When propaganda displaces democracy

By Nick Osborne GLOBE STAFF  AUGUST 30, 2015

This anti-Nazi propaganda poster encouraged US citizens to conserve gasoline during World War II.
EVEN THE WORD “propaganda” seems to somehow scream totalitarian state, more suited to “1984” than a country where liberty and freedom are central to national identity. Yet, disturbingly, propaganda may actually flourish even better in the fertile soil of liberal democracy.
Nothing in a democracy is outside the reach of propaganda, from media to politics to education. Its influence on citizens’ choices can’t be overstated — and is even harder to overcome.
In his new book, “How Propaganda Works,” Jason Stanley, a Yale philosophy professor, explains it’s always been that way. Stanley tracks propaganda’s history across continents and through decades, illuminating its power to make people vote against their own best interests. And what he has found is the words being used may be as important as the politics behind them.
Ideas spoke with Stanley by telephone. Below is an edited excerpt:
IDEAS: What do we, as citizens, need to know about the structure of propaganda?

STANLEY: Propaganda is one of those issues that,
whether you live in a democratic or totalitarian society, it’s always important. A problem comes from this linguistic strategy of making certain words say one thing but communicate another message. Some words have been taken and exploited for propaganda. There are innocent words that are politically dangerous.
 Now, there’s a lot of work in political and social theory on these sorts of phenomena. More rare is to think about it in the context of linguistics, psychology, and epistemology to detail the actual mechanism at work here. You can appropriate a totally normal word.
IDEAS: So break down what this linguistic strategy looks like.
STANLEY: If I say, “That damn table is in my way,” all I’m saying is that the table is in my way. But what I’m conveying, what I’m telling you, is that I don’t like the table. I have a negative attitude toward it. Propaganda can politicize apparently nonpolitical words and give them what we call not-at-issue content. You can then model that content as an emotion, such as antipathy towards a group of people. . . . There’s no mystery left about how this happens. In fact, if it didn’t happen, that’d be a mystery.
IDEAS: Are the uses of propaganda in a democracy rooted in this same exploitation of words?
STANLEY: This is actually Plato’s problem with democracy in Book VIII of “The Republic.” He says that in a democracy, someone will present himself as the people’s protector against the threat in their midst. He’ll stir fear, the people will elect him, and he’ll be a tyrant. It’s a constant fight to try and disconnect people from this kind of fear.
IDEAS: You quote Joseph Goebbels famously saying that democracy “has offered to its mortal enemies the means by which to destroy it.” Is there something inherent about democracy that makes this true?
STANLEY: This is the huge paradox of democracy. Plato and Goebbels are saying the same thing. Democracy is about freedom and equality. And freedom includes freedom of speech. When you let people have freedom of speech, they’re going to employ demagogic speech to whip people’s passions up and get them to vote against their interests. And that’s why Plato says democracy can’t work.
IDEAS: We hear a lot of talk about the impact of money in politics. Are big corporate donors and rhetoric about the private sector something new in the discussion of propaganda or old forces reincarnated?
STANLEY: The opposite of democracy is the managerial state. This is where you have a planned society, with someone running the society slotting you into jobs. At the beginning of the 20th century in America, we started having people running for office presenting themselves as business managers. And they would say things like, “Oh, I’m good at running a business.” Which is bizarre, because presumably when you run a business you want to grow the business and get money for it, not cut it down.
 In the early 19th century, you wouldn’t think of a political leader as a business manager, because a democracy is not a company. A company is not a democratic thing. A company is a place where a guy tells you what to do. The last thing you want is a school system run like a business. That’s what the business culture tries to do. It tricks us into confusing a corporation with a state. When we’re told the state is being run more efficiently, we have to ask: Who is it more efficient for when services are cut?
IDEAS: How can propaganda inform and educate people to defend their own interests in a more conscious way?
STANLEY: All liberation movements have the need for propaganda. Because what happens? In a democratic society, policy is supposed to be decided by taking everyone’s perspective into account. Propaganda makes some people’s perspectives entirely invisible. You have to somehow shock people into recognition that there’s a perspective they haven’t been taking into account. And that’s what the civil rights movement was about: getting a whole bunch of nonviolent protesters to march over a bridge and get beaten on national television so you’d realize what was happening, that those people are human beings. Spreading empathy, making that perspective visible, that’s what you need to do.
Nick Osborne can be reached at nick.osborne@globe.com.

Nazi propaganda is still working

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

NEW RESEARCH IS showing how tremendously effective Nazi propaganda was. In fact, it’s still working. An analysis of survey data from Germany in 1996 and 2006 reveals that native German respondents who were born in the 1930s showed significantly more anti-Semitism than those who were born earlier or later, even controlling for other individual and contextual factors. This was especially true for residents of areas with an early history of anti-Semitism — as measured by vote shares of anti-Semitic parties from 1890 to1912.
And while this generation is dying off, younger residents of those same areas also exhibited more anti-Semitism, even controlling for historical anti-Semitism — what the researchers term an “echo effect.” Other sources of propaganda — radio, movies, or Nazi member prevalence — did not appear to explain the attitudes of the 1930s generation, suggesting that propaganda in schooling and youth organizations was the source.
Voigtländer, N. & Voth, H.-J., “Nazi Indoctrination and Anti-Semitic Beliefs in Germany,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (forthcoming).

Rare World War I poster fetches $4,500

 By Danielle Arnet The Smart Collector

WHAT: Featuring General Pershing on a horse, a circa 1918 World War I U.S. Army recruiting poster brought $4,500 in a recent sale of vintage posters at Swann Galleries. Measuring almost 42 inches by 28 inches, the paper is in good but not pristine condition. Artist is K.M. Bara.
MORE: The poster was a limited edition, printed in San Francisco by Schmidt Litho., and not intended for national distribution.
SMART COLLECTORS KNOW: Sometimes, regional artwork such as this poster is more desirable than images plastered nationally. It’s a matter of numbers available.
HOT TIP: Particularly appealing is the visual impact of the poster, starting with resemblance to the Uncle Sam “I Want You” 1917 poster by James Montgomery Flagg. The use of Pershing follows the officer’s popularity at the time.

BOTTOM LINE: Rare wartime posters are coveted by collectors. A West Coast collector, particularly, would appreciate this regional issue.

North Korea: A Passion for Propaganda Posters

Willem van der Bijl built an impressive collection of North Korean propaganda posters, until the regime had had enough.

By Tessa Hoogvliet

Willem van der Bijl had an office in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, until in 2011 he was declared persona non grata. After twenty-four visits to the country, the North Korean government had enough of him. The Dutch stamp collector was placed behind North Korean bars in solitary confinement. He was interrogated for 15 hours a day for two weeks before eventually being expelled from the country. It not only put an end to Van der Bijl’s trips to North Korea, it also marked the end of his collection of North Korean propaganda posters.
Van der Bijl’s fascination with printed material began when he was six years old. He collected post stamps from all over the world and by the age of 21 had started his own stamp shop in Utrecht, the Netherlands. On one of his visits to a stamp exhibition in 1998 he met the director of the North-Korean stamp cooperation. They stayed in touch and after Van der Bijl bought a large quantity of North Korean stamps in Milan the director invited him on a trip to North Korea.
 Initially, he wasn’t interested. “The country didn’t appeal to me.” But he changed his mind, accepted the invitation and travelled all around the country as a tourist. It wasn’t love at first sight: “After the first trip I was totally done with the country. Yes, it is intriguing, but at the same time you experience an enormous amount of pressure.”
Shortly after his return to the Netherlands Van der Bijl starts making new plans to go to North Korea. “In a way, the country gets under your skin.” In the end, he went back 23 times.
Van der Bijl is not only interested in North Korean stamps. The propaganda posters he sees in the communist country fascinate him: “You see them in train stations and in the streets. They communicate a message from the regime.” The posters are printed in limited editions, because they are used as propaganda material. When the regime wants to send another message to the people, they change the posters. “So I started asking around where I could buy the old posters.” With that, the largest North Korean propaganda poster collection in the world began.
The biggest problem was how to export them to the Netherlands: “I had to bribe a lot of people to get the posters through customs every time.” To solve the export and visa problem, Van der Bijl and his North Korean business partner started a branch office in Pyongyang. By that time there were only seven foreign branch offices in North Korea. Their office was a hotel room and they had to hire two government secretaries who kept an eye on them at the same time.
 With the branch office, doing business was easier. “While I was working in the Netherlands, my business partner and the secretaries travelled around North Korea to look for propaganda posters. Twice a year I visited them to choose from their collection, so I could take the best ones home.” Sometimes he only took six posters, sometimes more than a hundred.
Secret Service
On every visit to North Korea Van der Bijl was followed by the secret service. In addition, all the phone calls they made from their office were tapped. “They knew what I was doing. Some said: ‘Round eye’ is exporting our beautiful art, others felt that I was exposing things to the outside world that were meant to stay in North Korea.”
On the last day of what would be his last visit to North Korea, in 2011, Van der Bijl was arrested and kept in solitary confinement for two weeks. The interrogations were tough: “For 15 hours a day, they asked me all kinds of details from all my trips to the country. Then I found out that they have been following me on every visit,” Van der Bijl explains. He’s not sure why he was arrested: “Maybe because I took some photos of a train, I don’t know. They never told me. I was never scared that they would lock me up for 30 years. I thought maybe two or three years.”
 After two weeks in prison, he was given an offer: confess guilt and ask for leniency. He took the offer immediately. “I signed a document in which I confessed that I spread bad things about North Korea, that I stimulated people to flee the country and that I took spy photos. Besides that I had to publicly apologize for my behaviour.” That confession was the only path to freedom. “The downside is that I will never be able to visit North Korea. But if the regime collapses, I will be one of the first to visit the country.”
In all his 24 visits Van der Bijl collected more than a thousand North Korean posters. It is the biggest collection of North Korean propaganda posters in the world. A couple of months ago, Van der Bijl made the collection available to the Modern East Asia Research Centre at the University of Leiden. “Because I’m persona non grata in North Korea, my collection is finished.”
According to Koen de Ceuster, lecturer in Modern History of Korea at the University of Leiden, “It is a unique collection. All the posters are printed in limited numbers, because they were replaced so often by a new message from the government.” The oldest poster in Van der Bijl’s collection was printed and distributed in 1952, the most recent in 2011. Van der Bijl has just finished digitally scanning over a thousand posters. He is now working on an online database where the posters will be available for researchers and academics. The database is expected to be finished by June 2016.

Tessa Hoogvliet is a foreign news journalist with the program VPRO Bureau Buitenland. All images courtesy Willem van der Bijl.

Iconic U.S. Army recruitment poster from World War I sells for $20,000 at auction in New York

•           The iconic poster sold Tuesday at Guernsey's in Manhattan, New York
•           It had a pre-sale estimate of $5,000 to $7,000 but fetched more at auction
•           At least 2000 posters from World War I were up on the auction block
•           The entire collection belonged to Colonel Edward H. McCrahon 
•           Guernsey’s describe the auction as 'the finest collection of patriotic posters'

By Associated Press and Belinda Robinson For Dailymail.com

According to Guernsey's, the owner of the collection, Brooklyn-born McCrahon became riveted by the compelling graphics of war posters art after he served in World War I.
McCrahon joined the French army in 1915. Then he enlisted in the U.S. Army two years later when America entered the war.
He was apparently so passionate in his defense of the Allied nations that he joined the French Army two years prior to the United States entering the war.
Once the U.S. became involved, McCrahon returned home, enlisted in the U.S. Army, and rose to the rank of Colonel.
During his stint in France, he became interested in collecting posters, so he devoted his energies to assembling what is ultimately recognized as the most extensive collection of war posters known to exist.
By the mid-1930s he had collected several thousand World War I posters produced by many of the nations involved in the conflict. 
Guernsey's describe the collection as 'quite possibly the finest collection of patriotic posters relating to World War I.'
The collection, being sold by his grandchildren features many foreign language posters printed in the U.S. as they acted as outreach to the large clusters of immigrants in cities such as New York.
There are estimates that roughly half of the posters are from the United States, with the rest comprising those from nations involved in the Great War.
The posters include the Zeichnet die Siebente Kriegsanleihe by Maximilian Lenz, and In the Name of Mercy Give! by Albert Herter.
All are patriotic and cover fundraising, food rationing, enlistment, women’s war efforts, and animal aid.
Many are the only known copies to exist today.
The auction was held on LiveAuctioneers.com.
The two-day online auction concludes Wednesday.
To see more visit: http://www.guernseys.com/v2/WWI_Posters.html

Rare Bauhaus artwork in Christie's poster collection auction

Maev Kennedy
A poster made for an exhibition that was a landmark in design and art history, and which a collector spent a quarter of a century trying to track down, is coming up for auction with a top sale estimate of £200,000.
The poster was designed by the typographer and graphic designer Joost Schmidt for the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition in Weimar, which publicised Walter Gropius' Bauhaus movement, whose influence survives today in minimalism.
The house specially built for the exhibition is now a World Heritage Site but almost all the posters for the show disintegrated, printed on atrocious quality paper at the height of German inflation.
The Bauhaus poster, which bears the words Staatliches Bauhaus, is the rarest in a collection of more than 100 to be auctioned in London by Christie's this October.
The posters in the auction date from 1894 to 1988 and represent a fraction of the collection of Martijn le Coultre, a Dutch enthusiast and author specialising in poster design history, whose collection began with a poster on his bedroom wall given by his aunt when he was helping clear out some junk, and which now includes more than 5,000 examples.
Of the Bauhaus poster he said: "It took me 25 years to find this work, now it's my turn to offer it to another collector."
Another rarity in the sale is an Art Deco gem of a poster by Jean Carlu, estimated to be worth £40,000, which was created for the opening night of the Theatre Pigalle, in 1929. Instead of glamorous actors it shows the lighting rig and back-stage machinery.
Another poster – by the Moscow avant-garde Stenberg brothers, made for the Russian release of the film The General, directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman – is estimated at up to £50,000.
One of the earliest posters in the sale, designed by Jan Toorop in the 1890s, shows two glamorous sinuous women against a richly patterned background – the bottle poured by one gives the game away: salad oil. The poster was such a hit that Art Nouveau came to be known as "salad oil style" in the Netherlands.
Sophie Churcher, a specialist in vintage posters, said the artwork was so striking because the posters, designed to last only a few weeks before being torn down, had to grab the attention of passersby in seconds. "Today these posters connect with people in a very direct and immediate manner, and are just as powerful as when they were first presented to the public."

Uncle Sam wants you: huge collection of first world war posters up for auction

Amassed by a US army officer, the collection of 2,000 colourful and patriotic art works from more than 15 countries exhorted citizens to support the war
of about 2,000 posters from the time of the first world war, considered to be one of the world’s finest and amassed over more than a decade by a US army officer, will be sold at auction later this month, Guernsey’s auction house said on Tuesday.
The collection, which will go under the hammer on June 30 and July 1 during an online, unreserved auction with no minimum bids, includes the famous poster of a stern-looking, top-hatted Uncle Sam pointing a finger, above the words, “I Want You for U.S. Army”.
Another patriotic poster shows the US flag and labourers with the words “Teamwork Wins”, while a third is of French women working in a laundry, inscribed “Four Years in the Fight”.
“It’s the best (collection) in the world,” said Arlan Ettinger, the president of Guernsey’s. “It appears that from the very beginning it was always looked at as the most comprehensive assemblage of posters of many different nationalities pertaining to their involvement in World War One.”
Although all of the posters, works of art which are expected to fetch between $200 and $5,000 apiece, are patriotic, their topics range from fundraising and food rationing to women’s war efforts, enlistment and animal aid.
Edward McCrahon, who was born in Brooklyn, started the collection after he joined the French army two years before the US entered the Great War in 1917.
He became enthralled with the colourful, graphic posters encouraging citizens to support the war and continued collecting after enlisting with the US armed forces.
About half of the posters are from the US, while others are in various languages from more than 15 countries such as France, Italy, Germany, Canada, Cuba and China.
Many are by prominent illustrators, including JC Leyendecker and Howard Chandler Christy, and are among the only known copies to exist.
The largest poster is a massive 9- by 14-foot US work urging people to “Give or Perish”, that was made on behalf of the Armenian Relief Fund.
“There are many posters in this collection that have never been seen before,” Ettinger said.
When the first world war ended, McCrahon devoted all his time to enlarging the collection and by the 1930s, he began to exhibit it around the country. The collection is being sold by his heirs.
“It really is a time capsule of a different era, when these things were very stirring, patriotic and treasured,” Ettinger said.

The legacy of wartime propaganda

One hundred years ago, 112,000 Victorians enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), 89,000 served overseas and 19,000 would tragically lose their lives. This article takes us back in time through a selection of World War I propaganda materials located in the archive.
The final year of the war
It is early 1918 – three years since the first Australian troops were sent to Egypt to fight against the Ottoman Empire. While Russia withdrew from the war some months ago, the US has only just entered the conflict. One million German troops who were fighting Russian forces in Eastern Europe have been freed to launch an offensive at the Western front, soon to become a grim setting for unprecedented loss of life. Australian casualty figures stand at 76,836, and losses on both sides have been heavy and the gains very small. Numbers of Australian men volunteering to enlist have continued to fall.
On the home front, social division has grown. Amid continued British pressure, the government is determined to fill shortages in the Australian Imperial Forces as regiments are continuing to disband. Many Australians, however, are disillusioned with the rising casualty rates and stories of battle losses. Conscription referendums in 1916 and 1917 were significantly opposed and both failed. Some are calling for peace terms to be created but Allied leaders want to fight to the finish. They portray this as a war for the good of civilisation, whose existence and well-being is threatened by the malevolent German empire.
With the failure of the government to win the right to conscript soldiers, and the armed forces needing continual reinforcement to retain their strength, the government has decided to embark on a new campaign to mobilise Australians. It will include the release of a series of recruitment posters and pamphlets.
The Government’s last recruitment efforts
The posters of the last recruiting campaign of 1918 can be found in PROV’s collection, in a series from the Town Clerk’s Office of the City of Melbourne – VPRS 3183/P0 Units 132 & 133. Illustrated by renowned Australian artist Norman Lindsay, many of the posters contain violent propaganda images to incite anger against the Germans, who are depicted as monstrous and bloodstained. The intention is to inspire and shock un-enlisted eligible men to join up. Looking at them, you can get a glimpse of the wartime propaganda that is so indicative of the time.
The recruitment pamphlets were compiled by the Australian government and published by the Director-General of Recruiting, Victoria Barracks. They were designed to be folded for posting to potential recruits. The fastenings of each read “Hurry!” “Join up!” “Quick!” and “Now!” According to the Australian War Memorial, the pamphlets were part of a recruitment kit to promote the little known “Voluntary Ballot Enlistment Scheme” – the Australian government’s final attempt to raise recruitment numbers. Men were to submit cards to a lottery and then agree to serve in the AIF if their names were drawn out. The first draw took place in Sydney on the 7th of October 1918. Most of the pamphlets would never have been distributed – the scheme was shut down with the signing of armistice on the 11th of November 1918, which ended the First World War.
Persuasion, fear and guilt: WWI wartime propaganda motifs – then and now
What can we see in the images? One motif that is referenced is that of the RMS Lusitania attack – one of the most controversial events of the First World War. The English passenger ship, travelling to London from New York, was hit by a German submarine in May 1915,  1,198 passengers and crew were killed. The death toll included 128 US citizens and the event is believed to have swayed American opinion, setting the path for US entry into the war. The sinking was exploited by propagandists as an unprovoked assault on a civilian ship but Germany insisted the Lusitania was carrying illegally stowed explosives. Whether or not there were any explosives on board is still debated today.
headlines after the sinking of Lusitania 1915 (Source: Library of Congress Digital Collection).
A cartoon on one of the pamphlets from the Australian campaign depicts a German water demon drowning a mother and child – you can see the image of a sinking ship in the background. Innocent civilians are the victims in this imagery as the plight of the defenceless is used to incite outrage.
The invasion and occupation of Belgium by German forces in 1914 is also referenced many times in propaganda. Allegations of brutal atrocities committed by German troops promoted an image of the enemy as bloodthirsty and inhumane. One poster, titled “The Peril To Australia”, warns that similar events will happen in Australia, should Germany win the war. It shows a violent conquest of an Australian town by German troops. This was all designed to instil anxiety, panic and hatred for the enemy. It also provided a moral justification to go to war – to defeat a savage aggressor, which threatened the whole of civilization.
The pamphlet text: “On the fields of France and Flanders is at present being decided the question whether your home will be polluted and outraged by the Hun, or whether it will be preserved from this unspeakable fate for ever. The men in the trenches are overworked and weary with incessant fighting. The glorious Army to which they belong is being frittered away for lack of the help you and your fellow eligibles can give. Will you not enlist at once and do your “bit” for the men who are risking everything for you?”
The long shadow of atrocity propaganda: a new WWI scholarship emerges
The German invasion of Belgium was certainly violent and it was passionately debated, well after the end of the war. 6,500 civilians perished in August 1914; some historians estimate this took place in the space of 10 days (Horne 2002). There were even larger instances of violence against civilians, up until 1918, in other areas affected by the war.
Exaggeration on the Allied side in recounting the occupation is obvious – to demonise the enemy it was necessary to repeat stories of victimised and mutilated women and children. Horrid tales that had little or no factual grounding often made their way through to the press and literature of the time, including official speeches, publications and pamphlets, causing international outrage.
After the war, many people considered the German atrocities of 1914, and others which took place in different regions, to be nothing more than Allied propaganda. Condemnation of the war had led people to question what fuelled the fighting, to the point where many believed the violent events to have been a mere creation (Schaepdrijver). Recent historiography has revealed that the most brutal stories in Belgium were in fact “mythic representations of real distress originating from traumatised civilian refugees” (Horne 2002, p.51) such as fabricated tales of Germans using Allied troops’ bodies to produce soap and animal feed. Historians John Horne and Alan Kramer wrote in German Atrocities 1914 that although there were many myths and tales, violence against Belgian civilians was not a “figment” of propaganda.
The suffering of civilians was appropriated by propagandists to justify the war while it was taking place, but then described as mere lies once it had ended and millions of people needed to come to terms with the great destruction and loss, brought on by the conflict. This “counter myth” of governments manipulating their people to wage a war through repackaging and marketing has persisted among popular consciousness in many Allied countries, as well as other regions (for different reasons).
Pacifists from the 1920s and onwards, had a strong desire “to discredit a war that had cost so many male lives [but in doing so they] contributed to the erasure of another set of victims – those men, women and children whose suffering had been exploited to market the war” (Gullace, 2011). Historians have talked about the shadow of WWI wartime propaganda and the impact of the interwar period on the collective remembrance of WWI and the course of the Second World War (see Fox). An analytical focus on “propaganda” with virtually no reference to the actual war crimes or events that inspired these manipulations does a complete disservice to the telling of any history (Gullace, 2011).
What we cannot forget during the centenary program is that WWI itself was a great atrocity (as is any war) where many suffered – not just those who fought in the trenches. The course of events that took place during the war was complex, devastating the populations of a number of countries. Civilian casualties should never be overlooked when remembering this global conflict. Over 7 million civilians died between 1914-1918 from military action, crimes against humanity, malnutrition or disease. The re-appraisal of WW1 propaganda and its central motifs, which really only started in the 1990s, has welcomed a new scholarship exposing many truths. It shouldn’t, however, ignore an analysis of the realities that took place in regions other than Western Europe.
The pamphlets in PROV’s collection are interesting pieces of history; through them we can look at popular propaganda themes and ideas. In addition, by putting them in context, we can learn about the legacy of WWI atrocity propaganda and how it continued to infuse itself into post WWI history. We are all connected to the First World War in one way or another – 100 years on from one of the deadliest conflicts in human history the destruction of war must not become an abstract thought. Understanding the course and causes of WWI must not become irrelevant nor inundated with glorified stories of military battles. We cannot learn from this conflict if we stop re-evaluating and examining the beliefs we have accepted as historical truths, or if we forget the great horrors of war.

Paintings, posters and pamphlets: propaganda and art through the ages

  PARIS  |  20 May 2015  |  AMA  |    | 

The relationship between art and propaganda is a long-standing, though often troubled one. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and indeed throughout history visual arts have proved themselves to be a powerful mode of communication, capable of shaping perceptions and radically altering the ways in which we see the world. It should come as little surprise then, that political movements, governments, and other socio-political organisations have long attempted to harness the potential of visual arts as a form of propaganda. From war-time posters featuring unflattering depictions of the enemy or issuing rallying cries to potential recruits, to more subtle forms of persuasion, art has played an important role in many of history’s most important propaganda campaigns, yet the line between politically-driven art and out-and-out propaganda is far from clear. And although certain works of (more or less overt) propaganda number amongst the most iconic and widely reproduced images of all time, many regard propaganda as the antithesis to great art, stifling the creativity, personal expression, and subversive undercurrents that form the basis of many of our greatest artworks. Was Picasso right to say that: “art is something subversive. If art is ever given the keys to the city it will be because it’s been so watered down, rendered so impotent that it’s not worth fighting for”? Can works of propaganda ever truly achieve artistic greatness? And at what point does a work of art become a work of propaganda and vice versa?

What is propaganda?
In recent decades, the term propaganda has become a highly loaded one, conjuring up images of the nationalistic, xenophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic propaganda at the centre of some of the most tragic and bloody conflicts of modern history. Indeed, the Nazi and Soviet propaganda campaigns, the former spearheaded by Joseph Goebbels, a figure now synonymous with the most poisonous and insidious brand of propaganda, are ample evidence of the potentially grim consequences of ill-intentioned propaganda. The strong negative connotations carried by the term were remarked as early as 1928 by American political scientist Harold Lasswell, who noted that “propaganda has become an epithet of contempt and hate, and the propagandists have sought protective colouration in such names as ‘public relations council,’ ‘specialist in public education,’ ‘public relations adviser’.” Prior to these conflicts, however, the term propaganda was a more neutral one, variously defined as “a deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist” (Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, Propaganda and Persuasion) or as a message sent on behalf of a socio-political institution or cause to a socially significant group with the intention to persuade (Sheryl Tuttle Ross, Understanding Propaganda).
From Egypt to Rome: were the Great Pyramids great propaganda?
Casting aside the pejorative sense of the term, use of the arts as a means of propaganda can be traced back to the most ancient civilisations in human history. We have learned much of what we know of Ancient Egyptian society from observing its art and architecture, and the wealth of great monuments and dazzling landmarks built to glorify or commemorate the all-powerful Pharaohs that ruled the vast empire. From the iconic Sphinx of Giza to the Valley of the Kings and the Great Pyramids, the Pharaohs clearly understood the power of art and architecture to influence and control, making use of slave labour and immense riches to create these enduring symbols of their power and status. There exists no better example of the efficacy of this particular breed of artistic propaganda than the burial mask of Tutankhamen, a solid gold carved head so iconic that it has informed hundreds of years of popular culture depictions of Ancient Egypt. It is in no small part due to this lavish mask that Tutankhamen is amongst the best known of the Ancient Egyptian rulers, despite being a sickly and ill-fated boy-king that barely made it into adulthood.
The Ancient Egyptians were far from the only early masters of propaganda, however, with savvy rulers across the ages realising the potential of the arts for self-promotion, either via statues glorifying military triumphs (like Rome’s Trajan’s Column) or portraits depicting them draped in furs and jewels. Given that until relatively recently the vast majority of artists relied on patronage, financial support given by wealthy supporters, it is unsurprising that so many great works of art bear the hallmarks of propaganda, though may not commonly be considered as such. Hans Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII is a notable example of a masterpiece that doubles as highly effective propaganda. The painting depicts the English monarch in a powerful stance, with vast shoulders, arms akimbo, and a stern commanding expression. Surviving armour worn by the king suggests that he was significantly shorter in reality than he appears in the painting, as well as being older, more haggard, and in worse health, having recently suffered an injury. Yet it is this striking image that has provided the most enduring image of Henry VIII, even centuries after the original was destroyed in the Whitechapel fire of 1698, thanks to the numerous copies that found their way into the salons of dozens of other rulers and nobles, contributing to Henry’s legacy as a powerful and charismatic ruler. It is clear that not all of the works created in this period were such carefully executed pieces of propaganda, and many patrons would have had limited influence over works that they financed, however many commissioned works would certainly have aimed to project a favourable impression of the powerful individuals funding them.

Posters and pamphlets: propaganda in military conflicts
During the 19th century, technological advancements leading to the mass production of materials saw the advent of tubes of paint (formerly prohibitively expensive and difficult to store and transport) along with more affordable paper, brushes, and canvas, allowing artists to break free of patrons, often embracing a more experimental, individualistic, and anti-establishment approach to their work. This evolution did not, however, spell the end of the long marriage of visual arts and propaganda, but rather saw propaganda diverge from fine art, not only in terms of content but also medium and style. The poster, cheap and easily reproducible, became the medium of choice for many of the most important propaganda campaigns of the 20th century. Though such images were no doubt influenced by the trends in fine art (cubist and Suprematist influences are clear, for example, in many of the early Soviet propaganda posters by artists like Valentina Kulagina and Strakov Braslavskij), while abstraction and more experimental styles were gaining ground in fine art, propaganda posters tended to be highly realistic in style.
Many of the most famous propaganda posters in history have arisen from wartime propaganda campaigns, whether aiming to recruit conscripts, garner public support for a war, promote participation in a broader “war-effort”, or simply propagate negative stereotypes of the enemy. The iconic Lord Kitchener Wants You poster, designed by little-known British artist Alfred Leete, is amongst the most important and well-known pieces of First World War propaganda, inspiring another major work of war propaganda in the form of J.M. Flagg’s 1917 Uncle Sam poster, which reads “I want you for the U.S. army”. Though arguably lacking in subtlety and even artistic merit, these powerful compositions have nonetheless gone down in history as symbols of patriotism and nationalism. Indeed, many of the major international conflicts of the 20th century were matched with similarly violent propaganda wars, many of which played on existing national or racial stereotypes to foster fear and hatred of given nations or groups in society, such as Hans Schweitzer’s famous anti-Semitic posters released in Germany in the early 1940s. Though these images have proved highly influential, many with boasting enduring fame (or notoriety) close to a century after their original publication, whether such overt cases of propaganda should be considered works of art is less clear…

Personal versus political
Though many artists of the 20th century relied on private sales for their primary income, there remained nonetheless a number of artists for whom commissioned work, whether state or private, represented the majority of their artistic output. One such example is American artist Norman Rockwell, who is best known for his paintings that graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post for decades. His saccharine, pastel-hued images depict an idealised vision of suburban and rural America, their sentimental view of a bygone era of US history often criticised for glossing over the social issues facing 1950s and ’60s America, a period in which racial and class tensions ran high. In addition to this more subtle form of propaganda, Rockwell was also responsible for more overtly ideological works such as the Four Freedoms series, inspired by a speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt, which was published in the Saturday paper in 1944. Later in life, Rockwell, dissatisfied with the sugar-coated vision projected by his Saturday Evening Post tenure, turned his attention to more controversial topics, including race relations. These later works, such as The Problem We All Live With, a painting inspired by the story of African-American schoolgirl Ruby Bridges and her struggle against segregated education, are similar in style to his earlier paintings, but strikingly different in content, representing the antithesis to the gently conservative message conveyed by his cover illustrations.
Amongst the most notable examples of politically partisan artists to face tensions between his own political and artistic vision and that of his patrons is Mexican painter Diego Rivera. Well known for his large-scale mural paintings, many of Rivera’s most important artworks were state-commissioned, and dealt with highly political themes. Returning to Mexico in 1921 after a long stay in Europe, Rivera was commissioned by then-Minister of Education José Vasconcelos to take part in a mural programme, which kick-started the Mexican muralism movement. Rivera, along with artists such as David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco, received state funding for their monumental frescoes, many of which were painted on the sides of civic buildings, and which aimed to glorify the Mexican revolution and convey various other nationalistic, social, and political messages. Vasconcelos’ project was, in essence, a large-scale propaganda campaign, aimed at spreading the ideology of the revolution to a largely illiterate population. However, though the movement continued for close to half a century, and saw the creation of many great artworks, its three main artists, Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros, eventually came into conflict with Vasconcelos over questions of both artistic style and political content. While Vasconcelos favoured a more classical, European style of painting, the so-called “Big Three” began to create increasingly experimental work, taking cues from Aztec art, and to depart from classical proportion and figure, meanwhile struggling to express their more radical political leanings under close government supervision.
Covert propaganda
Aside from these explicit examples of political propaganda, it is not uncommon for visual artists to be more tangentially involved with various social and political causes, whether via support or funding by political organisations, or simply by association with a particular ideology or movement. There has been much speculation on the involvement of the US government with the Abstract Expressionist movement during the Cold War. It has been argued by revisionist historians that the CIA took an interest in the burgeoning artistic movement, seeking to present America as a haven of free artistic expression, and challenge the Socialist Realism style of art enforced in the USSR and other People’s Republics. A number of historians, including Frances Stonor Saunders, author of Who Paid the Piper?: CIA and the Cultural Cold War, assert that the Congress for Cultural Freedom were responsible for funding and organising a number of Abstract Expressionist exhibitions from 1950 until 1967. However, since the works in question, by the likes of Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, or Robert Motherwell, are largely devoid of explicit political content, is it fair to consider the works themselves as pieces of propaganda?
Indeed, from the most overt forms of political propaganda to more implicit endorsements of social or political causes, visual artists and their creations have provided, and continue to provide, an important vessel for political messages. From Rivera’s vast murals, to Pollock’s abstract masterpieces, it is clear that propaganda campaigns have brought us some of our most valuable and iconic works of art; yet in cases where artists’ personal artistic or ideological perspective aligns less readily with that of their patron, such pressures often prove stifling. Moreover, whilst the world of propaganda is by no means a barren wasteland of artistic mediocrity, it is clear that great propaganda does not always demand great art; and indeed, much of history’s most powerful propaganda is one-dimensional, simplistic, and steeped in cliché – hardly the hallmarks of artistic merit… For centuries propaganda has embraced the good, the bad, and, all-too-often, the ugly side of the visual arts, and with the boundaries between artistic propaganda and political art unclear, or even non-existent, the debate surrounding art and propaganda is one with which artists will be faced for generations to come.