Recently, Tehran became a gallery for Western art. City billboards, which are usually reserved for glorifying past wars, promoting the Mullahs’ version of Islam or denouncing the American devil, have been given over to giant prints of Magritte, Hockney, Picasso, Matisse and Monet. Lest we think sanity has suddenly struck and that the Iranian regime has suddenly found wisdom, we are compelled to see this only as another form of art-as-government-propaganda. In this case, a thawing of relations with the US and an attempt to open up to the world to assuage the disastrous Ahmadinejad era have prompted the flurry of nice pictures, so as to help everyone forget the country’s general trouble-making in the Middle East.
In fact, it’s all part of a very long history of using art as a government device. The “father of modern PR”, Ed Bernays, extolled the virtues of art as a political tool. In the days when public credulity was perhaps more easily won, he suggested: “Propaganda can play a part in pointing out what is and what is not beautiful, and business can definitely help in this way to raise the level of American culture.”
Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, also without flinching, noted shortly afterwards that propaganda was an art in itself, arguing: “It holds first rank among the arts with which one leads a nation.” The Nazis, he said, simply “turned it to serve the state itself to find meaningful ways and flexible forms to immunise people’s thinking”.
Bernays and Goebbels knew their history, and they knew the power of culture to inculcate populations. They were well aware that art-as-government-propaganda is as old as history, enfolding governments of various stripe as well as their hangers-on and the supporters of the status quo.
Do as the Romans
All those togaed statues and crumbling ruins might look old and quaint today. But in their time, at the peak of the Roman Empire in the early centuries of the post-Christ calendar, these works were specifically intended to speak of power and of the justification of empire.
The columns of Roman buildings were intended to not only intimidate Roman subjects, but to subvert any claims among the empire’s myriad cultures that they could ever compete with the purity and size of Rome. The heavy forms, the straight lines, the towering reach and overwhelming size all spoke of political force and bolstered the Roman elite’s image and cultural force.
The intent was to delineate Roman culture from all others — and specifically the Roman political and business hegemony — by sheer size and artistic grunt, something the pharaohs and the Qin rulers (the builders of the Great Wall) sought to do in earlier times.
In well-read Rome, literature was also roped in to serve the prevailing paradigm. Writers such as Virgil and emperor-authors including Julius Caesar dabbled in serving the hand that fed them by denigrating enemies in war, ridiculing non-Roman cultures and generally casting all non-Romans as backward and barbaric in all things creative.
Roman propaganda was skilfully twisted against itself by early Roman Christians. They made claims of religious persecution and prejudice to both firm up their own communities but also to undermine the professed righteousness of Roman rulers. It worked pretty well and Rome, formerly pagan, caved in and adopted Christianity as a state religion by the fourthcentury. A bald old gentleman wearing a dress continues that history today.
Their revolution — his art
The French Revolution was conducted at a time when mass media was becoming a social force. The uprising was awash with a multitude of chap-books and pamphlets all arguing for and against the impending downfall of the monarchy. Imagery, too, was a potent force for the many revolutionaries in the streets who were not literate. The iconic image of Liberty — often a woman as depicted much later by Eugene Delacroix — is a central visual of the French Revolution, serving to unite the citizenry seeking to invent modern democracy.
Post-revolution, Emperor Napoleon used art and artists to promulgate his vision of the new republic. Art became the centre-point to legitimate his rule. Learning from the Romans, Napoleon took the resurgence of neoclassical art — drawing on the Roman past that he aspired to (hence Romanticism) — to promote and underpin his less-than-democratic authority, even as it seemingly undermined the very essence of the revolution.
Artists including Jacques-Louis David were the government’s artists of choice, and David, for one, happily proselytised through his paintings on behalf of the government and its leader, whom he made into an icon with such works as Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass.
David’s student Antoine Jean Gros actually took to following Napoleon on his campaigns, an early example of embedding, and painted his grand patron so as to make his rule seem even pre-ordained and God-like, as in his General Bonaparte on the bridge at Arcole, November 17, 1796.
CIA as we do
Wars of course, and campaigns against the Other, as we have seen above, are fertile ground for government propaganda. The two world wars were awash with artistic imagery and textual output, which sought to provide cultural stanchions on which to support war, war and more war.
But the heat of armed conflict was not needed for art to be enlisted in the ideological fantasies of political elites. The wintery depths of the Cold War between the US and the Soviets generated one of the more bizarre examples of art-as-government-propaganda.
It was revealed in the mid-1990s that the CIA supported the explosion of abstract art in America as a weapon against the Soviet’s own cultural propaganda. According to reports, the US government sought to throw its weight surreptitiously behind the output of such enfants terribles as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning so as to show up the clunky, unimaginative dross squeezed from the cultural grip of Stalinist Russia.
The slick, exciting and brash abstract movement was used to highlight the liberalism and freedom of the West and to emphasise the stultifying cultural cement that was dropping on hapless Russians and called art.
This support was manifested in funding exhibitions and tours during the 1950s. These included major tours such as “New American Painting”, which hit every major European city in 1958-59 and “Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century” in 1952.
The funding had to be kept at a significant remove, not only to cover the link from the Soviets but also from the artists themselves, who were generally broadly of the left, if not outright pro-Soviet.
The former CIA officer who blew the story, Donald Jameson, told The Independent newspaper: “It was recognised that Abstract Expressionism was the kind of art that made Socialist Realism look even more stylised and more rigid and confined than it was. And that relationship was exploited in some of the exhibitions.”
These days in Australia, art-as-government-propaganda is best captured in the Murdoch press. Or George Brandis’ National Programme for Excellence in the Arts.
*This article was originally published at Daily Review.