Wars in Words: The Art of Propaganda

Wars in Words: The Art of Propaganda

Education teaches one how to think, while propaganda teaches one what to think. Information offers opportunities, while propaganda tells how we should use these opportunities. Propaganda narrows people's views, while education broadens them. Education opens minds, while propaganda closes them; education will ultimately lead people to question the values upon which society is based, while propaganda aims to make people accept those values and act upon that acceptance. As consumers of information it is imperative that we learn to recognize and analyze the true purposes of propaganda. It is also imperative to understand that one person's truth may be another person's distortion of the truth.

Propaganda, an emotionally loaded blend of rhetoric and art, has existed for centuries. The aim of propaganda is to persuade and to manipulate, and patterns of propaganda are similar throughout the ages. Often infused with nationalistic or localized sentiment, political propaganda can be full of lies and "alternative facts" that parades themselves as truth. This exhibit features three series of propaganda, each with a distinct political goal. First, we will examine 1830s French propaganda depicting scenes from Napoleon Bonaparte's life, which attempted to rally the populace against the Bourbon Restoration. Next, we see images from a Union of Soviet Socialist Republic's Five Year Plan depicting the importance of agriculture and a strong work ethic. Last, we consider American representations of propaganda with anti-Vietnam War themes.

Epinal Prints

After Napoleon Bonaparte's fall at Waterloo in 1815, the Treaty of Paris written by countries that defeated France, restored the Bourbon monarchy. For the next 55 years, encompassing two revolutions against the monarchy in 1830 and 1848, a stillborn republic and a new empire, France lurched toward 1870 and the establishment of a durable republican government based on the principles of the 1789 French Revolution. During the 1830s and 1840s, romanticized representations of Napoleon focused patriotic fervor and political opposition to the foreign-imposed monarchy and supported the agenda of the Bonapartists, who advocated the restoration of the Empire under Napoleon's heir. The hand-colored woodcut prints, named for the small city of Epinal in northeastern France with a long history of publishing popular literature and images, were mass-produced, sold for pennies and distributed by book shops and peddlers throughout France.

The Red Fire of Satire

Satire posters were an important tool of the Soviet government. Typically, they ridiculed corruption, waste, inefficiency, and abuse while they attempted to shame individuals into improvement. Agriculture, considered the most wasteful branch of the Soviet economy, is the subject of many of the posters in this portfolio. The government-enforced collectivization of agriculture launched in 1929 provided few incentives for the Soviet peasantry, and this undertaking eventually impoverished the countryside. By 1970 the Soviet Union had to import grain from the United States and Canada to feed the population.

The collection includes posters targeting lazy peasants, encouraging them to work harder for the state. Another theme of these works is that of the arrogant bureaucrat who, after being promoted to a higher position, begins to condescend in the direction of his comrades. For Russian propaganda the images were just as important as the words on the poster, as much of the Russian peasantry was illiterate.

These Soviet propaganda prints are an example of the political manipulations of the socialist machine. Part of the visual success of this series is the bright coloring and the lucid portrayal of the subject matter. The ideas illustrated in the posters—everyone participating in labor, the elimination of those who profit from others' hard work—were hallmarks of the Soviet philosophy and led to people turning against neighbors and friends. Although the appearance of the posters is light with satire, the message was regularly enforced with such punitive measures as prison and reeducation.


Artists and Writers Protest Against the War in Vietnam

Artists & Writers Protest, Inc. was outgrowth of the Greenwich Village Peace Center and the War Resisters' League. Started by a group of poets who recruited visual and performing artists, Artists & Writers Protest made a rousing debut on Sunday, January 29, 1967 with a full-page ad in the New York Times urging citizens to "End Your Silence." It was signed by 600 national cultural leaders who each donated $10 to buy the ad.

As New Yorkers woke up to their morning coffee that day, Artists & Writers Protest kicked off Angry Art Week, with multitudes of actors, dancers, musicians performing anti-war themed work on flat-bed trucks that circulated throughout the city. Angry Art Week concluded with stationary and ambulatory performance and exhibits, including a vast controversial show, "College of Indignation" at NYU. May Stephens, an artist member of Artists & Writers Protest wrote, "Everybody we knew wanted to be in on it. It became very exciting." (See her protest piece, "Big Daddy Paper Doll" in the adjacent show, Who Run the World.)

The portfolio Artists and Writers Against the War in Vietnam, organized by artist Jack Sonenberg later in 1967, was a fundraiser for Artists & Writers Protest, Inc. The poets and artists contributed their work, and publishers and printers contributed time and materials. While many of the artists in the Artist & Writers Protest portfolio produced work in their signature styles, some ventured away from their known medium. It debuted in an exhibition at Associated American Artists Gallery in New York.

Many of the artists who participated in this enterprise served in World War II and had seen and knew the horrors of war. In an instance of propaganda being used for the benefit of individuals rather than to promote war or to secure an economic plan, their art and their words reflect a desire for peace.