Propaganda has been around for centuries. It existed long before writing and used images to influence an audience. Let’s delve further into the relationship between art and propaganda and explore some famous examples.
Both art and propaganda are forms of visual communication. Both convey a message through emotions, but they serve a different purpose.
Propaganda is typically created by a state, government or religious group whose sole intention is to promote a specific message, belief or point of view. Propaganda is often biased, incorporating emotion to push an agenda.
The word itself has a negative connotation, suggesting we will be brainwashed or coerced into someone else’s agenda. Many see propaganda as invoking fear because it has often been used for selfish purposes. However, many governments have used it to promote societal well-being in times of unrest; the intention is a positive benefit for the community.
Artwork is often created by an individual to express their emotions or ideas. However, their aim is not to convert the viewer but to simply encourage the exploration of a theme, to provoke thought. Artists are creating an experience, hence why artwork is considered subjective.
George Orwell famously said, "all art is propaganda." He went on to say that all art contains a message, whether it is for good or bad.
Famous visual propaganda
The following are some of the most widely recognized propaganda images.
Lord Kitchener and Uncle Sam
Two of the most iconic propaganda artworks appeared during World War One. The first was published in 1914 designed to recruit volunteers into the British army. It initially appeared on the cover of a popular magazine, London Opinion, but was soon replicated as a recruitment poster. The image depicts Lord Kitchener, a widely respected soldier promoted to the position of the British Secretary of State for War. His reputation provided a recognisable image of respect and power.
This powerful picture provided the inspiration for the now iconic Uncle Sam poster. First printed in 1917, it was designed for recruitment into the U.S. army. Over four million copies were printed. Today Uncle Sam is an American cultural icon associated with the U.S. government and patriotism.
We can do it
The famous We can do it poster, commonly referred to as Rosie the Riveter, was first printed in 1943 to help boost the morale of female workers during World War Two. During the war, it wasn’t particularly noticed, but in the 1980s, it was re-discovered and re-printed as a symbol of feminism. It continues to be a powerful image appearing on the cover of the Smithsonian magazine in 1994 and as a U.S. first-class mail stamp in 1999. The poster is one of the ten most-requested images at the National Archives and Records Administration.
The photo of Marxist revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara is said to be the world’s most famous photo. Captured in 1960 and titled Guerrillero Heroico, which translates to Heroic Guerrilla Fighter. He was known for his prominent role in the Cuban Revolution, and the image has become a symbol of rebellion and freedom. The image gained notoriety after Che's death. Replicas of the photo recreated in different mediums, including billboards, banners, t-shirts and posters have appeared all over the world.
(The image was taken by fashion photographer Alberto Korda on March 5, 1960, in Havana, Cuba. Korda took Che Guevara’s picture hundreds of times, this one became iconic)
Keep Calm and Carry On
The Keep Calm and Carry On poster was originally published in 1939 to increase morale amongst the population at the start of World War Two. It was created by the British government's propaganda department known as the Ministry of Information, made famous as the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel, 1984. The poster was rarely displayed in public when it was first commissioned but recently it has exploded in pop culture appearing all over the world as a fashionable slogan for numerous products. It symbolizes the British ‘stiff upper lip’ of strength during adversity.
Mao Zedong was a Chinese communist revolutionary who founded the People's Republic of China (PRC). During the Cultural Revolution propaganda posters became one of the primary sources of information due to the chaos. It was a simple and clear way to convey the party’s message to the masses, including those who were illiterate. The colours kept simple—red, black and white for maximum impact—the colours of communism and revolution. The images depicted strength and an idealistic view of life, the opposite of what was happening at the time as millions were dying of starvation.
The most recent example of mass propaganda is the global pandemic COVID-19. The virus was problematic to fight due to asymptomatic cases; therefore, governments had to encourage everyone to partake in preventative measures to help combat the disease.
Propaganda continues to be used as a simple but powerful method to convey a message. As seen above, some concepts have been adapted and re-issued for modern causes. Although propaganda is only effective when those viewing it are unable to see it as propaganda, they agree with the message without feeling forced.
All art conveys a message but as George Orwell also said “not all propaganda is art.”
By: Wendy Cooper