The Wilson Quarterly
The Roots of Propaganda
The Grandfather of Propaganda
The Psychology of Propaganda
The Propaganda Poster
World War I & World War II
The Cold War
Campaign Propaganda
Religious Propaganda
Literary Propaganda
Other Mediums of Propaganda
Propaganda in Art, Propaganda as Art
The Propaganda of Today

The Roots of Propaganda

The Roots of PropagandaCourtesy of Wikimedia Commons

To most of us, the term “propaganda” has an implicitly negative connotation. It provokes our fundamental fear of losing control and warrants suspicion and mistrust. Despite these modern associations, however, the term can be traced back to Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, in the 1530s, during the Counter-Reformation. Attempting to attract new disciples, the Jesuits appropriated the Latin verb propagare – from which we derive the word “propagate” – to refer to dissemination of the spiritual doctrine. As religious jargon, propagare allowed Roman-Catholic reformers to distinguish themselves from Protestant reformers; the Catholics embraced the initial use of the word, which, for them, referred to spreading the truth, while Protestants attempted to shield themselves from what they viewed as quite the opposite. After the start of the Thirty Years’ War, Pope Gregory XV founded the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, or the Congregation for Propagating the Faith, a committee charged with overseeing the work of Catholic missionaries.

This didn’t stop Protestants, though, from looking to spread their own philosophy to the masses. German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Elder designed woodcuts and paintings for Martin Luther, which were sold for a small amount of money to congregations throughout Europe. These woodcuts from 1521, part of Cranach the Elder’s series Passional of Christ and Antichrist, depict Christ (at left) driving away money-changers from the temple. An image of the Pope as the anti-Christ, set in juxtaposition, is described in an accompanying text by Philip Melanchthon:

“Antichrist sits in the temple of God, displaying himself as God… He alters all divine ordinances, suppresses Holy Scripture, and sells dispensations, indulgences, palliums, and bishoprics. He dissolves marriages, makes laws and breaks them in return for suitable payment…”

Even though the mediums of propaganda have expanded since the 16th century, the definition of the term, and many of the tactics employed, have remained unchanged. Speaking to The Wilson Quarterly, Garth Jowett, a professor at the University of Houston and co-author of Propaganda and Persuasion, defined the term as “a deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.” Because it is difficult to persuade someone to believe a message that is fundamentally different from core beliefs, successful propagandists do not seek to teach their audience anything new, he notes. Instead, they express an idea that their audience may have thought, but had not been able to articulate or connect to a particular action.

Because these messages, explicit or subliminal, are most effective in persuading those who already empathize with them to some extent, it can be a challenge, at times, to distinguish what qualifies as propaganda. Note that propaganda is not necessarily predicated on falsehoods, despite common connotations, while disinformation, which can be used for propagandistic functions, refers to disseminating deliberately false information. Throughout history, tactics of propaganda have been used in contexts ranging from religious movements to political campaigns, social causes, wartime efforts, advertising, and beyond. Those uses continue today.

The Grandfather of PropagandaCourtesy of The British Museum

The Grandfather
of Propaganda

It’s just a coin, right? Not quite. While the roots of the term “propaganda” are traced back to the 16th century, the “grandfather of propaganda” lived nearly two thousand years earlier. Alexander III of Macedon, better known as Alexander the Great, created an empire that spanned three continents and some two million square miles. According to the BBC, “The entire area from Greece in the west, north to the Danube, south into Egypt and as far to the east as the Indian Punjab, was linked together in a vast international network of trade and commerce.”

The Aristotle-educated military genius knew that in order to maintain control over his great empire and avoid social unrest, his subjects had to recognize his authority – and be reminded of it often. As such, Alexander (who also declared himself a god), had his own image put on his kingdom’s coins. In doing so, he assigned a value to his leadership that was as symbolic as it was literal, as he became the image of the state and its authority. Coins, trading through many hands, meant that Alexander, too, would be in wide circulation. His coin helped legitimize his rule for over a decade, scholars say.

Speaking to The Wilson Quarterly, Nicholas Cull, a professor at the University of Southern California and co-editor of Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500-Present, says that the coin has been an effective form of propaganda through the ages. Providing a visual depiction of a leader and, particularly in ancient through medieval times, when technology was limited, coins were a successful method by which to spread messages about power. Even in today’s digitally flooded age, they continue to do the same.

The Psychology of PropagandaCourtesy of the Library of Congress/F.C. Amorsolo, artist

The Psychology
of Propaganda

Propaganda is ubiquitous and nobody is immune. It is also highly psychological. Perhaps the most commonly encountered type of propaganda in the Western world is advertising, a multi-billion dollar industry that continues to successfully persuade us to purchase – and it illustrates what Cull refers to as the third person effect. That is, individuals are more likely to express concern about propaganda’s influence on everyone but themselves. By not acknowledging their own susceptibility, they may be less able to resist persuasive messaging. While you may have noticed that fast food commercials tend to portray their customers as having fun and not people experiencing ill health from eating processed foods, will awareness of this advertising strategy prevent you from going for that Big Mac? It is important that we become conscious of the messages that influence us on a day-to-day basis in order to decide which messages to absorb, disseminate, or let die, Cull advises.

The need to understand the psychology behind propaganda prompted education professor Clyde Miller to help found New York City’s Institute for Propaganda Analysis in 1937. Fearing Nazi influence in the United States, he also helped introduce an anti-propaganda curriculum into the public school system in Springfield, Massachusetts, where students were taught to detect potential instances of propaganda through critical awareness. As the U.S. became increasingly wary of propaganda in the years leading up to World War II, one of Miller’s key observations was particularly pervasive in popular discourse: propagandists rely on emotions, rather than reason, to persuade mass populations.

Due in part to the fact that essential human emotions have not changed, Miller’s guidelines for detecting and analyzing propaganda remain highly relevant today. Indeed, we continue to be particularly motivated by abstractions of fear and love, as well as notions of the future and the past (and their associated feelings). As evidenced by the popularity of President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, messages that reflect our desire for a hopeful future, or bring back a nostalgic version of the past, are often extremely potent. One would be challenged to find an example of propaganda that does not tap into emotions of some sort.

A powerful and highly psychological dichotomy that Jowett examines in his research is similarity versus difference – and propagandists make use of the two to accomplish political aims. To sway opinion, propagandists have often promoted the idea that particular populations are unique and deserve special treatment. Racism and ethnic stereotypes can be used to create an “us vs. them” divide and corresponding motivation to act. International propaganda swings between these two pendulums, and iterations of both can serve to fracture or unify, Jowett argues.

This poster, known as The Crucified Soldier, is an example of these concepts in application. The image depicts an Allied soldier being crucified by his German adversary. Note how the Allied soldier, with his expressive face, personifies fear and innocence (even with religious undertones) at the hands of a barbaric opponent. Brave, American-flag-bearing comrades rush to his aid. The messages portrayed by the image itself is the fuel for the accompanying textual appeal; disseminated among British, American, and Filipino populations, the bilingual poster ad urges its readers to purchase the liberty bonds that will help “us” stop such atrocities.

Examples of propaganda that make use of such topoi can be found across the world. Our bodies, according to Cull, are designed to filter out the things that we do not want to believe. Emotion, in its primality, can surpass these barriers and lead to us to take action for, or against, causes that we might have otherwise ignored.

The Propaganda PosterCourtesy of Flickr/MyEyeSees


As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Cranach the Elder’s depictions, sold as pamphlets to Protestant congregations, were introduced to illiterate French peasants who then ornamented their homes with the images. Straddling the line between art and politics, propaganda posters came into their own in the 20th century, particularly with the onset of World War I (see the other posters featured in this project). While other mediums of propaganda, including radio, television, and film, enabled rapid, mass circulation of “soft power” messaging, they were also more costly. An inexpensive alternative, propaganda posters were physically as well as cognitively accessible to a broad range of the population – minimizing words, maximizing images, and incorporating powerful use of color. They have been employed around the world, from propaganda giant China to Argentina to Turkey and beyond.

While many posters have featured the iconic, often frightening, imagery of state-disseminated war propaganda, grassroots movements have also generated memorable and effective propaganda posters. Political and social campaigns have also taken advantage of the poster medium, including in recent years. Indeed, while the digital age has opened up new mediums, the poster – and in particular, the profile poster – had an unexpected comeback with Shepard Fairey’s 2008 Hope, detailing then-candidate Barack Obama’s profile in red, white, and blue. Profile posters like these, says Jowett, rely on simplicity to convey a sense of strength and honesty. Obama’s profile poster, much like Alexander the Great’s coin, works to equate an individual with abstract concepts and attributes of a positive nature. Significantly, the color palette used not only implies an inherent connection between Obama and the country itself, but subverts the racial divisions that some sought to use against the black candidate. In a sense, potential division has become commonality.

Shortly after the poster shot to fame, The Guardian’s Laura Barton wrote that it had “acquired the kind of instant recognition of Jim Fitzpatrick’s Che Guevara poster, and is surely set to grace T-shirts, coffee mugs, and the walls of student bedrooms in the years to come.” Interestingly, copyright battles ensued regarding both the Obama and Guevara posters.

World War I & World War IICourtesy of Shutterstock/Everett Historical

World War I
& World War II

Throughout history, propaganda has been closely associated with war, and in particular, the the urgent need to justify it and promote what’s needed for success. The poster was a particularly powerful tool in analog-age wartime, used to define, and subsequently demonize, an enemy; promote nationalism; encourage the purchase of war bonds; urge women to enter the labor force; and dissuade against wasteful domestic practices, among other functions. Mediums such as newsreels, films, television, radio, and literature have all served the purposes of wartime propaganda as well.

James Montgomery Flagg’s famous “I Want You” poster from 1917 was a call to patriotism and manly duty from Uncle Sam, an embodiment of patriotism. Love for one’s country, Cull notes, is a key theme of propaganda. The notion of responsibility, emphasized by the gestures of direct address, helped make this, one of the most recognizable images of western propaganda, successful for driving enlistment into the U.S. army. The gesture, however, was not Flagg’s own creation; it was based on the 1914 Lord Kitchener recruitment poster.

Infamous for its success with anti-Semitic propaganda, Nazi Germany showed the world the horrendous power that manipulative messages could exert on the masses. However, Jowett tells The WQ, propaganda does not have the the ability to completely transform or brainwash an individual’s opinions, values, or assumptions, but rather, it preys upon, co-opts, or amplifies pre-existing beliefs or sentiments. Adolf Hitler appointed Joseph Goebbels to spearhead the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, which controlled radio, film, theater, and the press in Nazi Germany. The press, in the words of Goebbels, was “a great keyboard on which the government can play.”

The printing press, too. This 1943 Nazi poster, “Harte Zeiten, Harte Pflichten, Harte Herzen,” or “Hard Times, Hard Duties, Hard Hearts,” depicts German men charging off to war. The image is designed to portray Aryan strength, perseverance, and stoicism, and appealed to what Jowett refers to as a feeling of unique hardship. Note that the women behind the men appear to be taking the implements of factory work from the men who must depart. They must support the Nazi soldiers not only in spirit, as the endless masses in the background seem to do, but in physical terms as well, to fuel the war machine. It is interesting, and telling, that this poster is entirely about the “us” theme of propaganda, while the “them” (the Jews or the Communists or the Allies) is not at all visualized – a likely sign of Germany’s changing fortunes at this period in the war.

The United States and other Allied countries likewise utilized propaganda to support the war effort. J. Howard Miller’s Rosie the Riveter, which encouraged women to employ themselves in traditionally male-dominated work spaces such as factories and shipyards, was later appropriated as an icon of the feminist movement. Albeit the most notorious, the Nazis were not alone in employing racism and stereotypes to demonize, depreciate, and scapegoat groups of people. Propaganda images were used to try to justify the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans in the western United States following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Tokio Kid depicted the Japanese as yellow-skinned, buck-toothed villains.

The Cold War

The Cold WarV. Koretsky, artist

There is perhaps no historical period that Americans associate more readily with propaganda than the Cold War. Indeed, the “coldness” of the war – the lack of direct military-to-military conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union – meant that “active measures” and hybrid tactics were often the means of battle. Both the United States and the Soviet Union poured vast amounts of money, planning, and other resources into maintaining and/or winning the hearts and minds of each country’s own citizens as well as foreign citizens – particularly those viewed as being up for grabs between the competing ideologies of capitalism and communism. Propaganda techniques and mediums proliferated around the world, peaking in the 1950s and 60s, in perhaps the most massive messaging battles in history.

In the United States, the U.S. Information Agency oversaw many of these efforts, which took the form of films, television programs, Voice of America broadcasts, exhibits, and more. The funding of English instruction and other subtler measures, such as the dissemination of jazz music and talk of blue jeans and Coca-Cola, also could be considered de facto propaganda in this context. While USIA reached some 150 foreign populations during the height of the Cold War, it also invested at home in explaining and warning against Soviet propaganda efforts, as in this fascinating film from 1958. Indeed, there was no shortage of American propaganda for a domestic audience, especially during heightened moments of the “red scare.”

The USSR also employed a full battery of mediums and techniques to argue against a corrupted West and for a virtuous, egalitarian communist way of life. The closed information space and public sphere within the Soviet Union also meant an unavoidable stream of domestic, unchallenged propaganda and indoctrination efforts. The sheer volume and scope of Soviet propaganda – from stamps to pseudo-science – created what could be described as a pure propaganda state. Despite the various formats, it is the tried-and-true poster that many, both in the former USSR and in the West, continue to associate with the former’s propaganda machine. Indeed, some of the most gripping and visually encoded propaganda images and graphics ever created came from the Soviet Union.

In order to discredit and vilify the enemy, Soviet propaganda frequently sought to portray the United States, and capitalism in general, as breeding racism and egregious social disparity. Created by Viktor Koretsky in 1948, this poster, in both its side-by-side layout as well as its content, relies prominently upon the classic “us vs. them” divide. In a black-and-white image at left (which itself emphasizes the theme of “black and white”), a dark-skinned boy is tied up, distressed, and bleeding. Above him stands New York City skyscrapers which rival the height of the Statue of Liberty, whose robe is, likewise, blood-stained. The text reads “under capitalism.” To the right, “under socialism” is a wider image with vibrant Soviet red, portraying inclusivity, ethnic diversity, and a world of peoples marching forward under communist enlightenment. Note that women are also portrayed as having achieved equality with men. Isn’t this the society you’d like to live in?

Campaign Propaganda

Propaganda will always be utilized in political, social, and advertising campaigns. Posters for social campaigns are often made to accompany protests and demonstrations, as in the case of “Your Body is a Battleground,” made by Barbara Kruger in 1989 in preparation for a pro-choice rally in Washington, D.C. This clever poster, made by the Bus Riders Union of Los Angeles in 1997 and archived by the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG), visualizes a common simile for overcrowding on the subway. The message is clear: bus-riders, including the city’s Spanish-speaking population, refused to travel in this dehumanized form. Many such graphics were not created by professional artists, but ordinary people attempting to foment change.

While some social campaigns have generated substantial controversy, public health and environmental campaigns (such as this effort by London authorities to promote bicycle-riding) have often been less contentious categories of propaganda. Well-balanced diets, safe sexual encounters, and awareness of diseases such as tuberculosis and smallpox, have all been promoted similarly.

When we think about campaign propaganda, however, it is elections that will likely come to mind first. Indeed, from flyers to buttons to radio spots to TV commercials to ad buys to baseball caps to social media outreach, political advertising and propaganda has spanned all mediums and cost untold dollars.

Of course, there are many famous posters, but perhaps the most famous bit of propaganda produced in the context of a U.S. election is the “daisy girl” commercial. Made by the Johnson campaign for the 1964 presidential race, it features a three-year-old girl standing in a meadow and counting the petals of a daisy. Her innocence is emphasized by her errors in counting. After she reaches “nine,” a different kind of countdown begins – one that precedes a nuclear explosion. A voiceover from Johnson then states, “These are the stakes: to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.” Without mentioning his name, the commercial suggests that candidate Barry Goldwater’s support for nuclear testing would result in global devastation, and conversely, that Johnson can save our children, our future, and our very humanity. The short video had all the more impact in that it came out just before U.S. troops were to be drafted to Vietnam. Some believe that Johnson’s landslide victory was due, in part, to this advertisement, and many believe that it brought political propaganda into a new, more visceral and fear-mongering era.

While it is not new, foreign-origin propaganda aimed at influencing the outcome of elections has become more generally recognized in the past several years, particularly in the context of Russian activities related to votes in the West. The use of social media, in particular, for such efforts, continues to generate headlines in the United States and beyond. Many examples of Russia-sponsored propaganda fall into the disinformation category, a frequently employed type for elections.

Religious Propaganda

Religious PropagandaScreen grab from Flames of War

Since the dawn of organized religion, propaganda has served as an effective tool for teaching and spreading faith. Employing the full range of mediums (recall Cranach the Elder’s woodcuts), religious or relation-related propaganda has served many other purposes throughout history as well, including the promotion or criticism of particular lifestyles, behaviors, and practices; the demonization of a particular religion or denomination and its adherents; the demonization of religion itself, as in the case of these Soviet posters; the promotion or demonization of a state or government or leader on religious grounds; and many more. And, as we’ve seen in The Crucified Soldier, the use of religious imagery or allusions in ostensibly non-religious propaganda – or in ostensibly non-propagandistic contexts – is common. As one might imagine, religious propaganda has generated its fair share of controversy, big and small, throughout the ages.

While no religion has a monopoly on propaganda, Jowett writes in his Propaganda and Persuasion: “When considering the effect of long-range propagandistic activities, no campaigns have been more successful than those waged by the great proselytizing religions of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Although each of these great religions has used different strategies to achieve its purpose, they have all relied on the use of charismatic figures, heavy symbolism, a simple and incessant moral philosophy, and an understanding of their audience’s needs.”

Examples throughout history abound, from the use of propaganda in the Crusades, to the Japanese military’s use of Shinto to rouse support for expansionist policies in the late 19th century, to leaflets distributed by Mormons and Hasidic Jews. The rise of political and/or fundamentalist Islam is also closely associated with various forms of propaganda. “Today, we are witnessing a renewed propaganda effort by fundamentalist Muslims to use Islam as a means of achieving both the cultural and political goal of creating unity among the Arabic nation,” Jowett writes. In the name of religion, he also notes, terrorist groups like ISIS and the Taliban have banned television and radio – perhaps in fear of secular or Western propaganda, de jure or de facto.

ISIS’s investment in propaganda – and successful use of it – has been the subject of intense scrutiny and much alarm in recent years. Identifying propaganda as “more powerful than an atomic bomb,” the organization has invested large amounts of money into internet-based radicalization efforts. While still using low- or lower-tech methods, such as blaring messages from loudspeaker-equipped trucks as they drive through villages, ISIS frequently produces slick videos as well. “Flames of War” has become one of ISIS’s “signature recruitment films,” according to The Washington Post. Featuring a young boy, as many of its films do, this particular film contains English-language narrative to expand its potential reach beyond the Arabic-speaking world. Videos in other languages are also produced.

Literary Propaganda

Courtesy of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

Almost since the moment the printing press made the written word available to the masses, literature of various kinds has served as a tool of persuasion and propaganda. School textbooks may be an effective vehicle of propaganda, systematically enforced through national or state curricula. By conveying information to those who have no previous experience with the subject, explains Cull, it is easier to spread information that is based upon nation-specific doctrines. Textbooks, and the school setting in general, are usually platforms for the absorption, not the questioning, of information. Also, because students often learn or reinforce the same historical information throughout middle school and high school, repetition – a powerful propaganda-booster – can normalize the portrayal of one side of a multi-dimensional historical event.

Fiction literature, such as the material written by prohibition advocates during the temperance movement, has also served as an instrument of propaganda. In the 1854 novel Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and What I Saw There, the pro-temperance author presents an unnamed main character who makes a visit to a small town and observes the downfall of its inhabitants as they become dependent on alcohol and gambling. The town itself slowly degenerates into corruption after the new mayoral candidate supports a “rum party.” After the town’s moral fibers have broken down, townsfolk eventually become sober, and thus morally revitalized, with the prohibition of alcohol. The propagandistic potential of literature has also been used abroad, one interesting case among many being Doctor Zhivago. Expectedly, there has been debate and controversy as to whether literature works, or, in some cases, the use of literary works, has amounted to propaganda.

Some texts are produced and/or used quite explicitly as nation-building or society-shaping propaganda. Sometimes, these texts are closely associated with the formation of a cult of personality, as in the case of Hitler’s Mein Kampf or Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung. One striking example of state-sponsored propaganda literature of this nature, albeit unknown to most Westerners, is the Ruhnama. The book is almost synonymous with Turkmenistan, a hermetically sealed totalitarian state that David Remnick once described as “a cruel blend of Kim Jong Il’s North Korea and L. Frank Baum’s Oz.” The Oz part is a reference to the well-developed and downright fanciful cult of personality that existed, and persists, around the now-deceased Saparmurat Niyazov. President for life, he dubbed himself “Turkmenbashi,” or leader of all the Turkmen, and erected massive, golden statues of himself throughout the capital, Ashgabat. He also published the Ruhnama in 2001.

Victoria Clement, a former research fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, described the Ruhnama as a “pseudo-historical-spiritual tome.” Indeed, the rambling text is part autobiography, part moral guide, and part national roadmap which, at the state level, became equated in spiritual significance to the Koran. The place of the Ruhnama in today’s Turkmenistan has slightly dwindled in recent years, as it is no longer required reading in schools. Still, it’s hardly on the way out; literary propaganda strangely blends with architectural propaganda in downtown Ashgabat, where a giant statue of the book stands at the center of a massive fountain. Originally, the book opened and closed and even read some of its passages aloud, though recent reports suggest the statue is now dormant.

Other Mediums
of Propaganda

Courtesy of Alessandro De Toni

Some of the most successful propaganda is channeled through entertainment, such as films, museums, photographs, and cartoons. Following World War II, the U.S. conducted a number of surveys to determine what kind of aid the Europeans needed, and found that American films immediately followed requests for food and lodging. Taking these requests seriously, Jowett told The WQ, the U.S. government created a special committee to choose which movies were to be sent overseas. Particular films, such as The Grapes of Wrath, were not on this list because, set in the rural U.S. during the Great Depression, it portrayed poverty, as opposed to a nation prospering and empowered. In fact, John Steinbeck, the author of the eponymous book upon which the movie was based, had thought his work might be labeled as communist propaganda.

Children, particularly vulnerable to propaganda, have always been targets. The Make Mine Freedom cartoon film from 1948, for example, playfully captured the imagination of children as it simultaneously taught that capitalism is a far better alternative to destructive and unpatriotic Communism. Even the most unlikely forms of entertainment – the parade float, for example – has functioned as a vehicle of propaganda. To inspire anti-Semitic sentiments, this float in Nazi Germany’s Fastnacht parade was a Jew-devouring crocodile.

Photographic manipulation has at times served as a means of propaganda, taking advantage of our natural response to believe the images before our eyes. Today, that manipulation is more common and can be accomplished with a few taps on a smartphone, but altering photos is actually as old as photographic printmaking itself. For example, negatives from polaroids, such as those taken by Yevgeny Khaldei during the raising of the Soviet flag over Reichstag at the end of World War II, could be altered by scratching out pieces of the images while they were being developed. Khaldei’s photos, later promoted as icons of the Soviet victory over the Nazis, were manipulated so as to hide the fact that Soviet soldiers partook in looting; the watch that the young soldier wears in the original version of photograph was scratched out, and, to make the scene more dramatic, Khaldei added billows of smoke.

Museums, too, can function as a highly effective and interactive avenue of propaganda, especially in appealing to nostalgia, nationalism, and patriotic pride. Museums and exhibits may also aim to demonize “the other” as a means to indirectly define the “us” and accomplish the political and or social goals of a government. The Nazis’ notorious exhibit, Der Ewige Jude, or “The Eternal Jew,” attracted more than 400,000 visitors from 1937 to 1938.

North Korea’s Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities is another prime example of a museum serving an explicitly propagandistic function. In a recent article for The Wilson Quarterly, Jean H. Lee describes the museum:

“A visit there is like walking through the set of a horror movie; visitors can walk right up to the tableaus and can practically smell the blood and hear the screams. In one tableau shown in photos published by Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency in July 2016, a life-sized American soldier yanks the hair of a young Korean woman tied to a tree as another American sinks a knife into her heart. In another room, suffused in red light as though drenched with blood, American soldiers drive nails into a Korean woman’s head. Rabid glee distorts their faces.

“The grisly scenes are meant to be lifelike. But are they accurate? Many in South Korea and the United States question the veracity of the claims that such killings were carried out by American troops. While the bones and personal artifacts appear genuine, on my own visits to the museum I did not see any items that directly proved or implicated American involvement.”

Propaganda in Art,
Propaganda as Art

“Few people have the guts to say outright that art and propaganda are the same thing,” George Orwell famously wrote. The line appeared in a book review from 1936, in a passage on literary criticism. But whether in reference to the literary arts, the visual arts, or the performance arts, the question of whether art is necessarily propaganda is a challenging one, and, depending on whom you ask, where you are asking, and to which piece of art you are referring, may not have an answer as black-and-white as Orwell insists. The answer may also depend on just how nefarious we consider propaganda, by definition, to be. It is safe to say that anyone who communicates artistically wants to convey a message to an audience, and art certainly has the power to excite, inspire, agitate, and even foment social change. “We should always ask,” says Cull, “‘How does this artist want me to change?’”

Alastair Sooke, The Daily Telegraph’s art critic, identifies a piece of architectural art – Trajan’s Column in Rome – as his “favourite piece of art-propaganda from the ancient world.” He writes: “Constructed from 29 different blocks of marble weighing up to 77 tonnes each, it contains 2,500 figures, which were once brightly painted. A panoply of activity and detail (Trajan himself makes an appearance 59 times), the frieze is a potent expression of Roman efficiency and military ruthlessness. It is also a masterpiece of narrative art.” The intentionally record-breaking architecture of Dubai, the most famous example being the Burj Khalifa, the world’s largest building, is a modern-day example of architecture intended not merely to impress or express strength, but to be an unforgettable, formidable national icon. Indeed, many of the world’s great structures have served propagandistic purposes.

Elsewhere in this project, we have described films and novels, including The Grapes of Wrath and Doctor Zhivago, in the context of propaganda. We’ve also seen how museums and exhibits – the facilities that house and present art – have served propagandistic functions. (On this note, it would be remiss to overlook world fairs, expos, and Olympic Games, which have allowed cities and countries to showcase their achievements and develop global recognition from tourists, foreign investors, and others). Some prime examples also come from the Cold War, Alastair Sooke notes: “In 1946, the U.S. State Department spent almost $50,000 buying 79 paintings by Ben Shahn, Georgia O’Keeffe, and others for an international touring exhibition called Advancing American Art, which ended up in Prague at a time when Czechoslovakia was behind the Iron Curtain. The idea was to refute Soviet claims that America was culturally vacuous.”

But what about museums and exhibits of propaganda art – that is, museums and exhibits in which the works on display are explicitly identified as propaganda? Have you attended “Humor and Horror: Printed Propaganda during World War I” at The Met? How about the “Power Plays” exhibit at the Louvre? “Red Star over Russia” at the Tate Modern? Indeed, taken out of their original context, propaganda in various visual mediums is now fodder for museum presentations as such. A distinctly postmodern exercise, museum-goers may now look at how a poster born out of the earnest aims of agitprop used shapes, colors, stereotypes, personifications, or other devices to accomplish its aims. And indeed, many of these images should be appreciated for their aesthetic creativity. The Russian avant garde, for example, largely existed within the confines of Soviet realism, and fascinating work is sometimes the result.

Removed from their original context, and sometimes valued as kitsch more than art, some propaganda posters are today are bought and sold as decorative accessories for dorm rooms, offices, and coffee shops. Reproduction Soviet posters, for example, are now sold on the streets of New York City – an ironically capitalist fate.

The work poster you see above adorns the offices of The Wilson Quarterly. Translated loosely as “We beat up slackers,” it features mechanized figures hitting an oversleeping, unshaven, possibly intoxicated man on the head with a hammer (the trajectory of which, quite brilliantly, creates a complementary sickle). Meanwhile, a clock indicates that it is after 9, while machines rhetorically ask how long they’ll have to remain dormant. Was the humor and creativity in the poster identified by its original viewers? It’s not out of the question, but most of them probably would not have considered the poster to be frame-worthy art.

The Propaganda of TodayScreen grab

of Today

Propaganda has come a long way since ancient coins and woodcuts. It has spanned continents, languages, cultures, and contexts, while dividing, conquering, inspiring – and often convincing – along the way. While propaganda has remained the same at its core – “a deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist,” as Jowett said – the mediums and contexts for propaganda have dramatically evolved. Indeed, what would propaganda genius Alexander the Great have done with the power of a Twitter account? How many followers would he have (virtual and otherwise) if he lived in today’s “global village,” as Marshall McLuhan called it?

Indeed, the speed and potential reach of propaganda has accelerated with technology and globalization. Take disinformation and “fake news,” for example. During the Cold War, the Soviets worked to plant false stories in the U.S. media, while the United States pushed fake information about Soviet activities. But in those analog days, Cull explains, news stories could take months or even years to circulate. Unknown propagandists can now achieve virality on social media with the right messaging, hashtags, and retweets. Other more modern mediums include television, websites, blogs, podcasts, and video games (while, of course, more traditional mediums, from coins to Chinese Communist Party newspapers to keychains, persist).

But back to social media. There is no shortage of examples demonstrating how social media and propaganda, and, in particular, propagandistic disinformation, worked together during the 2016 U.S. election season. Russia’s use of social media to push lies, sow discord, and interfere with fact-based debate is the focus of ongoing anger and investigations in the United States. Much of the propaganda and disinformation, however, came from domestic sources. The tweet pictured in this slide, authored by a reputed white supremacist, peddles fake news about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and her alleged role in a pedophilia ring heaquartered in a Washington pizza parlor. While the city’s police described the claims as a “fictitious online conspiracy theory,” the so-called “pizzagate” rumor – percolating through social media and endorsed by certain groups and websites – continued to gain traction leading up to election day. This is a particularly telling example of social media’s use for such a function, as the tweet cites another social media post, this one from Facebook, as alleged evidence.

Is propaganda today more difficult to identify as such than in generations past? Some make that argument. Can propaganda be countered? Efforts have almost always been made. Does it exist throughout the world in all its forms – and will it continue to do so? Don’t doubt it.