The Oxford Blue
Oxford University's independent newspaper | A new voice for a new decade | Est. 2020..
There are a number of tools which can be and have historically been used for social transformation, political propaganda, and social order. These have varied throughout history, with some successful political entities skillfully shifting socio-political opinions and views through the use of art.
Propaganda, which can be defined as the “more or less systematic effort to manipulate other people’s beliefs, attitudes, or actions by means of symbols”, has often been used for political indoctrination purposes, social order and/or ideological transformation. Propagandist means can vary from words, music, gestures and clothing to art, which includes banners, monuments, insignia, designs, paintings, sculptures and more.
However, when did propaganda and art start to coincide? It seems to have begun with the consolidation of art history as a discipline in the early 20th-century. An example of successful indoctrination through art propaganda is that of the Third Reich. Indeed, the rise of the Nazi Party from the early 1920s onwards witnessed a vast use of propagandist tools, such as the media, forms of art, and many more, as a critical tool in “acquiring and maintaining power”. Art, politics, and culture have always been intertwined in society. To an extent, they have all been connected through the influence of art on society. Its influence in question has been used as a tool of power, repression, reconciliation, and change.
So how can art be used for said ideological transformation and social order? Firstly, art can serve as a tool to solidify and codify “social order through the intentional repeated use of imagery and ritual”. The quintessential role that art has had as a political propagandist tool is due to the conveying of messages, philosophies, political views, and statements through the imagery of art. In fact, the artistic reflection of political ideologies was prominent in Nazi Germany. Propagandist use of art can also be seen in the confiscation and destruction of art forms, such as degenerate art in Nazi Germany for example. The cessation, prohibition and destruction of what was considered degenerate art started to become more widespread in Nazi Germany from 1937 onwards and served as a destruction of the Third Reich’s anti-ideology.
Art can be used to draw upon negative social sentiment by building unity against a common scapegoat, which has been witnessed in Nazi Germany but also in Russia and the US during the Cold War. However, art can and has also been used as a unifying tool through posters and films. The US notably recurrently used art in the form of posters in military recruitment efforts during both World Wars, such as the renowned Uncle Sam poster depicting the colours of the American flag with an elderly man representing a father figure to the nation with inscribed “I Want You for U.S. Army”. Great Britain also used such posters during the First and Second World Wars, such as the 1914 recruitment poster depicting British Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, pointing out towards the viewer with inscribed “Britons: Lord Kitchener Wants You. Join Your Country’s Army! God save the King”.
This use of art for the depiction of a united country was also witnessed in the Soviet Union where the Bolsheviks’ triumphs were depicted on posters during the 1920s throughout Russia. This depiction of the success of communism in Russia and in the Soviet Union continued to be put forth throughout Stalin’s political reign, through posters, movies, literature, paintings, and more. The reason behind the frequent use of posters, drawings, and paintings is, amongst other factors, that their messages can reach and captivate even the illiterate. Similarly to Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, Joseph Stalin censored and banned some art forms.
The astute use of art as a means of propaganda by the Third Reich proved devastatingly successful in both unifying the country towards a common purpose and finding an agent of blame for Germany’s historic misfortunes prior to the Nazi Party’s emergence to power. Art effectively served as a tool of unity through division, giving rise to social categorization and an ‘us versus them’ mentality. The promotion of a cultural hierarchy in Germany through art was defined in two clear stances. Firstly, the admiration and pleasure emanating from Nazi-approved art genres was a sign of the elite and being civilized. Secondly, modernist and expressionist art pieces were synonymous with cultural decay and degenerate ideas. The Nazi use of propagandist art was also marked by the March 1939 destruction of over 1,000 paintings and sculptures and nearly 4,000 prints, watercolors, and drawings. The Third Reich adroitly used art as a propagandist mechanism before and throughout its dictatorship which had a lasting effect on German society until the end of the Second World War and arguably even afterward.
When does art stop being a tool for emotional and historical appreciation or representation, and instead become a tool for nationwide manipulation? As said by former US president Eisenhower; “When artists are made the slaves and tools of the state; when artists become the chief propagandists of a cause, progress is arrested and creation and genius are destroyed.”
The Oxford Blue