Quote Origin: All Art Is Propaganda

Upton Sinclair? W. E. B. Du Bois? George Orwell? George Bernard Shaw? Ann Petry? Morris Edmund Speare? Richard Hunt? Ludwig Lewisohn? Edmund Wilson? Anonymous?

Illustration of two megaphones from Unsplash

Question for Quote Investigator: Advocates often extoll their visions with strong-willed certainty. Insistent artists are accused of preaching and propagandizing. Yet, this criticism is sometimes provocatively embraced. Here are three assertions:

(1) All art is propaganda.
(2) All great art and literature is propaganda.
(3) All truly great art is propaganda.

This first adage has been attributed to muckraking U.S. activist Upton Sinclair, pioneering U.S. sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, and influential English writer George Orwell. The second adage has been credited to Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. The third adage has been ascribed to U.S. novelist Ann Petry. I am having trouble tracing the provenance of these sayings. Would you please help me to find solid citations?

Reply from Quote Investigator: Upton Sinclair, W. E. B. Du Bois, and George Orwell did employ the first saying. Also, George Bernard Shaw and Ann Petry did use the second and third sayings, respectively. Detailed citations for this group are given further below. However, the origin of this family of statements is older.

The earliest match found by QI appeared in “The National Magazine: An Illustrated American Monthly” of Boston, Massachusetts in 1916.  The periodical printed a letter from Richard Hunt who was a poet and poetry magazine editor. Hunt favored poetry that was uplifting and highlighted beauty and happiness. In the following passage the phrase “an Eastman kodak” referred to a photograph. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

An Eastman kodak can show us the picture of a ragged child with starvation and joylessness on its face—and so can poetry. But poetry can do more; it can show the child’s soul as it leaps up laughing, free from the ugliness of poverty and the life that has no happiness. People have a right to be happy!

They have a right to everything which can make them happy. But how can they be happy till they see each other as poetry, instead of as an Eastman kodak sees them? Poetry, like all art, is propaganda; it keeps showing more and more people pictures of the part of them where their aspirations are.

I work with poetry because I feel that here is a thing which will eventually free me and all other people from the misery and oppression of ugliness.

Thus, Richard Hunt viewed poetry and all art as a vehicle for positive propaganda which would lead to the betterment of humankind.

A wide variety of people have used the saying under examination. Here is an overview with dates:

1916: Poet and editor Richard Hunt
1923: Professor of English Morris Edmund Speare
1924: Literary critic Ludwig Lewisohn
1925: Political activist Upton Sinclair
1926: Sociologist and activist W. E. B. Du Bois
1932: Poet and literary scholar William Ellery Leonard
1933: Playwright George Bernard Shaw (All great art and literature is propaganda)
1939: Novelist and essayist George Orwell
1950: Novelist and journalist Ann Petry (All truly great art is propaganda)

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1919 a thematically related statement was attributed to the Italian-American sculptor Onorio Ruotolo in a Dayton, Ohio newspaper:2

He has been working at the things he loved best to do, and believes thoroughly that art is the best propaganda; the artist, according to the young sculptor, portraying without admonishing.

In 1923 Morris Edmund Speare submitted a doctoral dissertation titled “The Political Novel: Its Development in 19th Century England from Robert Plumer Ward to Mr. H. G. Wells”. Speare later became a notable Professor of English and a book editor. The first chapter of his dissertation included the following:3

It is not difficult to make out a case for the statement that in a sense all art is propaganda. By giving your own vision, by making your own interpretation of a state of things, you immediately exclude the views of others. The moment you begin to select and to emphasize you lay yourself open to the charge of preaching.

In 1924 Speare’s work was republished by Oxford University Press under the title “The Political Novel: Its Development in England and in America”.4 Thus, the saying achieved further distribution,

Also, in 1924 literary critic Ludwig Lewisohn published “The Creative Life”. He believed that the label “propaganda” was being used unfairly to disparage works:5

One often hears people object to what they call novels and plays with a purpose; fine works have been condemned for being “mere propaganda;” even distinguished critics join in this thoughtless game. What all these objectors really mean is one of two things: they either do not like the particular brand of propaganda offered them or else they do not like the technical method of its presentation.

Lewisohn suggested that people approve of propaganda when it corresponds to viewpoints they favor and wish to see spread:

Since everyone thinks that there are such things, it follows that all speech, all writing, all art is propaganda. There can be no difference of opinion here. The amusing race of mortals, however, is so made that each calls his own kind of propaganda by a more arrogant and astonishing name, the name of truth.

In October 1924 Speare’s book was reviewed by William Lea within the pages of “The New Leader” of New York. Lea reprinted the quotation while crediting Speare:6

All art is propaganda, says Dr. Speare, attempting to justify the fact that he defines political novels as weapons in the author’s particular struggle. And surely this weapon has been hard used.

In 1925 Upton Sinclair self-published “Mammonart: An Essay in Economic Interpretation”. In the second chapter he discussed “six great art lies” beginning with the following:7

Lie Number One: the Art for Art’s Sake lie; the notion that the end of art is in the art work, and that the artist’s sole task is perfection of form. It will be demonstrated that this lie is a defensive mechanism of artists run to seed, and that its prevalence means degeneracy, not merely in art, but in the society where such art appears.

Sinclair’s discussion of the sixth lie included the adage:

Lie Number Six: the lie of Vested Interest; the notion that art excludes propaganda and has nothing to do with freedom and justice. Meeting that issue without equivocation, we assert: All art is propaganda. It is universally and inescapably propaganda; sometimes unconsciously, but often deliberately, propaganda.

As commentary on the above, we add, that when artists or art critics make the assertion that art excludes propaganda, what they are saying is that their kind of propaganda is art, and other kinds of propaganda are not art.

In March 1925 “The Daily Herald” of London published an article titled “Common Sense for Lovers of Literature” by T. A. J. which included the saying:8

All art is propaganda. These who say it shouldn’t be, mean that they prefer their own propaganda to the other fellow’s.

The real end of Criticism is to discover this propagandist objective —especially when the artist is quite unconscious of it. It is to be discovered sociologically, not psychologically.

In April 1925 U.S. literary critic Edmund Wilson reviewed “Mammonart” and sharply disagreed with Upton Sinclair’s thesis:9

He has tried to write a social revolutionary treatise on art by asserting that “all art is propaganda” and then assuming—what is certainly not true even by the definition which he gives—that anything which expresses a philosophy, a point of view, a sensation or an impulse is a piece of propaganda in favor of it.

As it is impossible to find a work of art which does not at least imply an assumption of some kind about something, he has little difficulty, given his definition of propaganda, in making good his case. But his book, in consequence, as the social revolutionary bomb-shell which he has promised us, rather fails to go off.

In 1926 “The Crisis” journal printed the speech delivered by W. E. B. Du Bois at the Chicago Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People which included the following:10

Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy.

I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.

In 1932 “The Bookman” of New York published an essay by poet William Ellery Leonard which included an instance:11

The moment of communication reminds us that really vital talk is propaganda, that poetry is propaganda, that, indeed, all art is propaganda—though not all propaganda is art. Communicating a vision of any sort means an exigent craving to have that vision prevail among men.

In 1933 George Bernard Shaw wrote a preface to his play “On The Rocks” which included a variant of the saying:12

All great Art and Literature is propaganda. Most certainly the heresies of Galileo were not selfregarding actions: his feat of setting the earth rolling was as startling as Joshua’s feat of making the sun stand still.

In 1934 syndicated columnist Heywood Broun wrote a thematically related remark:13

The best art is the best propaganda and we stand in vital need of a campaign to make our country sex-conscious.

In 1939 novelist George Orwell wrote an essay about Charles Dickens which included the following:14

I have been discussing Dickens simply in terms of his “message”, and almost ignoring his literary qualities. But every writer, especially every novelist, has a “message”, whether he admits it or not, and the minutest details of his work are influenced by it.

All art is propaganda. Neither Dickens himself nor the majority of Victorian novelists would have thought of denying this. On the other hand, not all propaganda is art.

In 1950 Ann Petry published an essay titled “The Novel as Social Criticism” which included a variant of the saying:15

Being a product of the twentieth century (Hitler, atomic energy, Hiroshima, Buchenwald, Mussolini, USSR) I find it difficult to subscribe to the idea that art exists for art’s sake.

It seems to me that all truly great art is propaganda, whether it be the Sistine Chapel, or La Gioconda, Madame Bovary, or War and Peace. The novel, like all other forms of art, will always reflect the political, economic, and social structure of the period in which it was created.

In conclusion, many people have used the expression “All art is propaganda”. Currently, the earliest match occurred in a letter from poet Richard Hunt in 1916, and the second earliest was penned by Morris Edmund Speare in 1923. Additional citations may be uncovered by future researchers. Prominent individuals such as Upton Sinclair, W. E. B. Du Bois, George Orwell, George Bernard Shaw, and Ann Petry have all used versions of the expression.

Image Notes: Illustration of two megaphones from Cheska Poon Design Studio at Unsplash. The megaphones symbolize propaganda. The image has been retouched and resized.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Martha Bridegam whose message led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Bridegam told QI about the citations for W. E. B. Du Bois and George Orwell. Thanks to Jonathan Lighter who told QI about the variant statement: “The best art is the best propaganda”. This led QI to add the 1919 and 1934 citations.

Update History: On April 9, 2024 the 1919 and 1934 citations were added to the article.

  1. 1916 October, The National Magazine: An Illustrated American Monthly, Volume 45, Number 1, Let’s Talk It Over, (Subsection: Letter from Richard Hunt), Start Page 154, Quote Page 155, Column 1, Chapple Publishing Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  2. 1919 August 31, Dayton Sunday News, Section: Sunday Magazine, Newest “Discovery” An Italian Artist, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Dayton, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  3. 1923, The Political Novel: Its Development in 19th Century England from Robert Plumer Ward to Mr. H. G. Wells by Morris Edmund Speare, Dissertation submitted to the Board of University Studies of the Johns Hopkins University, Chapter 1: First Principles, Quote Page 26, Printed by H. Laupp jr, Tübingen, Germany. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  4. 1924, The Political Novel: Its Development in England and in America by Morris Edmund Speare (Head of the Department of English in The University of Maryland in Baltimore), Chapter 1: First Principles, Quote Page 27, Oxford University Press, New York. (Internet Archive) link ↩︎
  5. 1924, The Creative Life by Ludwig Lewisohn, Chapter 6: Literature and Life Quote Page 177 and 178, Boni and Liveright, New York. (Internet Archive) link ↩︎
  6. 1924 October 4, The New Leader, Political Fiction by William Lea, (Book review of M. E. Speare’s “The Political Novel”), Quote Page 7, Column 3, New Leader Publishing Association, New York. (Internet Archive; Verified with scans) ↩︎
  7. 1925, Mammonart: An Essay in Economic Interpretation by Upton Sinclair, Chapter 2: Who Owns The Artists? Quote Page 9, Published by the Author, Pasadena, California. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  8. 1925 March 25, The Daily Herald, Common Sense for Lovers of Literature: Only One Sound Rule: “Like What You Like” by T.A.J., Quote Page 9, Column 4, London, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  9. 1925 April 22, The New Republic, Mammonart by Edmund Wilson, (Book review of Upton Sinclair’s “Mammonart”), Start Page 236, Quote Page 236, Column 2, The New Republic, New York. (Internet Archive) link ↩︎
  10. 1926 October, The Crisis, Volume 32, Number 6, Criteria of Negro Art by W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, Start Page 290, Quote Page 296, Published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  11. 1932 August, The Bookman, Volume 75, Number 4, The Poetic Process From the Inside by William Ellery Leonard, Start Page 327, Quote Page 330, Column 2, Bookman Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  12. 1934 Copyright, Too True To Be Good, Village Wooing & On The Rocks. Three Plays by Bernard Shaw, Preface: On The Rocks, Section: Figment of the Selfregarding Action, Preface Date: October 22, 1933, Quote Page 173, Constable And Company, London. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  13. 1934 June 26, The Indianapolis Times, It Seems To Me by Heywood Broun, Quote Page 9, Column 1, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  14. 1968, George Orwell: The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Volume 1: An Age Like This 1920-1940, Edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, Essay 162: Charles Dickens, Citation note located at end of essay: “Written 1939 ITW”, Start Page 413, Quote Page 448 and 449, Harcourt Brace & World, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  15. 1950, The Writer’s Book, Presented by The Authors Guild, Edited by Helen Hull, The Novel as Social Criticism by Ann Petry, Start Page 31, Quote Page 33, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
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