Art in the Service of Propaganda

Just like our ancestors who lived thousands and hundreds of years ago, we are drawn to art and all things beautiful. It is a universal thing: we are captivated by art because of this inherent biological mechanism that makes us attracted to objects of beauty. But in the wrong hands, this mechanism can be used against us. Because of this, art has been used as a powerful propaganda tool throughout history, and social and political movements across the globe have been using art to further their agenda. 

propaganda in art history

The concept of using various forms of persuasion to manipulate the behavior of others is not new. This practice is not some recent, modern-day invention: it is in our nature. When it is used to control the information we receive with the goal of influencing and shaping public opinion, we call it propaganda. 

Some say we live in an Orwellian world and that 1984 is our reality. For others, this is the Brave New World that Huxley predicted. As far as dystopian societies go, ours might not be that extreme yet, but what do all these real-life and fictional worlds have in common? A bottomless pit of pure propaganda.

Throughout history, leaders have sought ways to serve propaganda not only through the more obvious means of literature and oration, but also through fine art, sculpture, and music. It is a manipulative practice with a potent, irresistible effect on the masses, and rulers everywhere know it. Propaganda art is used more or less subtly to send messages, explicit or subliminal, to the people. Nowadays, we even have something called participatory propaganda: traditional propaganda that has been perfectly revamped for the digital age. If we are gullible enough to take part in it, we become pawns in the game.

Not all propaganda art is necessarily bad, as it can have the power to bring about a welcome change in the world. But propaganda art also has a great potential for abuse, for fine is the line between conveying a message and facilitating indoctrination. And no instrument of indoctrination is as powerful and effective as art, with its unique ability to cause a strong emotional response in us.

How Has Art Helped Propaganda Evolve?

The evolution of art in general and propaganda art, in particular, is a vast and complex topic. In both cases, it has been shaped by a variety of factors, including cultural and religious beliefs, technological advancements, and social and political change. As far as we know, propaganda art precedes the invention of writing. It may even span the entirety of human history, much like art itself. 

The development of art and, correspondingly, that of propaganda art can be divided into the following time periods:

  • Prehistoric art: The earliest examples of human art date back to the Paleolithic era, around 40,000 BCE. These early artworks took the form of cave paintings and carvings, depicting animals and human figures. And if you thought there was no room for propaganda back then because everyone was too busy hunting, gathering, or fending off wild animals, think again: many prehistoric artifacts prove that even the earliest civilizations employed propaganda techniques to highlight the superiority and supernatural powers of rulers and priesthood.
  • Ancient art: The art of ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome focused heavily on religious and mythological themes. These artworks were typically created to serve a specific purpose, such as to honor gods or commemorate important events. Not surprisingly, the ancient world used art in the function of propaganda. The pharaohs of ancient Egypt were depicted as larger-than-life figures and other civilizations employed similar practices.
  • Medieval art: The art of the Middle Ages was heavily influenced by the Christian church and focused on religious themes. This period saw the development of iconic styles such as Gothic architecture and illuminated manuscripts. The Catholic Church promoted religious piety, reinforcing the power of the church.
  • Renaissance art: The Renaissance was a period of great artistic innovation that began in Italy in the 14th century. Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael sought to depict the world as realistically as possible, leading to the development of techniques such as perspective and chiaroscuro. Wealthy patrons and rulers commissioned lavish portraits to promote their status and assert authority over their communities.
  • Baroque art: The 17th-century Baroque period followed the Renaissance and was characterized by a more dramatic and theatrical style. Baroque artists often used dynamic compositions, intense lighting, and exaggerated emotions to create powerful and emotional artworks. European monarchs used art to promote their authority and legitimacy and paint themselves in a good light.
  • Modern art: The 19th and 20th centuries saw the development of a wide range of artistic movements, from Impressionism to Cubism to Abstract Expressionism. Modern artists sought to break with tradition and create new forms of art that reflected the rapidly changing world around them. Some of the most memorable examples of propaganda art during this time were related to war. During World War I, both the Allied Forces and the Central Powers relied heavily on propaganda art. Around the World War II period, as well as during the Cold War, propaganda art flourished, especially in the Soviet Union, China, and Nazi Germany. Not that the Allies did not fight back: they used propaganda to increase support for the war and commitment to victory. Resistance movements, too, resorted to propaganda.
  • Contemporary art: Contemporary art refers to artworks created in the present day. This period has seen the rise of new media such as video art and digital art, as well as a greater focus on social and political issues. Contemporary art can be used in propaganda to promote the establishment, but it can also convey anti-establishmentarian messages.

What Are the Most Notorious Examples of Using Art for Propaganda?

famous propaganda art

Throughout history, art has been used as a powerful tool for propaganda, particularly in times of war and political unrest. Here are some of the most notorious examples from the 20th and 21st centuries:

  • Soviet propaganda art: During the Soviet era, the government heavily used art that promoted its Communist ideology and glorified the regime and its leaders, sending strong anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist messages through portrayals of heroic workers, soldiers, and farmers.
  • Nazi propaganda art: The Nazi regime in Germany also used art as a tool of propaganda, particularly during the 1930s and 1940s. Nazi art often depicted idealized Aryan figures and glorified the military and the German Reich, while aggressively demonizing Jews and other groups deemed undesirable by the regime.
  • Chinese Communist propaganda art: After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Communist government heavily promoted the use of propaganda art to promote socialist ideals and depict Mao Zedong as a hero and a visionary leader.
  • American propaganda art during World War II: The United States government used art extensively during World War II to promote patriotism and support for the war effort. Posters featuring slogans such as “We Can Do It!” and “Buy War Bonds” were designed to encourage Americans to contribute to the war effort. Hollywood was one example of a propaganda tool that functioned like clockwork and by stealth, especially in terms of promoting the interests of the US military by persuading the people to support the country’s war efforts. 
  • North Korean propaganda art: The North Korean government uses art as a means of promoting the cult of personality around the country’s leaders, particularly Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. North Korean propaganda art often depicts idealized images of the leaders and promotes the regime’s socialist ideology.

These are just a few examples of how art has been used for propaganda throughout history, but there are many other instances of governments and political movements using art to promote their agendas. Even art free from political purpose is subject to abuse. 

Why Are Images Important In Propaganda?

art propaganda examples

We respond well to images because we are visual beings. Images grab our attention and affect our emotions. Because of this, photography and other realistic artistic creations are used as powerful propaganda tools, in politics and marketing.

The rich, time-honored tradition of using art to further (political) agendas is alive and well. To this day, the entertainment industry serves the purpose of a propaganda machine so well that we hardly notice it anymore. It harnesses its power to influence public opinion and shape cultural values. 

Mainstream media often serves the purpose of supporting mainstream values. Of course, it can be argued that not all propaganda is equally bad: it can also be used to promote progressive values. For instance, art can send the message of peace, understanding, diversity, social justice, and environmentalism. 

But there is an abundance of examples where the purpose of propaganda, especially in the entertainment industry, is to glorify the military, glamorize violence, promote toxic nationalism, or offer an overly simplistic take on global politics.

People tend to believe what propaganda art wants them to because it appeals to their emotions. This form of art is designed to evoke strong feelings and set a narrative that resonates with the target audience. It often uses persuasive language and visuals to influence people’s thoughts and behavior by appealing to their beliefs, values, or desires. All of this makes it potentially detrimental to our individual and collective well-being.

Additionally, in times of crisis or fear, such as during war or economic hardship, people are more likely to believe convenient half-truths, or even blatant lies, as long as they give hope. Ultimately, it is up to us to critically evaluate the messages being sent and the values being promoted. It’s not just an empty phrase: viewer discretion is advised indeed.