Propaganda is about winning hearts and minds without using physical force. It’s something more subtle, more shadowy and more subliminal. Practitioners are masters of the dark arts often disguised as PR heads, advertising folks and artists.
Art and money are, ironically considering they've become so interchangeable, dirty words to feature in the same sentence. To be an artist is to search for an ideal purity of thought, a distillation of the chaos of our lives given order under the scrupulous brush of the new Vincent van Gogh. It’s also the playground of the rich and famous, a way to clean and launder dirty money, avoid tax and whitewash state crime.
Art of this nature is secondary propaganda. The art itself mightn’t be propaganda in content, but its usage serves the same function as more direct propaganda. By definition, the use of something with a bias or a slant (typically media) to further a political agenda, usually without directly endorsing it, would be deemed as propaganda.
Nations with questionable human rights records are using art to project an interest in culture, in people and ideas. Near the end of 2017, Badr bin Abdullah Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Culture, acquired the iconic Leonardo da Vinci portrayal of Jesus Christ in Renaissance dress, Salvator Mundi, from Russian billionaire businessman Dmitry Rybolovlev for $450.3 million - a world record fee.
Similarly, the State of Qatar snapped up Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players and Paul Gauguin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?) for $250 million and $210 million respectively. Cultivating a global image of culture diverts eyes from flagrant human rights abuses under their autocratic regimes. Construction of the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017, with its remit of bridging the connection between Western and Eastern art, highlights the state’s goals.
Besides the acquisition of art, the second and more direct form of propaganda is art endorsed by or patronized by a government for furthering their political ideals, etching them into history in a manner documenting their ideology more permanently than legal, social and economic changes. Most notably, this occurred in Nazi Germany.
There were the infamous book burnings, where texts deemed subversive were sent up in flames, labelled as ‘degenerate’. Degenerate art was outlawed in the country during Nazi rule, gaining its title from an eponymous exhibition that chaotically hung modernist art with denigrating texts to accompany the pieces. Far from subtle, the message that modernism was out couldn’t have been more clear.
What was in then? The Nazi party carefully curated a cultural curriculum that utilised traditional naturalistic sculpture, powerful architecture and paintings depicting the serenity of rural life as a means of shaping the idea of what an idealised German person is and the lifestyle that they should lead.
Headed by Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, all art, music, theatre and film with black, Jewish or communist influence was banned under the Reich Chamber of Culture. In its place, the sculptures of Arno Breker, whose idealised human forms were viewed as the antithesis of Degenerate art stood triumphantly alongside the large foreboding buildings of Albert Speer decorated with the depictions of Aryan families by Adolf Wissel.
Building such a repertoire of art ushered the population into believing in total war, whereby the war effort was given precedence and all facets of public life should be directed towards making it successful. Beliving the German people to be the rightful race to populate the globe, the Nazi party communicated their vision with its people through all manner of propagandistic outlets.
A similar artistic trend was evident in Mexico when subsequent governments used large murals to romanticise Mexican ideals and promote their own culture and history as part of the consolidation of a Mexican national identity post-Mexican Revolution. Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco headed the movement with their large-scale nationalistic works.
Like Nazi Germany, it was about unifying a government-sanctioned vision of the future, whilst embracing the history of the country and its people. The working-class was particularly heralded in both, signifying the admiration of values like family, work ethic and community.
Pioneered by Edward Bernays, ‘the father of public relations’, propaganda centred around the idea of collectives being irrational and prone to conforming to a herd instinct or morality. Understanding the impact of social influence - as both the German and Mexican governments saw through art - meant that it would be considerably easier to manipulate group behaviours than simply telling people what to do.
When viewed as artistic depictions rather than governmental commands, one sees a transcendent and aspirational vision - the very best one can be without the blemishes of reality. Propaganda’s goal isn’t to persuade an entire nation to act a certain way as much as it is to influence the conversation and ideas that the population have and hold. It isn’t hypnotising the masses, most of whom would rebel should they feel too cornered, but it’s making people feel like the thoughts they have are original, subliminally influenced by things they’ve seen.
That’s why propaganda doesn’t derive its success from politicians telling people what to do, but from more elusive influencing tools like art.
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