In 2007, the German Historical Museum in Berlin opened an exhibit titled, “Art and Propaganda: The Clash of Nations 1930-1945” (curated by Dr. Hans-Jörg Czech and Dr. Nikola Doll). As you can no doubt tell from the time period under observation, the show displayed artwork from Italy’s Fascist regime, German National Socialism (Nazism), and Soviet Communism. There was also an extremely controversial fourth nation represented: the United States. American New Deal-era artworks were displayed alongside those glorifying Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler. Unsurprisingly, American viewers protested their inclusion alongside such unsavory company – virulently anti-Semitic posters showing Jewish people as bloated rats, Futuristic sculptures of Mussolini’s (il Duce’s) continuous profile, and ridiculously toady-ing portraits of an insanely idealized Joseph Stalin.

This intensely negative reaction is unsurprising, given the continuous American fascination with WWII, and our heroic place in it. Early twentieth-century Germany and Italy are colored black in our heads, although Russia was nominally on the Allied side, the degeneration into Cold War politics that followed the war knocks them into the same monstrous camp of forced deportations and genocide. To place American artworks – posters, paintings, sculptures, and other materials, alongside those of the three fiends of the twentieth century – the horror!

Generally speaking, the modern world takes a dim view of propaganda. Propaganda, to most of us, is the province of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gadaffi (how have we as a people not decided how to spell this man’s name yet?), and the most James Bond villain-esque of contemporary dictators, Kim Jong Il. Propaganda is giant gold fists crushing Americans planes and having your face subtly displayed on two-story building-size posters. This view, however, is incorrect. Technically speaking, propaganda is the spread of ideas or information to further the cause of an institution or person. That ASPCA brochure you got in the mail this morning? Propaganda. The “Easy Ways to Redecorate Your Bathroom” article in the new Martha Stewart “Living”? Propaganda (but you knew that one). The integration of art and propaganda is not a new combination – Hitler and his ilk were drawing from thousands of years of using images to influence public opinion.

Although kings, queens, pharaohs, and emperors are some of the most obvious users (and abusers) of art as visual propaganda, I chose to dedicate much of my artistic education to considering the artistic propaganda of perhaps the largest and most powerful institution of the last two millennia of Western civilization: the Catholic Church. For Christianity’s first 1500 years or so, what became the “Catholic Church” was simply the Church, the only game in town.

Christianity began as a religion of the poor and dispossessed in backwater Roman provinces; they used artistic representation sparingly. Digging back to your Sunday School days (or, lacking those, “Intro to Religion” college courses), you might remember the Old Testament story (Exodus) in which Aaron created a statue of a golden calf to calm the Israelites while Moses was up on Mount Sinai. The calf was meant to be a stand-in for the Hebrew God, but greatly invoked the bull worship that was common in many cultures at the time. As if invoking paganism wasn’t bad enough, the creation and worship of such a statue was idolatry – the worship of an image – specifically forbidden by Jewish law. Of the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Christianity is the only one that dispensed pretty thoroughly with the anti-graven images rule. This is less of a commentary on specifically Christian theology and more a result of Christianity emerging at the height of the Roman Empire, a time when Roman art was at its classical zenith.

As Christianity evolved from being the religion of slaves and poor minorities to the official religion of the empire, its artistic tradition developed from its early austere, primitive style (a loaded term in the art world, but evocative) to the highly naturalistic, incredibly detailed style one associated both with the Roman classical world.

This inherited artistic tradition was perhaps Christianity’s greatest weapon in the pursuit of believers (actual weapons were sometimes involved, as well). In ages where the vast, VAST majority of Europe’s population was illiterate (Dark Ages even into the Renaissance and beyond), the Church’s use of images helped explain and spread their beliefs to millions of people who otherwise would never have understood. The official language of Christianity was Latin, a language the Church’s own priests often had scanty knowledge of, and certainly no common parishioner understood a single word said in Mass. What they could understand, however, were pictures – scenes of the Nativity, Raising of Lazarus, and the Last Judgment in stained glass, prayer books, and wall frescoes. These works of art explained Christianity better than any priest ever could, and as Christianity evolved and eventually split, what became the Catholic Church clung to images as a continued means of impressing and convincing their parishioners that their way was the correct way.

Some of the best-known artworks in the Western world are blatant Christian propaganda. The Sistine Chapel, Raphael’s frescoes in the Vatican Stanze, Michelangelo’s David – all out to convince their viewers that Catholicism is the way. The fact that these works are propaganda in no way decreases their value as art; in fact, it emphasizes the very power of images and establishes that art is an extremely powerful force that can be utilized for good and evil.

Therefore, America’s inclusion in the Berlin exhibit wasn’t an inherently negative comment on Rooseveltian politics – just a nod to our obvious knowledge of the propagandistic power of images.

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Princess Kate writes a monthly column about the art word.

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