Propaganda is usually thought of as a one-sided statement. We all have famous wartime posters engrained in our brain, persuading us to join the service (think Uncle Sam), or inspiring us to be strong in tough times (“We can do it!”). What we’re beginning to see now though, are many cases of propaganda turned on itself, disarming the power of the original message and turning it on itself by way of appropriation. Let’s look at some famous cases of propaganda throughout history, and see how it began to evolve into its own greatest enemy.
The French painter Jacques Louis David is best remembered for his controversial painting “The Death of Marat”. The painting (now considered blatant propaganda) is a depiction of the murder of the radical and violent, pro-French Revolution writer Jean-Paul Marat. Marat, editor-in-chief of L’Ami du Peuple (a radical French Revolution publication) was a hot-tempered orator, with wishes to quickly send opponents of the Revolution to the guillotine. David however, depicts this blood-thirsty man as an angelic, political martyr, pleading sympathy from the viewer for the loss of what appears to be a noble, heroic man. Today, the painting is the most recognizable image from the Reign of Terror, and serves as “a moving testimony to what can be achieved when an artist’s political convictions are directly manifested in his work”. David used his painting skills to promote a bloody revolution, and in the process created one of the most recognizable propaganda images in art history.
German artist John Heartfield is famously known for using photography as a weapon. He is credited for creating the first political photomontages, which he used to combat and expose German Nazism in the 1930’s and 40’s. He primarily created imagery for two publications: the daily Die Rote Fahne, and the weekly AIZ (which was widely distributed at newsstands). These two outlets, along with the distribution of his works on posters in the streets of Berlin at the time, gave Heartfield a magnificently loud voice with which to attack the Nazis. Many of Heartfield’s works appropriated Nazi symbolism and twisted it in creative and brutal ways in order to denounce their propaganda message. This can be seen as the birth of propaganda vs. propaganda, a disarming template we see used day in and day out in the world today.
Today, we are bombarded daily with strong opinions in the form of posters, picket signs, and stickers. Do you remember how powerful Shepard Fairey’s iconic Obama “Hope” poster was when it first made the rounds? Days later, there were “Nope” posters popping up everywhere, combatting the intent of the original. The proliferation of digital imaging tools now gives anyone the power of appropriation and persuasion.
You no longer need to have the skill set of Jacques Louis David or John Heartfield in order to make a bold statement; all you need these days is an opinion, a computer, and a local copy shop.