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  • Writer's pictureMadeleina Kay

Propaganda Prints - Colin Moore

Reflections on Propaganda Prints – A History of art in the service of social and political change by Colin Moore published by A & C Black Publishers Limited



This book is a fascinating insight into the history of propaganda, focussing on its use in wars and political or religious campaigns, whilst exploring developments in relation to advances in technology. Moore begins, ‘throughout history people have used art to influence the beliefs and behaviour of others… Art has been used to educate us, to mould our opinions, to confirm us in our nationhood and to persuade us of the existence of many gods’ (page 7). I have, of course, had a lot of exposure through my work as an activist to the use of propaganda in visual campaigns – I had not, however, considered the role of propaganda in religious contexts. The book is titled ‘Propaganda Prints’ but also considers the use of a diversity of media, including radio and cinema, in addition to the development of visual media. Moore defines propaganda art as ‘art in service of social and political change’ (page 7), and since so much of my creative work could be considered to be propaganda,

 I thought it was important to gain a greater understanding of the historical use of propaganda, so that I can fully consider the implications of this in my future work.


Moore compares an old dictionary definition of ‘propaganda’ with the current definition in order to explain how the perception of propaganda has changed. ‘Now [propaganda] is a word with a poor image. The people who produce it are untrustworthy and unaccountable’ (page 8). This is a very important statement for me to consider, as in the creation of my creative work, I have always wanted to be perceived as an honest, truth teller not ‘untrustworthy and unaccountable’, but because of the historical use of propaganda, I need to bear in mind the reality that many audiences will be immediately suspicious of anyone who creates such content.


When considering the term propaganda, many people would conjure a single image, however Moore writes that ‘propaganda is a reciprocal activity, a continuous dialogue between the giver and receiver’ (page 8). I can relate to this statement, since my campaigning has been largely delivered through social media and much of my impact has been achieved through building up a following with whom I regularly communicate. Good community management is the hallmark of any impactful social media campaign, because the majority of the time a real human being is behind the accounts sharing and commenting on your posts, therefore, they appreciate it when you reply to them personally and engage in a dialogue. It is because of this continuous communication that repetition is a tool regularly employed by propagandists – the most impactful propaganda is a persistent campaign and not a single image. Moore writes, ‘good propaganda art, like any good art, is more than the sum of its parts’ (page 11), they key point being the necessity of multiple parts orchestrated together, in order to achieve a greater ambition.


Harvard Business Review write in an article about Howard Gardner’s book Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds, ‘Gardner advocates what he calls representational re-descriptions —delivering your proposal in a variety of formats. Such formats may include engaging stories, startling numerical information, graphic depictions such as charts or cartoons, humor, demonstrations and simulations, vivid descriptions of enticing or disturbing scenarios, and, most important, embodying the message in your own behavior.’ This principle of saying the same thing over and over again in as many different ways as possible is something I have adopted in my own campaigning and one of the reasons, I adopted so many different media formats in my work; artwork, illustration, cartoons, graphic design, books, blogs, protest songs, music videos and documentaries.


Another key device deployed by propagandists is ‘The stereotype, a perceived and oversimplified idea of something… The stereotype is so convenient, so much easier to use than an objective opinion based on the facts… Once established, the stereotype can be supported by symbols which stand for it. With great graphic economy symbols can transcend language to summarise a whole set of values or evoke quite abstract concepts.’ Again, this is a tactic I have used in my own campaigning, attending protest marches in a costume which could be easily identifiable – my EU Supergirl costume was by far and away the most impactful image I created, because of the symbolism of the “superhero” iconography. People instantly knew what I stood for and what I was trying to achieve, without me having to say a single word – for this reason the “EU Supergirl” nickname has stuck to me like super glue. Moore also writes that, ‘Flags and standards have been used for this purpose from time immemorial, and to this day are a common feature of propaganda material’ (page 10). I have used the Union Jack and the European Union flag in much of my propaganda art, and for this reason, I am interested in exploring flags and their symbolism through my MA research project. However, this time I want to incorporate flags in my creative work with less of a propagandist agenda – I want to explore how flags can represent different values and meanings to different people or to the same person at different times.

Chapter 1 – Ancient World


Moore starts the book at the very beginning with Alexander the Great, who ‘accepted the title of ‘Son of Zeus’, and if this can be interpreted as the typical megalomaniac delusion of someone in his position, it does seem unlikely that he would not have appreciated its propagandist advantages… Throughout the empire, his presence was evoked on statues, buildings, paintings and pottery, while the coins struck in his name, and showing the head of a god, found their way to the ends of the earth’ (page 18). Moore explains how ‘the history of propaganda is bound up with the history of printing, and in a way these coins are the first propaganda prints of our story – prints on metal instead of paper – an important reproducible propaganda medium which carried the message of imperial prestige throughout the world’ (page 21). Again, this emphasises the importance of repetition in good propaganda campaigns – it is the ability to produce multiples which generates the greatest impact. It also emphasises the importance of visual propaganda in times where the majority of people could not read – imagery and symbolism was deployed to deliver messages and influence opinion.


Chapter 2 – the Middle Ages


As well as coins, another medium that could be used to communicate propaganda before the printing press was invented was embroidery. Moore writes about the Bayeux Tapestry, which he describes as ‘a beautiful and fascinating document which has probably influenced the English attitude to the Norman Conquest more than any other source… the tapestry clearly aims to justify the Norman invasion and establish the legitimacy of William’s claim to the English throne, subtly portraying William as the hero and Harold as the noble but flawed pretender… the tapestry does not deal harshly with the Saxons but respectfully records their skill and bravery and preserves their dignity even in defeat’ (page 28-29). I found it fascinating that even in the 11th-century, propaganda was created with a subtle understanding of the human psyche and how to win over public support.


Chapter 3 – The Early Modern Period


Moore explains how ‘the arrival of the printing press fundamentally altered the way information circulated in early modern Europe, notable expanding the role of public opinion in politics, and forcing governments to address the issues surrounding both state and oppositional propaganda’ (page 49). I love this argument that “knowledge is power” and the development of technology and education, helped to democratise society as more people had access to information and the ability to challenge authority. ‘‘in the field of communications, advances in print technology and the introduction of the telegraph later in the century would contribute to the emergence of an informed public which, with the means at its disposal of making its views known, would challenge authority and change the conduct of politics’ (page 70). This principle of the power of democratic empowerment is summarised by a quote from Paul Rennie wrote about the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in his article ‘Social Vision’ for Eye magazine: ‘Their messages recognise the radical potential of ordinary people to effect social change’ (page 154).


Another important element of impactful propaganda is its accessibility – the more people who can understand a message, the more impact the message will have. Moore focuses on the American civil war, writing ‘[Thomas] Paine had a gift for dealing with difficult subjects in straightforward language which ordinary people could understand’ (page 56). This echoes the writing of George Orwell, who advises against the use of jargon, scientific or foreign words when there is a plain, English alternative available.


Chapter 4 – The Machine Age


Moore then details the impact of developments in communication technologies, ‘[Senefelder’s] printing method, which he called ‘chemical printing’ and we call lithography, was good enough to win him a gold medal from the Bavarian Crown… Workshops began to appear all over Europe to exploit the new technique not only for artists but for commercial purposes, producing prints as public announcements, a development which was to have important consequences for the history of propaganda’ (page 83). These developments in printing gave more creative freedom to artists in the production of propaganda, which is reflected in the artwork prints in the book.


As my creative research is focused on how creativity can inspire civic engagement and over come barriers to participation in democracy, I was particularly interested in the ‘propaganda prints from the women’s suffrage movement. ‘The women’s suffrage movement in Britain was formalised in 1903 when Emmeline Pankhurst established the Women’s Social and Political Union… This poster was produced by the Suffrage Atelier, a society formed in 1909 to ‘encourage artists to forward the Women’s Movement, and particularly the enfranchisement of women, by means of pictorial publications’ (page 100). I especially loved the humour in this artwork, emphasising the hypocrisy of women’s disenfranchisement.

Chapter 5 -The Early 20th Century


Moore then examines the use of propaganda in the Russian Revolution, ‘Mayakovsky made the case for Soviet advertising. ‘We know the marvellous power of agitation… We cannot leave this weapon, this agitation on behalf of trade, in the hands of the NEP men, in the hands of the bourgeois foreigners trading here… Everything in the USSR must work for the benefit of the proletariat’ (page 126). In order to gain and strengthen support for the political ideology, ‘State advertising was an opportunity to present political ideas in the form of easily understood propaganda, and to invite the consumer to support the collective by buying state-owned enterprises’ (page 127).

Particularly liking the ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ artwork by EL. Lissitsky, I was interested to read how ‘Towards the end of the 1920s the role of the radical arts in Soviet culture came under scrutiny… It was also suggested that non-representational art, which the proletariat could not understand, was inappropriate as an instrument of state propaganda’ (page 127). As an artist, I have a developed ability to read abstract images, such as Lissitsky’s, however the average member of the public do not necessarily have these skills and in the same way Orwell encourages writers to use plain English words, it makes sense that in visual propaganda it is wiser to use more accessible imagery.


This principle is elaborated on and included in a list of “five principles” for effective propaganda presented in Hitler’s book Mein Kampf;


1)     Avoid abstract ideas and appeal instead to the emotions.

2)    Employ constant repetition  of just a few ideas, using stereotyped phrases and avoiding objectivity.

3)    Put forth only one side of the argument.

4)    Constantly criticise enemies of the state.

5)    Identify one enemy for special vilification.

(Jowett and O’Donnell, p.230)


The appeal to the emotions is something I have observed in contemporary British politics with the repeated use of empty slogans (‘Take Back Control’, ‘Get Brexit Done’, etc.), which appeal to the public’s emotions.  


Focussing on the infamous propaganda tactics of Nazi Germany, Moore writes about their investment in technological advances to further their campaigns, ‘the written word was not adequate to transmit the unique emotional appeal of Hitler’s extraordinary ranting speeches… So committed were the Nazis to the use of radio that they developed a cheap, single-wavelength receiver for mass distribution’ (page 147). Similarly, Moore explains how the development of moving image technology impacted the soviet war: ‘as in the West it was the cinema which proved most effective in uniting the widely dispersed population behind the war effort’ (page 157). The history of technological advances in communications technology and their influence on propaganda was the biggest insight I gained from reading this book.


Chapter 6 – The Modern World


Moore also considers the role of journalists and the media, empowered by technological developments, in propaganda creation and dissemination. Writing about the Vietnam War, ‘On 16th March 1968, US Army Forces massacred up to 504 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians, mostly women and children in the village of My Lai. This photograph, taken by army photographer Ronald Haeberie, who was court-martialled for turning it over to the press, brought events at My Lai to the attention of the world, and is generally considered to have played an important role in turning American public opinion against the war’ (page 181).

The impact of the development of photography on propaganda and on journalism, more widely, cannot be under stated. Previously, propaganda artworks have been created by artists with a clear bias of information, whereas a photograph is generally considered to be objectively telling the truth. The way that photographs can manipulate public opinion, can be far subtler and insidious. One way in which this can be done is the placement of certain photographs against a headline, can indicate a connection which in reality, may be false. For example, during the pandemic, a headline about the spread of Covid was illustrated by a photograph of a woman in a hijab wearing a mask – subtly insinuating that the Muslim community was responsible for spreading the infection.


Moore writes about how in the modern world, ‘much of contemporary political graphics in particular is designed with the internet in mind… This in itself is a big change. Up until the Second World War only four or five companies in the whole of Britain were capable of producing full-colour lithographs in large numbers’ (page 189). This democratisation of free speech and propaganda creation and dissemination has provided a mechanism for political empowerment. ‘Now, instead of a mass audience consuming media from a single source, we have multiple sources, multiple channels and multiple audiences. Every participant is potentially a sender as well as a receiver of information, and the barrier to entry is no longer the fortune required to set up a TV station or a newspaper, but the price of a PC and internet connection… even the business of news gathering has itself become a universal activity as anyone with a mobile phone can take a picture or a video and have it on ‘You Tube’ while the event is still going on’ (page 191). Reading this book has made me appreciate the opportunity which technological advances have provided me to work as an activist, this empowerment of democracy makes me excited for the opportunities to come with further advances in communications technology.  


Moore concludes the book, ‘soon to be online all the time, we are constantly exposed to propaganda. Our daily lives are punctuated by one persuasive communication after another, the vast majority of which do no involve argument or rational debate but are a one-sided exercise in the manipulation of symbols designed to engage our emotions… We are all propaganda artists now. That must, surely, be a good thing’ (page 193).

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