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Essay: Effectiveness of Art as Propaganda

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How effective is art as a tool of propaganda?

It is not a ‘modern’ phenomenon for leaders to pursue a good public image. From Augustus to Louis XIV, Stalin to Jeremy Corbyn, the arts have been commonly manipulated into expressing a narrative favourable to the patron. Although the specific styles of art they deployed have changed, it is still possible to compare its effectiveness as a tool of propaganda. To judge effectiveness, it is important to explore the express purpose of propaganda. Bruce L. Smith defined propaganda as “Information that is not objective and is used primarily to influence an audience and shape an agenda, often by presenting facts selectively to encourage a particular synthesis or perception, or using loaded language to produce an emotional rather than a rational response”. As such, to be effective, art must have shown itself to fulfil the criteria set by that definition, although the definition could be debated. Whilst the earliest examples of propaganda most likely occurred when the Ancient Greeks and Persians produced inscriptions and statues to reflect victories or ascendancies to power, the proliferation of art in its various forms really accelerated during the reformation, most likely assisted by developments in the printing press in 16th Century Europe.

Art has perhaps most famously proved itself an effective tool of propaganda for totalitarian regimes. The Nazi and Communist regimes of Hitler, Lenin and Stalin successfully used art to unite the masses behind revolutionary ideas of nationalism and socialism. Art became a way of invoking emotions that could be shaped into loyalty, service and obedience to the skilful hand of the rulers. As Golomstock claimed, “the spirit of the totalitarian revolutions found expression in the ‘art of the poster’”. This was an effective use of one particular form of art because both Hitler and Lenin realised that the key to mobilising the masses using posters was to make them understandable. This was of such importance to the dictators that both made key mentions to this in speeches. As such, National Socialist and Socialist art was simplistic, often caricatured or cartoon, with minimal writing and passionate slogans. In addition, the art deployed in totalitarian propaganda emphasised various ideals, for the Nazis it was “popular spirit”, the collective soul of the German people, a racially loaded idea encouraged through caricatures emphasising the ‘otherness’ of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and other minority groups whilst worshipping the so-called ‘aryan race’. For the Communists, the introduction of Socialist Realism emphasised the unity of the working class and its struggle against the capitalist class as well as bringing in notions of the ‘New Man’, examples of ideal socialists, men who served their country well, and should be emulated.

Part of the strength of the so-called ‘art of the poster’, as a propaganda tool of these totalitarian regimes, was that they claimed to already have popular support, as such they conned their audiences that the movement was already underway and increasing rapidly, that the end goal of both regimes was inevitable. This produced a bandwagon effect, when in fact neither Socialist Realism nor National Socialist Art had popular foundations when the movement started out. Art proved a successful tool of propaganda when its message, although deceitful, gave the illusion of a revolution already underway, which was dangerous to resist.

Art proved especially effective in the Soviet Union, in establishing a cult of personality surrounding Stalin. This was achieved through various artistic mediums. Famously the doctoring of photographs placed Stalin at the forefront of official revolutionary history, but also through statues and staged images or posters that created the myth of ‘Uncle Joe’, the benevolent leader who cared for his people, furthered by famous examples like the photograph entitled Friend of the little children in 1936, showing Stalin holding a smiling young Engelsina “Gelya” Markizova, who’s parents were in fact executed by Stalin. The common perception of the propaganda campaign of Stalin has been that it was so successful many peasants or workers even in their moments of greatest suffering still believed that Stalin could not possibly have known of their hardships, or else he would surely have liberated them as the propaganda promised.

However to assume people truly believed this artistic and falsified propaganda about Stalin without question would be to assume naivety or ignorance was a trait present in a whole generation. This is unlikely which raises problems for historians who can establish how penetrative propaganda was into the different walks of life, but find it harder to establish how much was absorbed and further, believed, by the masses. One possibility for establishing what people really thought about the artistic portrayal of the system is through ‘Anekdoty’ (little stories). Anekdoty are a form of Russian political humour and whilst the number of anekdoty can never be counted, they can still be researched by historians. Perakh spent years painstakingly recovering stories and sayings, most of them passed on orally. He believed they are key in revealing the real opinion of the ‘masses’ about the party line. Perakh claimed that all campaigns of propaganda undertaken by the Soviet State led to an immediate response, in the form of new or increased spreading of anekdoty. Two anekdoty in particular can be singled out for what they potentially reveal about popular opinion in the USSR, and from that, the effectiveness of art as a tool of propaganda in the Soviet Union.

“Stalin summoned Radek and said, ‘I know you spread jokes about me. It’s impertinent’


“I am the Great Leader, Teacher and Friend of the people after all”

“No, this can’t be right, I’ve not told anybody this joke”

This short Anekdoty circulated in the USSR in the 1930s. It details a conversation between Radek, a prominent communist arrested by Stalin in 1937 who died in prison, and Stalin. It suggests that people were painfully aware that the image of Stalin created by the various forms of art at work in the USSR were clearly fabricated, and in fact dark humour was common regarding the idea of Stalin as a Leader, Teacher and Friend. This runs contrary to the idea that the people of Soviet Russia bought the imagery of Stalin as their fatherly demigod unquestioningly. Here is another example:

“A peasant applied to the Communist Party. The committee asked:

‘Why did you illegally appropriate two sacks of potatoes?’

‘Not illegally, I stole it from the chairman of our collective farm, as comrade Lenin instructed us: ‘Rob what has been robbed’”

This piece includes an actual quote from the propaganda works Marxist Lexicon and suggests that people did recognise the irony of their situation, that they were promised liberation from the chains of capitalism as a means to progress, but have been left with no meaningful improvement. As such people may have begun to resent the propaganda messages churned out alongside colourful posters illustrating happy, well-fed communes, since they ‘robbed’ their country from the capitalist class, only to be left wanting by the new class, the communist elites. It reveals a realisation about the falsity of Soviet propaganda and its promises as well as a general acknowledgement of the general corruption at all levels of the system.

Whilst anekdoty can be an extremely useful method of examine how effective the artistic propaganda campaigns in the USSR were, it is not without its shortfalls. It is not, for example, clear how these jokes should be interpreted. They may simply be coping mechanisms for hardship, making light of their situation without resentment of the system, or they could reveal a subversive spirit in ordinary people, not brainwashed by the propaganda of the regime. If the latter is true, which is most convincing, it would seem that although art as a tool of propaganda was prolific in its penetration of Soviet society, it may not have been totally effective, and the real influences on peoples behaviour and thoughts came from carrot and stick approaches, such as reward and repression.

The Realist artistic movement has arguably proved itself effective at producing an emotional response in line with the painters own, in a manner similar to propaganda. This seems counter-intuitive, as realism prides itself on giving a “truthful, objective and impartial representation of the real world”. However, often this approach can be the most powerful and influential form of art. Realist paintings like Edouard Manet’s The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian, 1867 and Francisco de Goya’s The Third of May 1808, 1814 can be linked to effective propaganda in different ways. The important message of the Manet’s painting, is shown by the chilling accuracy with which it is portrayed, there is no clear romance or tragedy but a snap shot in time intended to simply record facts. Goya’s piece was slightly different. Nochlin believed Goya’s painting passed a far more overt judgement, which it shares with its audience, in fashion akin to propaganda. He argued Goya’s use of greyscale, different shades of light and darkness, gives a timeframe to the painting, distinguishing between those already executed, those in the process of being executed and those waiting to meet their end. Nochlin wrote “the contrast between light and shade, between human disorder and mechanised regularity, from left to right, intensify the moral and metaphysical impact of Goya’s masterpiece.” Whilst still part of the realist fashion, he passes judgement on the brutality and animalistic nature of the execution, which when circulated would invoke similar emotions in its audience, key in categorising it as propaganda.

But arguably Realism as a form of art cannot be used as evidence for successful propaganda, as it cannot, or should not, conceptualise emotion, “it is bound to a concrete situation at a given time”. This means it is objective and is intended to produce a rational response, not emotional, clearly inadequate at meeting the criteria for propaganda offered in this essay’s introduction.

However, hopefully what the above examples have illustrated is that whilst the image itself can be devoid of leaning, the scene depicted may be just as powerful. The creation of the image itself, as opposed to the infinite possibilities of alternative scenes that could have been painted, can be enough to invoke emotion, or imply a particular response is necessary despite the content being as close to ‘concrete fact’ as possible. For artists like Goya, he is still a realist as his depiction of The Third of May 1808 does not attempt to distort reality, only add a ‘temporal-emotional unfolding’ to the painting. His own emotions in reaction to the painting are not present, but he did express what he saw to be the objective emotion of the event, hence how he worked within the parameters of Realism, but produced a painting that seems to speak of an event with moral conviction, more easily classed as propaganda, especially since it was commissioned by the Spanish Government to “perpetuate by means of his brush the most notable and heroic actions of our glorious insurrection against the Tyrant of Europe”.

The French Realism Movement following the 1848 political and cultural upheaval for example was an “expression of the new, radical social forces unleashed by the revolution itself”. At the forefront, Gustave Courbet’s supposed socialist message on the principle of equality of individuals during his 1850s ‘salon paintings’ depicted small-scale realist scenes of ordinary working-class life. It is, however, debated whether he ever had overt propaganda in mind. Others like Jeanron’s Scene of Paris, depicted starvation amongst the working class as men try to feed their families. This certainly raised social issues, whilst depicting scenes of reality and fact simultaneously. The bourgeoisie in post-1848 France had begun to deprive the working-class of the advantages they fought for in the revolution, and this was revealed by the works of Courbet and his contemporaries, whilst “the social engagement of Realism did not necessarily involve any overt statement of social aims or any outright protest against intolerable political conditions…the mere intention ‘to translate the appearances, the customs’ of the time implied a significant involvement in the contemporary social situation”. This was and could be dangerous for the regime of the day, offering fuel for the radical ideologies by accurately depicting suffering and inadequacy within the regime.

Realism, as a historical artistic movement was an effective tool of propaganda, sometimes deployed by the state, in the case of Goya’s interpretation of French reprisals against the Spanish people to remember their heroic struggle, but often by the people against the powers that be. It’s effectiveness is evident in that it was at times met with response such as police censorship in the case of Manet’s Execution of the Emperor Maximilian. The reasons realist painters chose to paint what they did is crucial in defining their work as propaganda, posthumously. They did not just paint realistic depictions of ordinary people because of the readily available scenes of working-class suffering, or rampant executions. Nochlin believes realists chose what they painted “because of certain attitudes of mind, stated or unstated”, that they therefore wished to share with their audience, in an extremely powerful way due to the emphasis on reality, not exaggeration or distortion, which allowed the message of their art to be believed and connected to, not dismissed or ridiculed.

Art can be revealed as an effective tool of propaganda through its destruction too. In the cases of the Paris Comune 1871, the destruction of the statue of Napoleon, the smashing of statues of tsars during the Russian Revolution, the destruction of the monument of Stalin during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and even the removal of confederate memorials and statues across the US in the modern day, it becomes evidently clear that ‘images propagate values’. Art in the form of paintings and statues carry metaphorical connotations as well as obvious links with that they stand for, their creation can be acts of propaganda, as can their destruction, to denounce the message they stood for publicly, by removing the imagery, people can make a political statement of intent with regards to the subject.

Imagery is an effective form of propaganda because it awakens the political consciousness of ‘ordinary people’, when perhaps literacy inadequacies restrict the penetrative power of written pamphlets/texts. This can occur because art carries the ability to idealise individuals with certain values, in the extreme cases creating a cult of personality. For example, Paul Zanker argued “the rise of the Roman Empire in the time of Augustus required a new, standardised visual language corresponding to its centralizing aims.” In response to this situation Augustus was portrayed with both grace and brawn but mostly a sense of superiority in his Marble statue commissioned 63BC-AD14. Every aspect of the statue was carefully planned to reflect something of greatness onto Augustus (from his feet, to his armaments, to the positioning of his arm). Through the manipulation of various factors (Costume, posture, objects) in a method coined as ‘Image management’ by Burke, rulers and their propagandists throughout history have effectively created images of majesty and grace as well as strength. In Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will (1935), Hitler was pictured from below and shown against the sky to make him appear taller and more heroic- a process repeated with Mussolini, of natural short stature who deployed a footstool when receiving the salute from assembled troops. Image management may be a new phrase but it is not a new idea, Louis XIV was often painted in high heels, and apart from his son dauphin due to his son being taller than him and Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire was assisted by renaissance art. He was depicted as “a Roman imperator in antique armour, his brow wreathed in laurel”. Art combined with literature to support Charles in his claim for the Sacred Empire, for example Erasmus’ 1519 book The Institution of a Christian Prince was dedicated to Charles and perpetuated the ideal of an ideal ruler- one of both Christian and Humanist academic background, as such “The Medieval cult of monarchy was affected and enhanced by the study of classical antiquity”  evident in the artwork of the time, and the works of literature such as Erasmus.

However, whilst the impact of art as a tool of propaganda may seem undeniable, it is certainly true that some types art will be more successful than others, due to ease of distribution and penetration into society. It makes sense, for example, that the statues of Augustus commissioned in the classical era were less effective forms of propaganda than Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, purely because the exposure of a film in todays society is far greater than that of a statue. Art is a very broad term, and not all types will be equally effective, whereas classical statues were less than effective although certainly important for those who see them, statues in the Soviet Union would have had a huge psychological effect on those living in the satellite states who were not fully in favour of communism, as they represent oppression, ‘power over’ their people by the Bolsheviks, hence why the toppling of Stalin’s statue in 1956 and and the removal of Stalinist statues in Russia by Khrushchev mark key political statements (one of independence, and one of ‘destalinisation’).

In conclusion, Art is an extremely effective tool of propaganda, due to its extremely broad inclusion of different mediums. It can be deeply penetrative and in some cases have a profound effect on the way people think. However, as a micro-study into the ‘First propagandist state in History’- the Soviet Union- has shown, simply easy and prolific distribution and cleverly thought out ideologies and imagery is not enough to produce continuing emotional responses of loyalty and unquestioning service. However it is questionable whether anything could ever could. Some forms of art are more effective than others, such as film and photographs, however if historians imagine the frame of mind of a renaissance period peasant, a festival like that outlined by Roy Strong may have been just as powerful as a propaganda film deployed by a presidential candidate today. This perhaps illustrates the true effectiveness of art as a tool of propaganda, that it can update alongside the times, that it is truly diverse, capable of matching to the vulnerabilities in the psychology of its target audience.

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