spiked plus, 30 May 2013
For an exhibition centred on a word that inspires nothing but concern, dread and vitriol when it’s bandied around in Western discourse today, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion – housed at the British Library – begins with a rather twee and innocuous exhibit.
As you walk down the steps into the labyrinthine space, you’re greeted with a 1930s US government film in which a slick and suited officer jovially schools a young novice in how to glean truth from illusion in tracts and political documents. The two crack smiles, some chirpy music plays over the titles, and you’re left a little bemused.
While the word propagandist was once a badge of honour, held proudly by some of the great dissidents and troublemakers of history, it has taken on a far darker colour in the years since this film was made. Walking around this formidable collection, it’s easy to see why.
The despicable Nazi-made ‘documentary’ The Eternal Jew, playing on a loop in the section that explores various regimes’ pernicious cultivation of national enemies, is a haunting reminder of the hatred spun by Goebbels’ ministry in the name of bolstering the state and the Führer’s authority. Further along, the blustery posters from the Allied side urging the young and able to fight for their country, in the section dedicated to war, seem tainted by the bloody fate many recurits met – far divorced from the unequivocal glory these images seemed to promise.
Around the world today, authoritarian regimes continue to deploy age-old tactics to try to keep their populations under their vicious yoke. Meanwhile, on the home front, many feel that insidious propaganda lives on with political and media puppets dancing to the tune of big business, skewing public debate and guiding policy in the nefarious interests of their masters.
Paradoxically, this obsession with big-business propaganda has narrowed public discourse. Any statement with supposedly dubious intent is dismissed from the debate as propaganda, and in turn more commonly accepted ideas are insulated from criticism. The sheer variety of the pieces on display here is refreshing, asking us to get beyond these narrow definitions and take nothing at face value.
The section dedicated to health makes some interesting parallels between the melodramatic turn-of-the-twentieth-century posters from a French Christian group extolling the horrors of alcohol, through to the recent ‘Change 4 Life’ campaign warning modern Brits not to let the drink sneak up on them through the medium most befitting such a patronising message – claymation. Yet more proof, if you ask me, that today’s health bodies are all latter-day zealots.
Other pieces provide a fascinating insight into how more oppressive states have cultivated an entire mythos underpinned by potent propagandist imagery. A poster, hailing back to the days of Mao’s China, advertises a made-for-movie ballet called The White Haired Girl. Based on an old legend, the caption denotes, it told the story of peasant girl who fights back against a despotic landlord. It’s a stunning image that at once marries Mao’s regime with a grand, mythic history – as well as the supposed spirit of the hardy proletariat. All the while, the immaculately painted figures – all smiling, looking to the horizon and bathed in a preternatural glow – speak to how heinously divorced this conception is from the penury Mao’s subjects were forced to endure.
From a listening booth of national anthems to a collage of newspaper responses to the lefty wet-dream that was the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, we’re shown that propaganda comes in myriad forms. The scale and scope of the exhibition is commendable, but it sometimes comes at the cost of focus. A display case full of miniature Eiffel Towers, aside examples of political monuments, is tangential filler, while a monstrous floor-to-ceiling visualisation of Twitter responses to Obama’s re-election makes for a cumbersome and ill-fitting closer.
Nevertheless, Propaganda makes for a fascinating few hours that insists upon the patron to question everything. That’s a maxim certainly worth propagating.