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From stamps to social media, the history of propaganda

Propaganda has acquired a pretty terrible reputation over the years, and it's not hard to see why.

Propaganda has acquired a pretty terrible reputation over the years, and it’s not hard to see why. This summer’s exhibition at the British Library in London, entitled Propaganda: Power and Persuasion, seeks to explore this most maligned of concepts, its roots, differing manifestations and future. The idea being that while the world wars and dictatorial regimes of the 20th century saw its most notorious examples, we are all constantly filtering editorialised messages from friends and enemies alike - and it pays to think about how they influence our lives.

The exhibition, which closes this month, is billed as the first of its kind anywhere, and it is impressively thorough, tracking back through the history of propaganda, before the word’s first recorded usage in the 17th century. Humanity did not need the 20th century’s combination of mass production and communication, political hierarchies and ideologies, chauvinism and power rivalries in order to produce propaganda - because these things have existed in some form for as long as politics itself. The placing of Alexander the Great’s head on 3rd-century BC coins in ancient Greece was a form of propaganda - his reputation was so great that subsequent Greek leaders wished to associate themselves with him, to bolster their own image. Kings, popes and emperors issuing edicts or proclamations, or satirists writing “broadsides” against them, all fall under the category of propaganda, too.

Technology has been the great catalyst to its development. The invention of the printing press saw the German theologian Martin Luther sell 300,000 pamphlets between 1517 and 1520; by writing in vernacular German and having clear, strong ideas about Christianity communicated through, for example, disparaging cartoons of the “donkey-pope of Rome”, he was perhaps the first great propagandist.

To its credit, the British Library has done more than just place pamphlets behind glass - its curation is excitingly inventive. As you enter, a darkened corridor of faceless black mannequins create a sinister gauntlet, affixed with quotes from the likes of Noam Chomsky and Aldous Huxley about the power of political messaging. It’s Huxley’s famous words that ring loudest now, in the contemporary age of mass cynicism and mass information: “Propaganda gives force and direction to the successive movements of popular feeling and desire; but it does not do much to create those movements. The propagandist is a man who canalises an already existing stream. In a land where there is no water, he digs in vain.”

Huxley was writing in 1936, in what we might be considered the golden age of propaganda: when totalitarian regimes in Germany and the Soviet Union sought to control information to help shape the souls of their citizens, reinforce their own ideologies and prejudices, and justify horrendous crimes against their own citizens or those abroad. Say “propaganda” to most people and it conjures images of films like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, or Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky. In spite of their context, many such works have unarguable artistic merit: even Triumph of the Will is regularly praised by film historians for its scope and innovation.

In the British Library exhibition, the famous Maoist poster for the 1950s film The White-Haired Girl is perhaps the most aesthetically striking piece on show. As with all socialist realism, it creates a mythical, idealised vision of what was in reality a repressive, impoverished society, the artist’s work bound by the narrow ideology of the regime - and yet so much is achieved within those boundaries. Even though “they lie”, these kind of works have great artistic value - and historical, sociological value.

In The White-Haired Girl poster, the beautiful star and her beautiful comrade reach out hopefully towards a brighter tomorrow; we learn not just about a regime’s power, and vision - but about the ordinary people who experienced it. In her 1999 book Everyday Stalinism, the historian Sheila Fitzpatrick noted that while the success or failure of a dictatorial regime’s propaganda was important to debate, its effectiveness was less important than simply the fact that it was there. “A Soviet citizen might believe or disbelieve in a radiant future,” she wrote, “but they could not be ignorant [of the fact] that one was promised.”

As with all political imagery, some messages are communicated almost subliminally, and the exhibition singles out a few key works for close analysis. It’s edifying to have a breakdown of all the discrete, individual bits of symbolism in, for example, the Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan portrait, of which more than 900 million copies were made. The same scrutiny is given to four era-defining Norman Rockwell paintings from the Second World War. The undeniable grandeur of these posters, about defending “American values” such as freedom of speech, are situated against the ludic styling of Bert the Turtle, the comic animation that prepared American children for that least comic of possibilities, nuclear war. The point is well made: from the sublime to the ridiculous, all have their place in the propagandist’s arsenal.

The exhibition has been a great success because it rejects any narrow, uncritical definition of the word. “Propaganda is ethically neutral,” says Professor David Welch, who wrote the exhibition’s accompanying book and advised the British Library on curation - it is not intrinsically good or bad, for it is simply the communication of a message; what is important is to spot persuasion, bias and untruth when it occurs, and to think about who might have a monopoly on its dissemination, and thus on power. Historically, it’s almost always been a pejorative word: “our side” produces information, “your side” produces propaganda. Our government tells the truth, yours tells lies.

Propaganda has been compelled to change in recent decades, not least in that governments naming their output as such has become entirely unfashionable since the Second World War; in recent years citizens have instead become sceptical of “spin” and “public relations”, and they are right to be, for it serves the exact same purpose: to shape information in the interests of those holding the megaphone. Propaganda has had to adapt to meet its audience in much the same way as commercial advertising has done: the human brain in the consumer age has evolved to become much more resistant to the simplistic messages of the 1930s. Political communications must now drive at the heart of an individual’s desire and aspiration, as modern advertising does, rather than simply and plainly stating the merits and specifics of a particular politician, policy or party, as they would’ve done in the past. This is in part thanks to the work of Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, the so-called “father of PR”, who is quoted in the exhibition - the dovetailing of sophisticated commercial messaging and political messaging is no coincidence.

Whatever we call it, propaganda is everywhere in our lives - and everywhere in the British Library’s cluttered exhibition space. National flags adorn some of the walls, banners bearing the faces of Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler hang from the ceiling, while at one point a tower of old televisions are piled up, their wires sprawling up and out into the recesses of the room. It’s a small space, but crammed with material, impossible to satisfactorily complete in just an hour without feeling you missed something.

The sheer range of different types of exhibit is impressive: from stamps to national anthems, gently humorous postcards to horrendous racist caricatures, posters carrying government health warnings, the infamous Iraq War playing cards (with Saddam Hussein as the ace of spades), comic books encouraging people to vote, and an item on the remarkable Soviet “agitprop trains” that traversed Russia carrying actors, artists, poets and films, spreading Bolshevik propaganda after the revolution. Even monuments, we are reminded, are propaganda - weapons in “the battle for hearts and minds”, both in the magnificence of their construction, as with the Eiffel Tower, or in the symbolism of their destruction, as with Saddam’s statue, or the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. In an age of mass communication spilling over with competing messages, high-impact visual spectacles like the Olympics carry ever-greater weight. Indeed, the jaw-dropping horror and iconoclasm of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center were a colossal act of propaganda, one that succeeded in transforming global politics to this day.

The exhibition’s final segment, entitled Today, is perhaps its only disappointment, because it shirks from properly exploring the way the digital revolution might change propaganda in the future. The right question is asked: “Does digital technology and social media make us all potential propagandists?” But it is then left there, hanging in the breeze. The scholarly debates around the role of Twitter in Iran’s Green Revolution, for example, are still very fresh, and unsettled - but what is clear from the 2011 revolutions, the Arab Spring, Occupy, and more recent developments in Brazil and Turkey, is there are new, rapidly evolving means for spreading messages, instantaneously networked and decentralised, available to anyone with a smartphone. WikiLeaks and hacker collectives like Anonymous have already proved the internet capable of humbling the world’s mightiest militaries, governments and corporations; but this new terrain is uncharted, and the authorities’ retrenchment over digital space - and thus communication within it - is only just beginning. As has always been the case with propaganda, its future comes down to one question: who is holding the megaphone?

Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review.

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