illustrating how it operates. We also talk about how to correctly evaluate the old Soviet propaganda: what is filling its place? We find some angles by means of which we can speak about the importance of propaganda; the double-sided evaluation of this subject gradually becomes clear: first, one has to recognize propaganda; then we can speak about what it is and even about how necessary it is.

Edvardas Šumila: The main theme of our conversation is propaganda and, of course, music, but probably it would be useful to define what it is we’re talking about when we mention propaganda.

Gintautas Mažeikis: First and foremost, one can define propaganda as a tool for mobilization and agitation – that’s certainly enough for the beginning of our conversation. It’s also important to emphasize that the real need for institutionalized propaganda only arises at the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century (at the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Baroque), and that coincides with the wish of the Catholic Church to oppose the Protestant Church. It should be noted that propaganda and the opera of the time do not coincide and do not become one – they develop alongside one another, propaganda merges with the Jesuit Order and Jesuit education but not by any means with the new emotional modes. However, the spiritual need and the new emotional culture have things in common. From that time on, the attention to internal formations grows and appears differently whether in the sphere of propaganda, or literature, or music or, to be specific, opera.

You say that music and propaganda do not coincide. Why don’t these spheres merge?

Opera was for the owners of estates, propaganda for the wider masses – not yet for the peasants who were especially oppressed in East Europe but for those who were at least somewhat freer – the nobles or urban dwellers, these were the target of propaganda but, I want to stress, without opera and music.

Perhaps music could not yet be used technologically as propaganda?

Propaganda necessarily uses one tool – seriality, working as a set of constant repetitions. In time it was discovered that not only rhetorical and religious tools can be used for the purpose of propaganda; in first place was education and later the printed word. Gutenberg’s discovery from 1622 and a little later on becomes the most important tool of persuasion. Seriality firstly appears in the form of printed books, later as printed newspapers, and then printed cartoons in America after the American Revolution. More and more emotional content appears in printed materials. In time, already in the 19th century, we have the appearance of photographs and posters, but not yet music. Why was it that music was not included in propaganda for so long? Because there was no possibility of introducing seriality into music – it was essential to find a way to record music and present it. Because of a lack of these technologies it was not considered adequate for spreading propaganda, even though music itself could be ideological.

Besides that, isn’t it the case that in order for ideological music to appear, ideologies had to be formed? Music had to cease satisfying the needs of just the estate owners and the Church.

Yes, for music to be included in the field of propaganda, ideologies were needed. Up to the 19th century music was the music of the estate owners or geniuses. Very few composers allowed themselves to suffer in poverty while creating unique works of art. The age of ideology is considered to be the 19th century, in fact, the end of the 18th century. The great French Revolution, and before that the American Revolution, possessed certain ideologies but the major ideologies like socialism, conservatism, nationalism, liberalism were in reality formed in the 19th century. Traditionally national opera is also formed in the 19th century and is very often associated with the music of Richard Wagner and his tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung.

I think that we regard Wagner’s operas as already purely ideological, they appear in a Germany that is being unified, but we can see the beginnings even earlier, for example, in Carl Maria von Weber’s operas and other similar instances.

Opera is in step with the nations which want to be born, and that is why the birth of national opera is important. However, even Wagner, who looks to us as very nationalistic and powerful, and whose music was used for propaganda purposes, was not himself the creator of propaganda. This is a large difference, it distinguishes eminent composers from propaganda composers and compositions specially created for propaganda purposes. A composer like that creates a work of art, he does not create it for serial repetition or for the purpose of having each part of it specially work on the feelings of the masses. Wagner was writing for the soul of the nation not for the purpose of persuading and educating factory workers and peasants.

In the same way as there is no direct desire to subordinate or mobilize them for a specific purpose, but that does not separate him from the ideology. Wagner himself is sincerely engaged in nationalism.

It’s very important at this point to differentiate propaganda from a nationalistic or any other kind of ideological position or engagement. No matter how much of a committed communist, nationalist, fascist, conservative or liberal you may be, that does not imply any propaganda. Propaganda is a certain kind of technology for the purpose of dissemination and persuasion. No ‘yearning for the light’ or ‘wish to offer up one’s heart’ create propaganda, it’s only an ideological direction, whereas propaganda is repetition and persuasion – using technology.

However, isn’t it possible for that engagement to appear once the creator himself becomes the subject of propaganda?

He becomes the subject of ideology but not propaganda. It’s very hard to become the subject of propaganda, it wants to remain blameless and, like a collection of instruments, it makes only propagandists and agitators its subjects. Those who understand this technology can shift from one ideology or nation to another, applying their technological know-how. A propaganda specialist is not usually the subject of ideology – that’s also an interesting thing, a person, who makes others submit to the great ideologies, is himself often on the other side of these ideologies because he understands their cynicism.

That’s why a composer or another person who’s knowledgeable about propaganda uses that as he would a craft.

Yes, quite right, that’s why composers like Dmitry Shostakovich find themselves in very complicated situations. Can one regard Shostakovich as a propaganda composer? I would very much doubt such an assertion. But could one regard the Lithuanian composers Balys Dvarionas or Jonas Švedas as being such? Yes, we can regard them as propaganda composers at a certain moment in time. If a composer creates music to a commission for reproduction, then he most probably understands that he’s being drawn into a propaganda environment. This happens most often for propaganda purposes in composing music for mass reproduction, like, for example, a march for workers. A composer will also know that he is taking part in propaganda films. Films like Marytė (1947, Mosfilm, composer – Balys Dvarionas, song writer – Jonas Švedas) or Tiltas (The Bridge; 1956, Lithuanian Film Studios, composer – Eduardas Balsys) and others, of course, were propagandistic and had propagandistic music written for them accordingly.

Perhaps that’s another difference since propagandistic music much more frequently has a utilitarian character.

Propagandistic music is utilitarian by definition. Its purpose is to form defined and controllable emotional states, with the help of which it’s possible to mobilize the masses or large groups of people. Walter Benjamin emphasized mechanical reproduction because mass series are needed for the masses. Another thing is the transmission of music over the radio. Benjamin puts less stress on that.

This is expanded upon by Theodor W. Adorno and the other theoreticians of the Frankfurt School, when they came into contact with the rise of the culture industry. Adorno links that in particular to the growth of the medium of radio and the possibilities presented by broadcasts and montage.

So, it’s not enough to reproduce it mechanically, according to Adorno, it also needs to be broadcast. Therefore, what is needed is not just a printing machine, not only montage, sound recording, but also the radio. Radio and radio recordings are the tools to make musical compositions into propaganda musical compositions. The spread of radio at the beginning of the 20th century meant the incursion of music into propaganda.

All of that coincides with the rise of the masses and the appearance of mass culture, and so could we perhaps say that here the subject of culture emerges purely as a consumer?

Since consumers are not creators, they don’t have to worry, they simply open their eyes, prick up their ears and look or listen. The above-mentioned authors – Wagner or Shostakovich – in creating great works of art did not create them in such a way that everything would be suitable for propaganda, only certain passages are eligible. A terrible thing happens which Adorno notices: propaganda begins to cut up great works of art and use only certain passages in a certain environment; only then does real musical propaganda appear.

Then the regression of listening becomes predominant and we become the property of the culture industry.

We have then the appearance of the music industries which merge with the culture industries and their purpose is to cater to the smallest emotional needs of the masses. Most often when speaking about propaganda, today’s critics talk about information. In my opinion that’s a very great mistake and a completely wrong approach. Propaganda is first and foremost the emotional development of people, while information is already a different stage. Music becomes a particularly powerful tool for forming emotionality, only for a long time it was not used because of the problem of technical reproduction. It was necessary to discover a host of technologies before it became possible to make music a tool for emotional terror.

We were saying that one of the most important things about music in the application of propaganda is the possibility of reproducing and broadcasting it – something that suited entertainment music best, but great concert works were not rejected, works which were sometimes recorded on disks, but which were most effective as compositions to be heard in concert halls. What place did works like the 1947 Cantata about Stalin by Juozas Tallat-Kelpša, a respected composer in the interwar years in Lithuania, have? Or, for example, Eduardas Balsys’s oratorio Do Not Touch the Blue Globe (1969), which has a very clear propaganda subject and news story (about the bombardment of a pioneer camp during the war years)?

Tallat-Kelpša’s Cantata about Stalin received a 1st degree Stalin Prize in 1948. Why such a high award was given to a work of rather questionable value, according to the opinion of musicologists, was already being discussed at the time. It is thought that the reason was that at the time a struggle had begun against formalism in the arts and Tallat-Kelpša’s composition was in line with the content of this educational music campaign. However, this composition had no propaganda effect. Propaganda is dissemination, persuasion but not the creative work itself. This cantata was never widely distributed or played and in its popularity came second to the many other cantatas about Stalin. In contrast, Balsys’s oratorio Do Not Touch the Blue Globe, like the greater part of the composer’s other works, was widely distributed and fulfilled its propaganda function. The oratorio, complex, constructivist, with many folklore elements, perfectly fitted Leonid Brezhnev’s vision of modernization and perfectly fitted the similar poetry of Eduardas Mieželaitis. Balsys wrote even more clearly propagandistic works, like, for example, the cantata Glory to Lenin (1976). Balsys’s closeness to the popular estrada genre, the melodiousness of his music, made his work effective and popular, something that is necessary for propaganda.

As you’ve mentioned, it was firstly necessary to give an emotional content to music, and that happened in the 16th–17th centuries, but it could take on a propaganda value only at the end of the 19th century, or, to be more precise, at the beginning of the 20th century. Can we perhaps connect that not only with the advance in technologies but also with the entrenchment of diverse dominant social strata, since in the 19th century the concert hall or the salon was a purely bourgeois space?

Yes, initially it is the noble-born who attend operas, while at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century one sees the arrival of the bourgeoisie, going to operas and the great music venues. Stefan Zweig writes about Vienna rejoicing in its operas and operettas, this is still the time when rich urban dwellers, mostly Jews, want to show they are democratic and are happy when one or two workers – German or Austrian – come to listen to an opera. However, at that time it’s not just a few people going to the opera – masses of people come, a nation comes, something no Wagner could have imagined. Intellectuals and artists invited them in the same way that during the Renaissance the occultist Faust invited Mephistopheles. One never knows in advance who that Mephistopheles is and when he does arrive – one does not know what to do with him. So, nations, the common people, were invited by the intelligentsia, and when the former showed up, it wasn’t clear what should be done with them. These were people of a completely different type for whom not only opera but also the operetta was torture, they were moved by the emerging popular music – by uncomplicated songs, ones that were as simple as possible.

Then again – the requirement of seriality gives birth to music which can be easily multiplied and distributed.

Propaganda is like a vulture for the masses, it can feel where the blood of the masses flows and decides that they need popular music. The film Marytė was completely unsuccessful even from the point of view of the Moscow critics, Balys Dvarionas and Jonas Švedas participated in it by providing the music for it. The film was hopeless, stuffed full of a great deal of music but completely ineffective, even though the composer Dvarionas graduated from the Leipzig Royal Conservatorium of Music.

Yes, but as a pianist and not a composer.

That’s quite an important correction since what he wrote as a composer were simply Soviet romantic clichés with a good deal of harmonized Lithuanian folk music elements. Even taken from the viewpoint of propaganda, it’s very poor music and the above-mentioned film was unsuccessful. We can also place value on propaganda films; for example, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), October (1928) or Alexander Nevsky (1938) are absolutely propagandistic. They are films of the highest level, which one would not be ashamed to show as being propagandistic while at the same time as examples of innovative ideas in filming and montage. The Bridge was better only from the point of view of music, in the way it was directed and in its scenario it was as hopeless as Marytė, even though Eduardas Balsys did accomplish something in writing some effective songs, which were released by Melodiya. In a Lithuanian context, Balsys’s ‘Dainelė apie tiltą’ (Song about a Bridge) from the film The Bridge stood out. It reflects the naïve fantasy of the establishment of collective farms in Soviet Lithuania, where happy young women sing about a duck and a bridge, even though the film itself is about the war and the post-war period.

Also, this music does not fit in any way into urban life and is connected more to folklore than to urbanization.

Those who worked together in creating Soviet propagandistic music – Jonas Švedas, Balys Dvarionas, Vytautas Klova, Julius Juzeliūnas, also composed other kinds of music, but in writing for films or separate propagandistic works, they very often copied Russian Soviet propagandistic music, pasting, as it were, harmonized elements of Lithuanian folk music into it. These are elements of village music – urbanized propagandistic music is not born in Lithuania. In other words, propagandistic music is not being created for the town – it is being created for the Lithuanian village.

It seems that in creating a modern state this barrier was not crossed, romanticism, as a current, often falls back on folklore, in Europe in the second half of the 19th century it is marked by the advent of realism and the city, as the emerging metropolis, into art. That’s Charles Baudelaire’s poetry, his persona as a flâneur. Music born from an encounter with industrial life emerged in Lithuania with great difficulty, while avant-garde composers, who had written music like that in the interwar years, emigrated. As with more modern literature, it is saturated with a certain folk feeling, like, for example, in Marius Katiliškis’s[1] novels. It’s not surprising that propagandistic music also doesn’t create anything new, all the more so, because the politics of the arts in the post-war period was retrograde.

The hopeless period of propagandistic music continued from 1945 to about 1970. Bad propagandistic music was being written for at least 20 years.

Well, still up to 1960 it was very difficult to write anything more modern, the musical language was restricted, it wasn’t possible to use any more modern tools.

That’s understandable but a composer, like any other artist can write for the drawer, can also be a non-conformist and suffer. Many composers, like any other creative people during Stalin’s time, were deported. Artists, writers and poets included, had two options: to either writes lines glorifying Stalin, Soviet hymns, like Dvarionas or Švedas, or await serious or very serious punishment. It’s interesting that Dvarionas and Švedas, who were also active in the interwar years, are not deported or persecuted but go on working as before and hold ever more important positions. In analyzing the Soviet period and the fate of the intelligentsia, such a smooth transition from one regime to another is very rare and raises doubts. We remember the composer and performer Juozas Indra, who was deported to Vorkuta in 1945 only for having played a few times in a military orchestra. He was very fortunate in being able to get into the Vorkuta Music Theatre and immediately begin to sing the role of Faust in Charles Gounod’s opera – his experience of exile was not as terrible as it could have been. However, Švedas and Dvarionas carried on as before and composed many works, glorifying various aspects of the Soviet period.

Of course, a regime does not always apply the same measures against the repressed.

Here I’d like to draw your attention to the discussion which is still going on in Lithuania, for example, about the poet Salomėja Nėris, who wrote a poem dedicated to Stalin (the composer Juozas Tallat-Kelpša later wrote his Cantata about Stalin using her texts), as well as some verse glorifying him. Those poems from the viewpoint of poetry are especially bad, they are badly written and any person with even the least understanding of literature will understand that if the Soviet regime had had any taste at all in literature, it should have rejected Nėris for writing poems like that. They are more or less translated copies of Russian texts, without a single original metaphor, practically without a single original line, with any dramatic quality – they have no value. On the other hand, she wrote some wonderful poetry in independent Lithuania, for which we hold her in high esteem. In spite of all this, Nėris is very heavily criticized and the object of disparagement in Lithuania, even though she didn’t write a Soviet Lithuanian anthem, nor do her poems take on any propaganda value. The composers we’ve mentioned did take on some propaganda value, but, as I’ve mentioned, their works are weak.

When does a propagandistic work become strong?

Works that are strong from the point of view of propaganda are those which the masses learn off by heart and which are repeated to the nation for many decades. They implant emotion, which automatically remains for a long time. It has to be repeated in the heads and thoughts of the masses. How many compositions from the Soviet period in Lithuania have any worth, how often were they repeated or remembered? Cases like that are particularly rare and most often coincide with a film and for that reason film as a propaganda tool is more effective than the traditional opera or operetta, film being a product aimed at the masses.

At the same time the relationship between music and image, as with the appearance of a leitmotif is a very effective thing, used both in opera and in film. Wagner sometimes overdid things in using it, and then later the culture industries, Hollywood, like the propaganda machines, pick it up.

Yes, and with the increasing complexity of serial duplication technologies, it’s no longer necessary to make a whole film – one can make short video clips, which can be equally as effective as propaganda. There is now a Donetsk propaganda section in the Donbas, which belongs to the so-called Russian information army, making various video clips aimed against Ukraine. Not infrequently Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 (titled Leningrad) and excerpts from it are used for that purpose, and where, for example, the Nazis are depicted marching, they show the Ukrainians marching. Despite the fact that the idea behind the music is being distorted, it sounds convincing to the masses, and a very strong connection appears between the Leningrad blockade and the alleged blockades of Donets or Luhansk, etc. All of that works tremendously well and not just for two or three years – a music composition well-prepared or adapted for propaganda purposes can work for half a century.

Should we be happy that there was no good propaganda music in Lithuania?

I think we should be sad about that. It doesn’t just show that no good propagandistic music was written in the Soviet period, but means that the function of propagandistic music hasn’t been understood to this day. The fact that the masses need to be mobilized, directed and given an emotional form is not an incidental matter – it is a necessary thing, otherwise this mass of people is very chaotic and destructive. In order for the masses not to ruin and destroy things, they need to be presented with an emotional form, ideas and ideals, which would steer them towards certain goals – propaganda serves that purpose. Every individual can escape from the masses and become different, but television, radio, the means of communication are huge machines which reproduce the masses, i.e. they try to turn educated people into members of the masses. At that moment in time when we are transformed into a mass society, we become destructive, full of rage, whereas propaganda and propagandistic films, music, works of art can provide a certain direction, a certain set of beliefs – a belief in socialism, or democracy, as well as monarchy or the free market.

Isn’t there an idealistic alternative which offers the perspective of critical thinking?

Critical thinking is available only to small groups of people and this is confirmed by the practice of centuries, when it was imagined that the masses could be taught critical thinking. If our education system was sufficiently powerful, we could create critical thinking or its fundamentals, but does a state always need critical thinking? It’s worth doubting that, it’s a double-edged sword. A state needs an army, and for it to defend the country, it’s necessary to mobilize the citizens, it will want to control them, and to punish those who don’t obey or act in different ways, imposing harsher and harsher penalties on them. If we say that we don’t need a large army or to defend the state, that we don’t need wide-ranging modernization projects, then propaganda is completely unnecessary – then advertising is sufficient in order to sell tooth brushes. However, when we speak about the traditional state, about its citizens not leaving their country, staying to defend it, a state like that cannot do without propaganda. If we wish to have young men and women join the army in Lithuania, we need to convince them. The army needs propaganda – not critical thinking, but songs and music, which would mobilize these persons.

And yet there’s more and more propaganda but of propagandistic music – not so much.

From time to time I happen to come into contact with representatives of the Lithuanian army when co-operating or meeting with them. I’ve been horrified to note that popular Russian music is listened to a lot in the Lithuanian army – this means that the people who imagine they’re taking part in information wars and are defending Lithuania from the point of view of information don’t notice the most important thing – they are not defending Lithuania from an emotional point of view. They are defending it against the fairy tales coming out of the Kremlin but they are not developing an emotional content. It’s not so simple to develop it and it isn’t possible to enjoy a song through coercion. What one needs is a composition which will be pleasant to this mass of people, one needs a series song which the masses will willingly reproduce. Marijus Mikutavičius’ ‘Trys milijonai’ (Three Million)[2] is one such example, at one time this song carried out its function better than the national anthem, but I want to note that at least several compositions capable of mobilizing people have to appear, there should be quite a lot of them. The backdrop for propaganda has to be constantly refreshed.

You mentioned that propaganda in Lithuania is of a very low level but what should we do about the propaganda of the old regime which is taboo for us and which we seemingly are avoiding?

Village and town in Lithuania were always being formed by foreigners, propaganda wasn’t taboo in the interwar years, even though it was very one-sided, anti-Polish (‘We will not rest without Vilnius’), which I wouldn’t say was effective and interesting. All the same, attempts were made to create a certain kind of Lithuanian propaganda to mobilize the masses and satisfy the requirements of the army, patriotism and so on. Since propaganda in Lithuania most often was foreign, then that cultural field, which is being created with the tools of propaganda, is also considered to be foreign or unrecognizable. For example, those estrada songs which were written for propaganda purposes during the Soviet period can be sung today without knowing or understanding their origin or function. Basketball fans also need music to mobilize them – what sort of music is that? That’s propaganda music, only that word is not used, even though ‘Three Million’ fulfils a propaganda function.

Couldn’t we say that a rather unique propaganda content is hidden in the liberation movements, rock marches, and songs of late 1980s and early 1990s which helped to mobilize thousands of people and resonated because of certain political events, for example, in the context of January 13th[3] (in particular Eurika Masytė’s song ‘Laisvė’ (Freedom))?

In the democratic countries of the West the term propaganda after World War II took on a clear pejorative meaning, and that is why acts of institutional persuasion were called public relations or even cultural diplomacy. At the same time, the phenomenon, together with its analysis and the possibility of its criticism, was hidden. In spite of the concealment, propaganda in the West survived and the liberation of Lithuania and its engagement in the Western world couldn’t eliminate the existence of propaganda. All the same, I hold to a conservative viewpoint: propaganda is expedient institutional persuasion. The rock marches at the time were not sufficiently institutionalized nor clearly mobilizing, but rather very critical of the Soviet Union. The first rock march took place in 1987 before the birth of Sąjūdis. Rock, and in particular punk-rock culture, for example, the band BIX, was more about creative destruction, artistic personal freedom from concrete jungles, from the condition of soldiers blindly following orders, and not a purposeful mobilization for some sort of action. Many of the compositions of the Antis band[4] were judged similarly: it was creative destruction (‘The Zombies’) and not manipulation, not the institutional regulation of a crowd. Take for example Eurika Masytė’s ‘Freedom’, which eventually took on that sort of mobilizing function and began to carry out the role of uniting people and inviting them to dedicate themselves. A country without propaganda is at the same time also one without a clear ideology and without clear values. That is why music of institutional persuasion can be important as a way for a nation, or a class, or a party to unite and put forward its point of view. One shouldn’t condemn propaganda music but rather explain its content, its links with high ideals, sacrifice, with political myths, with grand visions, with the ability to influence the emotions and the heart.

Should we be looking at propaganda in a different way and give it some different kinds of connotations than the ones we have now?

I’d separate the phenomenon from the name, that is, the phenomenon of propaganda, let’s call it ‘P’, and ‘Propaganda’ as a whole word. It would be hard to give a positive meaning to propaganda in Lithuania because it’s most often used everywhere only in the pejorative sense, but the function ‘P’ remains in all environments where mass mobilization takes place.

But should we be afraid of films like Marytė or the music for it?

People go to see good propaganda films throughout the world, but Marytė, like most of the other examples of propaganda in Lithuania, is a hopelessly bad film, it’s not even Lithuanian, it only has a Lithuanian undertone, that’s why it’s impossible to be afraid of Marytė.[5]

So, if we had good examples of propaganda, should they be shown?

Why not? Leni Riefenstahl or Sergei Eisenstein’s films are not forbidden anywhere, and American propaganda films, for example, Independence Day, are being repeatedly shown in Lithuania. Counterpropaganda and anti-propaganda art, which seeks to destroy propaganda is no less a significant and good thing. The only problem is that in wanting to create anti-propaganda art which is effective and attractive to young people and resistance groups, propaganda itself has to exist. It’s impossible to create anti-propaganda art in Lithuania today because there is no propaganda here.

How do you rate the recent Donatas Ulvydas’s film Emilija iš Laisvės alėjos (Emilia. Breaking Free, 2017)? The film is undoubtedly propagandistic, but the subject matter is one that we seldom come across, about Kaunas during the time of Romas Kalanta.[6] Is this banal propaganda or an on-target example of it? Its sound track isn’t grandly orchestral but a par excellence instance of popular music (for example, the song ‘Ar tu esi tas?’ (Are You the One?) – music by Jonas Jurkūnas, words by Marijus Mikutavičius, performed by GJan and Mikutavičius).

Yes, Ulvydas’s film Emilia. Breaking Free is institutional but at the same time an artistic persuasion to sacrifice oneself for Lithuania. As is only fitting, it’s firstly a call to the heart, to emotions, and not a presentation of information. Propaganda is above all a call to the heart and only in the last instance about facts. The film has many features of propagandistic inspiration and the purpose of rousing the emotions, eliciting a tear, and making oneself ask ‘Would I have acted like the main hero Emilia?’ But not only that. Propaganda is born out of the ability to reproduce. Film music, even when it is very popular, is not composed just to be repeated, for a simple melody, for future quotations and associations. Therefore, I can’t say that the whole film is propagandistic, in the same way as Eisenstein’s October or Battleship Potemkin aren’t just propagandistic, but also have many elements of non-propaganda and pure art. Propaganda films should also be judged according to the durability of their purpose and artistic quality, not only according to their institutional function and persuasiveness. Historical films, and Emilia. Breaking Free is about the 1972 demonstrations, the sacrifice of Romas Kalanta and the repressions in Kaunas, are conducive to the demonstration of long-term goals, while the plot of struggle and persecution, as well as love, create an important spirit of romanticism and dramatism. The film didn’t have a large budget, but it had a lot of volunteer-enthusiasts and ideological support, because the 1970s generation was at the same time creating a memorial for their dreams and actions and a message for future generations. There’s a lot of enthusiasm and external dangers in the scenes but not a lot of internal threat, tortured anxiety, or uncertainty. Romantic enthusiasm conceals an unfavourable hippie aura surrounding the event, but ambiguity and cracks in consciousness are almost not seen. All of that defines the classic propaganda genre. However, let’s refrain from using labels.  

At the same time, this film with its Kaunas theme is close to Raimundas Banionis’s 1990 film Vaikai iš Amerikos viešbučio (The Children from Hotel America), which also carries a certain propaganda load, even though there are metaphors and questions in it. And the final song ‘Dar ne vakaras’ (It’s Not Evening Yet; music by Faustas Latėnas, words by Robertas Alfonas Danys, performed by Povilas Meškėla and the band Rojaus tūzai) also became a certain kind of symbol of inner resistance…

For me Banionis’s film is more authentic, even though it avoids too large a dose of vulgarity, for example, swear words and verbal humiliation. Symbols of resistance in themselves have nothing in common with propaganda as an act of dissemination, reproduction and persuasion, but only provide a source: music, song, and an emotional content. ‘It’s Not Evening Yet’ was sung in the same spiritual context as the songs ‘Changes’ or ‘Blood Type’ written by Viktor Tsoi[7] and recorded by the band Kino (of which Tsoi was a member), only the Lithuanian song was less bohemian. Bohemianism and the hippie tradition do not figure strongly in Lithuanian films. Both Banionis’s and Ulvydas’s films surpass the limitations of propaganda film. For a film that’s not a good thing since it reduces its reach but a good thing for art – there are more opportunities for the director and the actors.

Even though propaganda is not just aesthetic content, artistic propaganda is especially necessary for this process.

It’s crucial. The Italians and the Germans, who were among the first to engage in this development of propaganda, stressed the cultural and aesthetic content and the fact that without it propaganda cannot exist. Let’s remember that Joseph Goebbels’ ministry of propaganda controlled culture, so that in effect it was the ministry of culture. I’m not inviting the Lithuanian ministry of culture to be propagandistic since avant-garde art, various fissures and artistic conflicts, as anti-propaganda actions, are no less significant. However, sometimes the mechanism stops working when two poles do not exist, when all artists are free, but have nothing to fight against.

Then there is no tension.

It doesn’t exist, whereas serious propaganda music creates huge tension, next to us we see a gigantic idol, which created a grandiose energy – trying to keep up with it and struggling against it gives meaning to our lives. At present there is no such idol with huge energy, and for that reason there is no way to resist it. Under such conditions all that exists is confusion in society.

In post-modernity all that is left is the possibility of completely banal propaganda, the avant-garde cannot at the same time be propagandistic. It would be hard to believe that a creative person engaged in deconstruction and post-internet art would take up a clear ideological position. That is why the real avant-garde is anti-propaganda or in the words of Adorno – fragmentary, dispersed and in constant opposition to false consciousness. How do you see it?

The 1960s in France and Germany offered two possibilities of overcoming propaganda: the international situationists and Guy Debord proposed a creative fragmentation and a turning upside down, the artistic tearing up of propaganda symbols, while Adorno proposed another way: to learn to control the machines of mechanical repetition, to create what is not meant for mass reproduction and sharing. To my mind, both solutions are suitable, as is the third – to create good propaganda music and films, aimed at millions of people, but to be able to create music and art mobilizing and touching the hearts of millions of people is very difficult and can only be achieved by the greatest artists. And how should one teach audiences to appreciate and esteem really good propaganda art?

Translated from the Lithuanian by Romas Kinka

[1] Translator’s note. Marius Katiliškis (1914–1980), left Lithuania during World War II in 1944 with the Red Army approaching the borders of Lithuania and, after several years in Germany, Switzerland and Belgium, emigrated to the USA, finally settling in Chicago where he died.
[2] Translator’s note. The song ‘Three Million’ was first recorded for the 2000 Sydney Olympics with the name referring to the approximate ethnic Lithuanian population of Lithuania at the time.
[3] The January 13th is a reference to January events of 1991, when the Soviet Union Military was trying to ensure the Soviet rule and order by storming key governmental and media institutions  in Lithuania which had declared its independence on March 11, 1990. The events resulted in 14 civilian victims and many casualties and has become a milestone event in the chronology of Lithuanian road to political emancipation.
[4] Translator’s note. Antis, formed in 1984, was important not just as a rock band but also because of the role it played in Lithuania’s struggle for independence.  
[5] Translator’s note. The film Marytė about the Soviet Lithuanian partisan Marija Melnikaitė is considered to be first Lithuanian full-length feature film but it was shot in the Mosfilm (Moscow film) studios, directed by a non-Lithuanian (Vera Strojeva) and with Russian actors playing the main roles, including that of Melnikaitė.
[6] Translator‘s note. Romas Kalanta (1953–1972) killed himself by self-immolation in protest against the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. He chose the square adjoining Laisvės alėja (Liberty Avenue) in front of the Kaunas State Musical Theatre, where in 1940 a puppet government declared the establishment of the Lithuanian SSR.
[7] Translator’s note. Viktor Tsoi (1962–1990), a Soviet singer-songwriter, is regarded a pioneer of Russian rock and one of the most influential people in the history of Russian popular music.