The 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary states that the word propaganda derives from Congregatio de propaganda fide: “Congregation for propagating the faith, organization established by Pope Gregory XV” in 1622. The organization, founded to promote missionary work, was housed in a complex designed by, among others, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the artist who would give the world the sculpture The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, a saint overwhelmed by a rapturous vision.
In November of 1937 the Institute for Propaganda Analysis published “the seven common propaganda devices” in its Propaganda Analysis. To wit:
- The Name Calling Device
- The Glittering Generalities Device
- The Transfer Device
- The Testimonial Device
- The Plain Folks Device
- The Card Stacking Device
- The Band Wagon Device
Asking “Why are we fooled by these devices?” the authors conclude “ . . . propaganda as generally understood is expression of opinion or action by individuals or groups with reference to predetermined ends.”
Page back to 1925 when in Mein Kampf Adolf Hitler assessed the use of propaganda: “The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.”
A panel discussion considering propaganda was held on July 27, 2016, in conjunction with the art exhibit Of the people at Smack Mellon in Brooklyn, New York. The moderator, Hrag Vartanian, Hyperallergic editor in chief, gave an eccentric Campbell’s soup condensed overview of propaganda’s history. Starting with the Philistines, noting that in the 16th century Martin Luther enlisted the German artist Lucas Cranach to promote his image and that the Catholic church countered with anitProtestant propaganda, Vartanian described how propaganda morphed from words to images, emerging with both Third Reich posters and Uncle Sam. Also how the CIA subsidized European tours of abstract expressionist artists, promoting the art as American individualism—a salvo to counter Soviet realism.
Daniel Bejar “Rec-elections (Let’s Make America Great Again, RNC, #1)” site-specific performance (Tampa, FL)
Panel participant Daniel Bejar had a unique and illuminating way of parsing some propaganda. An interdisciplinary artist, he draws from his archive of political campaign posters and buttons. Stripping them of their specific images, he reveals the slogans in their frames. It’s striking how taglines repeat from one campaign to another. Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” is Ronald Reagan’s “Let’s Make America Great Again” minus the Let’s.
Dyke Action Machine! (DAM!)
Can propaganda do good? Sue Schaffner, also a member of the propaganda discussion panel, most emphatically said yes! Schaffner is a cofounder of DYKE ACTION MACHINE! (DAM!), begun in 1991. And DAM! has successfully used Schaffner’s photography to co-opt such images as the ubiquitous GAP celebrity billboards with the aim of promoting representation of lesbians in American popular culture. Answering the question can you be ironic and radical at the same time? Schaffner says “We got you to look at it.”
The Agitprop! exhibit this summer at the Brooklyn Museum took as its mission linking social movements with artistic statements created in a variety of media. Works by contemporary artists shared the galleries with images from the turn of the 20th century documenting the women’s suffrage movement and campaigns against lynching.
Safdar Hashmi, SAHMAT Collective
Some were practical. To protest the deadly beating of socialist street theater activist Safdar Hashmi in 1989, SAHMAT, which means in agreement in Hindi, urged drivers to decorate their rickshaws with statements promoting communal harmony. After receiving an award for best design the rickshaw on view may have been one of many that continued to ride the streets of Delhi when the competition was over. And if you want to save a tree by living in it there was a tasteful swing that even had a cup holder.
No question the technology of modern media can make propaganda more insidious. Daniel Bejar acted transparently when in his Rec-elections project a large poster “Romney Great for ’68” with a photo of Romney père was raised at a protest march during the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida (father and son look remarkably alike). But 100 years from now will people be able to differentiate propaganda from art? DAM!’s media-savvy Sue Schaffner said even she sometimes can’t tell whether an image is real or from The Onion. So all we can do for now is be very wary.
P.S. This has been a discussion of propaganda. But in light of the upcoming presidential election what of political speech? New York City election rules forbid electioneering within 100 yards of a polling place. This would seem to dictate that so as not to promote spur-of-the-moment conversions an advocate may not harangue or offer literature supporting a candidate to voters approaching a poll within that limit. Fair enough. But a recent poll workers’ training class advised the would-be poll workers that if citizens turn up at the poll wearing anything like a button, t-shirt, or hat declaring a political preference this constitutes electioneering and those citizens must be turned away until they reappear without any item visibly declaring their affiliation. Don’t worry—those who do cross the threshold are entitled to wear a sticker that reads “I voted” after their ballot is cast.
blogpost by Barbara A. Mateer