Max Sparber —  a playwright, author and journalist — expressed his conflicting feelings and distress over the idea of art as propaganda before he opened the floor for a rousing debate with the Yale Political Union.

The YPU hosted a debate Tuesday night in Sudler Hall titled “Resolved: Propaganda is Art by Another Name” with guest Sparber, who is originally from Minneappolis, Minnesota. His work focuses on a variety of social justice issues — including race relations in America, positions of women and transgender people in society and the current plight of the rural working class. After Sparber provided opening remarks, members of the YPU asked him questions before entering into open debate with one another based on the topic at hand.

“I’m very distressed by the idea of art as propaganda, but a lot of the art that I really like could be described as propaganda,” Sparber said. “How we respond [to art] is based on our taste and part of my job is to unpack my own taste. When I first think of the word ‘propaganda,’ I first think of the film “Triumph of the Will” from 1935 arguing that the Nazi Party is powerful. That’s a disturbing use of art.”

Sparber went on to define propaganda with the help of the Merriam-Webster dictionary in order to challenge the audience’s perception of the term. He claimed that propaganda is “broader than the airing of political lies to the media.” Rather, it can be better described as an “organized attempt to influence opinion” in a way that is not inherently deceptive or fully untruthful. According to Sparber, the information just needs to be manipulative.

An important difference between art and propaganda, Sparber said, is that art is “artificial.” For example, a playwright creates a “pretend argument” in order to reach a desired outcome or conclusion. As such, he said it is art’s “basic stock and trade” to be manipulative.

He raised the question of whether art allows for the “free exchange of ideas,” pointing out that many artists contribute to a conversation but leave no room for counterarguments. He referenced the recent Oscar winner Bong Joon-ho, director for the film “Parasite,” in his ability to use satire to counter propaganda and make a point — “capitalism sucks,” Sparber said. He also referenced Oscar-winning film “Jojo Rabbit” and its ability to “make fascism seem ridiculous” in an age in which, according to Sparber, “a lot of people don’t think it’s ridiculous.” Through such mediums, art can flirt with propaganda and lead people to reject or accept certain ideas the artist holds.

“Ultimately art can challenge as well as instruct,” he concluded. “Art can be propaganda and often is, and propaganda can be art and often is. However, art is never just propaganda… it is also an act of exploration.”

One member of the Party of the Right asked the speaker what exactly differentiates art from propaganda — namely what is the “human element that we prescribe to art.” Sparber responded that when a piece is intended to do more than simply convince, “it begins sliding into the world of art.”

Jared Brunner ’22, another member of the Party of the Right, addressed the crowd and countered the speaker’s notion that plays leave us with a conclusion. Instead, he said, they are meant to “leave us with something to think about.” In other words, art is meant to leave viewers with more questions than answers.

Spencer Parish ’20 told the News that “it’s not often that the YPU debates art, but when it does, it’s often a good time…like the Glenn Lowry debate a couple of years ago,” referencing a discussion with the director of the Museum of Modern Art.

“It’s difficult to get people directly contradicting each other with an art debate, which made some speeches suffer a little, but the guest was a great choice and he made a lot of compelling points about a range of aspects for both ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ art,” Parish said.

Jules Manresa ’22 told the News that he thinks people wrongly associate “good art” with “art that is apolitical.”

People in turn, according to Manresa, label “bad art” as art that is political.

“I just don’t think that’s true if you have any knowledge of Western aesthetics,” he said. “You’ll find that everything is funded by someone who has an aim to what the funding is.”

The Yale Political Union (YPU) was established in 1934.

Larissa Jimenez | larissa.jimenez@yale.edu