The rise of the propaganda production in World War I coincided with art history’s consolidation as a discipline. Immediately, the modern category “propaganda” was taken up to describe the relations between art, politics (sacred and secular), and power. After World War II, and in the Cold War, the use of the word “propaganda” shifted and many North American and European art historians resisted the categorization of “art” (associated with freedom) and propaganda (associated with fascist instrumentalization), although historians were less troubled by its use for “images.” The end of the Cold War loosened the prohibition on the term, though many art historians still prefer cognate terms, “persuasion” or “rhetorical,” when pointing to the key element of audience and effectiveness; similarly, many speak of “power,” “politics,” or “ideology” when pointing to institutions and their messages. Because there are alternatives for “propaganda,” the emphasis here is on the literature that have engaged the term itself and the problems it poses to art history, including its ongoing toxicity. Because propaganda arts are so closely associated with the modern regimes that perfected their use (communist Russia, fascist Italy, Nazi Germany), one of the major questions in the art historical literature is the appropriateness of the concept before the 20th century and for nonautocratic regimes. While some periods have attracted the term more than others, since Foucault and post–Cold War, there has been at once an understanding of all institutions, sacred and secular, as imbricated in power relations and on the other, a relaxation of rigid definitions of propaganda as “deceptive” or “manipulative.” These factors have opened scholars in art history considerably to a use of the term, although a reductive understanding of propaganda as inherently deceptive still persists. Three main criteria were used in compiling this article: periods of political upheaval or change in government that have attracted the term in particularly dense ways and generated dialogue over these issues; works that explicitly frame the study of objects as propaganda or substitute terms, rhetoric, persuasion, and ideology; and works by historians of images that explicitly engage with the category of propaganda (excluding, with a few exceptions, popular forms like posters as well as film, television, and digital media). Whenever possible, propaganda’s specificity is insisted on here in relation to art, for art poses special problems to the use of the word propaganda, and its invocation in art history often makes an explicit point.
Propaganda in Theory
There has been a spotty adoption of propaganda theory in art history. Jacques Ellul, a sociologist not particularly concerned with the visual arts, is nonetheless the key figure for having encouraged a neutral understanding of propaganda as a ubiquitous and necessary function under all political systems (see Ellul 1969). More influential for art history is the analysis in Debord 1994 of the late capitalist society of the spectacle, which draws upon Ellul’s views of the ubiquity and necessity of propaganda. Propaganda has been analyzed in key works of cultural theory that have been widely influential in art history (while not necessarily encouraging the study of propaganda and art). Fascist propaganda haunts Benjamin 2008, an essay on the aestheticization of politics in fascism and communism’s response with the politicization of art, though the term never breaks out explicitly. By contrast, Adorno and Horkheimer 2002, picking up on Benjamin’s essay, understands the culture industry as an extension of prewar propaganda techniques. The aestheticization of politics that was also key to Benjamin 2008 resurfaced in an influential essay, Sontag 1983, that recast propaganda works as “fascinating.” Debord 1994, drawing especially on Ellul 1969, sees late capitalist spectacle as a propaganda operation in which social relations are mediated through images. Groys 2008, by contrast, disentangles propaganda from the capitalist image-machine. Because our use of the word propaganda is primarily a modern one, a product of the mass production of propaganda during World War I, any use of the term for periods prior to the 20th century rethinks earlier epochs according to the modern category. Since the resuscitation of Benjamin 2008 around the rereading of it in “Fascinating Fascism” (Sontag 1983), the “aestheticization of politics” has often been substituted for or used alongside the problematic term “propaganda.” While the two are not exactly equivalent, much of the discussion of art and propaganda is absorbed into this category.
Adorno, Theodor W., and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” In Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Edited by Gunzelin Schmid Noerr and translated by Edmund Jephcott, 94–136. Stanford, CA: University of Stanford Press, 2002.
Essay 1944 by Frankfurt School theorists highly influential in a wide variety of disciplines, including art history. Boundaries are fluid between propaganda and the capitalist “culture industry,” both using the same persuasive techniques to mask the real conditions under capitalism.
Benjamin, Walter. “Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility: Second Version.” In Walter Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and other Writings on Media. Edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin, and translated by Edmund Jephcott, Rodney Livingstone, Howard Eiland, et al., 19–55. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
One of the most influential essays in art history written by a Frankfurt School theorist (1935, in German). While Benjamin did not dwell on propaganda, his warning about the National Socialist aestheticization of politics (analogous to the capitalist technique) and the communist response to politicized art contained an unspoken reference to propaganda production.
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Translated by Donald Nicholson Smith. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1994.
Originally published in French 1967. Important for seeing propaganda as synonymous with spectacle, the accumulated images by means of which late capitalism, in its total control of the mass media, is sold. Images obtain their power in their mediation of social relations.
Ellul, Jacques. Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. Translated by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.
Most important postwar analysis (published 1962, French) by a sociologist. Propaganda viewed as necessary technique of modern society, produced by all governments, whose goal is effectiveness. Corrected definitions of propaganda as deceptive as it is most effective when truthful. With analysis of other theories of propaganda and his own terminology.
Groys, Boris. Art Power. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2008.
Highly regarded repositioning and revaluation of the 20th-century propaganda image (and art) against and operating outside of the dialectic structure of the art market. These philosophical essays in two parts, one part on propaganda images of the 20th century.
Sontag, Susan. “Fascinating Fascism.” In A Susan Sontag Reader. By Susan Sontag, 305–325. New York: Vintage, 1983.
Essay (1974) by influential cultural critic, reversing Sontag’s earlier position on the inimicability of art and propaganda. Argues Nazi filmmaker Riefenstahl’s rehabilitation repositioned her as interested in beauty, not propaganda. Highly influential in redirecting understanding of Nazism as theater, not an instrumentalization of art, but a fascist appropriation of aesthetics.
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