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Is art a form of political propaganda?

Art has been employed throughout history as a political tool to propagate ideas of power and ideology and challenge them. However, art is a medium for political discourse rather than an all-encompassing feature. To understand political art we have to assess the different intentions behind various artworks: the context art was produced, who by and the purpose it served.

Art was a political tool used by individuals or institutions to assert their power and ideologies. For example, the baths of Caracalla (AD 212/11–216/17) acted as a symbol of power and reputation reflective of the emperors Septimus Severus and Caracalla, the state and the might of Rome.[1] Its deliberate architectural design and iconographic choices–such as the colossal monolithic columns, imperial insignia, military scenes and material allusions to the empire–contributed to a standardised visual language of art and architecture correspondent with the centralised aims of the empire and its leader.[2]

Similarly, Elizabethan royal portraiture became a political tool to assert Tudor power by diminishing criticism surrounding the queen regarding marriage, succession and legitimacy claims. In 1594, royal portraiture assumed a ‘Mask of Youth’ developed under the supervision of Nicholas Hilliard.[3] The idea was to promote an immortal image of Elizabeth I aiming to resolve her accountability by shifting focus towards her strength as monarch rather than the flaw in her rule.[4] The Hardwick portrait (c. 1590–99) is the perfect example. The magnificence of Elizabeth’s dress and jewels highlighted the glory of the nation, pearls symbolised her innocence and virtue and the noticeable red and white flowers in the background invoked the Tudor Standard.[5]

Let us consider how art asserts institutional power and ideology. During World War II,  the proliferation of anti-Fascist ideology coincided with the systemisation of coherent information and propaganda by the American Office of War Information in the 1930s and 1940s.[6] Leo Rosen wanted to illuminate the brutality and war crimes of the Axis powers–Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan–through his 1943 exhibition, “Nature of the Enemy.”[7] Rosen placed sculptures outside the Rockefeller Centre in New York reimagining America under Nazi rule, juxtaposing Fascist values as the antithesis of American values and norms.[8]

This was an ironic display considering the systemic/systematic racism and prejudice which prevailed in the United States during this period. However, efforts made by the American government to diminish social and political antagonisms–race, gender, class, religion and ethnicity–by counterimaging Nazi diatribes against minority groups suited their democratic aspirations.[9] These efforts can be seen in posters like “United We Win” (1942) depicting a black soldier working alongside a white soldier to give the illusion of racial harmony with the image of the flag behind them acting as an assertion of patriotism.[10] Here art walks a fine line between propaganda and censorship.

Not all art served a political purpose in its pictorial form but in its material form. The patronage and collection of art became a method to assert power among local and international social or political hierarchies. The Hermitage of Catherine the Great was a tool to showcase Russia as a civilised and pseudo-democratic society to the rest of Europe despite its autocratic rule.[11] Catherine was inspired by her husband and predecessor, Peter the Great, to collect art but she maintained a disinterest in it until much later in life[12] They simply borrowed the idea from Louis XVI, who similarly fabricated his image as the enlightened ‘Sun King’ to present the French monarchy in a more favourable light.[13]

Catherine’s efforts were effective as the foreign visitors who attended Hermitage assemblies left Russia with an improved image of it as a civilised and enlightened place, propagating positive Catherinian myth-making.[14] We see similar parallels elsewhere in the Elizabethan royal court in which subjects wore images of the monarch to promote her political image and signal their loyalty to her;[15] or in Nazi Germany where it has been suggested art collections served as a reflection of political standing.[16] Art was ascribed political importance based on its material worth instead of its subject.

Art and architecture have been used throughout history to convey political thought and assert power and ideology. Art absent of political ideology was still valuable in its physical form, used by individuals and group organisations as a system of asserting power through a hierarchical structure of cultural elitism. Art has always served as a form of political propaganda.

[1] Maryl B. Gensheimer, Decoration and Display in Rome’s Imperial Thermae (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 145.

[2] Gensheimer, Rome’s Imperial Thermae, 114.

[3] Amy Moore, “‘The Cult of Gloriana’ and the challenges it faced.” Vides 5 (2017): 63. https://www.conted.ox.ac.uk/mnt/attachments/vides_2017.pdf.

[4] Moore, “‘The Cult of Gloriana’,” 63.

[5] Moore, “‘The Cult of Gloriana’,” 64.

[6] Decker, Christof, “Imaging Axis Terror: War Propaganda and the 1943 “The Nature of the Enemy” Exhibition at Rockefeller Center,” Amerikastudien/American Studies 65, no. 1 (2020): 86. https://doi.org/10.33675/AMST/2020/1/8.

[7] Decker, “Imaging Axis Terror,” 86-7.

[8] Decker, “Imaging Axis Terror,” 92.

[9] George H. Roeder, The Censored War: American Visual Experience During World War Two (New Haven; London, 1993), 154.

[10] Roeder, The Censored War, 76.

[11] Katia Dianina, “Art and Authority: The Hermitage of Catherine the Great,” The Russian Review 63, no. 4 (2004): 632. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3663984.

[12] Dianina, “The Hermitage of Catherine the Great,” 632-33; 635; 638.

[13] Dianina, “The Hermitage of Catherine the Great,” 632-33; 635.

[14] Dianina, “The Hermitage of Catherine the Great,” 252.

[15] See Moore, “‘The Cult of Gloriana’,” 64.

[16] Petropoulos, Jonathan, Art as Politics in the Third Reich (Chapel Hill; London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 5.

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