Two sides of propaganda

The British Library’s exhibition, ‘Propaganda: Power and Persuasion’, shows a 1982 political cartoon that was drawn shortly after martial law was imposed in Poland. The drawing is of General Jaruzelski, a Polish political leader, attempting to bridge the gap between two sides of a widening chasm. The left side represents propaganda; the right represents reality.

Politicians and the media continuously straddle the line between propaganda and reality because they must carry out the requirements of the community, and to some extent, manage a personal agenda.

From the coins carried by citizens of the ancient world to the most recent manifestations, this exhibition traces propaganda through decades of war, politics, tyranny, religion and discovery, proving that when it comes to political posters, health-related advertisements and social campaigns, an effective design can provide comfort, impart fear, or generate contempt.

The word propaganda, or propagate, was originally coined by the Catholic church. As media outlets proliferated and literacy rates began to rise, people developed an appetite for news, thus, accepting the word of the Catholic church as the truth. The church appealed to the interests of this specific sector of society, exploiting the desires of the public to serve a different cause.

Following the First World War, propaganda took on negative connotations. The term carried an implication of corruption and falsehood. The British Library’s exhibition points out that since that time, the perceived meaning of propaganda has been moved away from its true definition.

For example, positive propaganda may use selective information to gain support for a cause that would serve the public interest. The exhibition showcases the Tufty Club Safety Sheet from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) as an example of propaganda promoting a cause that is in the public interest. Paul Rennie wrote in Eye 52 that the RoSPA posters were produced during the Second World War, when finances were extremely limited. Rennie said, ‘Their messages recognise the radical potential of ordinary people to effect social change – something that was identified by Antonio Gramsci during the 1920s and 30s, and then espoused by George Orwell in 1941 as a necessary, but insufficient, condition of victory.’

Propaganda has undeniably been used to blame the issues of a nation on a subsection of the population, often defined by race, religion, politics, social class or culture. This tactic used imagery to divert criticism away from political failings. Minority groups represented as monsters and thieves created contempt within a broad spectrum of the population. During wartime especially, states use propaganda to preserve morale at home, demonise the enemy and win support.

Franklin Roosevelt’s Message to Young People, an anti-fascism illustration from the Second World War, is an image of a skeleton holding a mask of Hitler’s face. At the other end of the spectrum, illustrations with similar styles and themes single out the Jewish community and other minority groups. Posters such as, Behind Everything: The Jew transmits a message that everything wrong about society can be pinned on a specific ethnic group.

 The final piece in the British Library’s exhibition is a digital collage of tweets composed after the election of President Barack Obama in 2012.  This installation shows the way digital technology has created alternate platforms for propaganda in the 21st century. With new ways for people to challenge the state as well as communicate ideas, everyone is a potential propagandist.

Words in the wool

Write to Roam has visitors flocking to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) in the north of England. The project, initiated by local artist Alison Cooper in collaboration with Robert Hurst, uses stencils to spray-paint words directly onto the sides of sheep.

For six weeks, the sheep will wander about the landscape creating various combinations of 150 words drawn from the Bretton archives. To link the project to the rich history of the park, Cooper and Hurst perused the archives and researched the Bretton Estate, which once housed the Bretton Hall College and now claims the YSP as its main attraction for visitors. To Cooper and Hurst, the chosen words seemed particularly indicative of the area.

For example, they decided on words that described the landscape, as well as terms specific to the Yorkshire dialect, such as ‘thissen’ (which means ‘yourself’) and names of families who were owners of the estate. Now, as the ewes roam across the landscape, visitors can read the woolly inscriptions and absorb something of the park’s interesting history.

 To make the stencil letters for ‘Write to Roam’, Cooper worked with graphic designer Robert Hurst (see ‘Sense of place’ in Eye 58). The resulting typeface, entitled Bretton, was designed exclusively for this project and the stencils were made by a local laser-cutting company called Cutting Technologies.

Spraying took place at the same time as a general check-up and dosing the lambs. Robert Hurst says, ‘Three farmers handled the sheep while I held the stencils and Alison sprayed. It took around four hours to apply theWrite To Roam project to approximately 150 sheep – on both flanks!’

Alison Cooper said, ‘This has been a fascinating project – learning the history of the land, people and animals at the Bretton Estate, from its inception following the Norman Conquest and the Domesday Book, right through to its present day management by YSP.’

The title of the project comes from the successful ‘Right to Roam’ campaign of the 1990s. This led to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which opened up more than two million acres of countryside in England and Wales for walkers and ramblers.

‘From the land being closed and private to where it is now open, public and free, Write To Roam will … serve as an interesting way into the story of the Estate’, said Cooper.

The sheep can be seen in the Sculpture Park until 30 September 2013.