'All Art is Propaganda': An Exploration of Art & Design

For me art has always been inherently political, whether intentionally or not, as the personal is always political. After exploring Feminist Art and more specifically gender pay gap campaign graphics during my Art A-Level, I realised that politics and art are indeed harmonious. All art is essentially a reflection of society and its context, with artists echoing life itself or their trajectory for life. Art and design is a never-ending discussion, meaning that politicised art is unavoidable. Author Claire Ryan highlights this interwoven relationship between art and politics as the ‘ability to create art is shaped by our political environment just as much as art itself is’.

Throughout history, art has sought to convey a message, and this reached its peak with the development of propaganda following the outbreak of the First World War (1914) and the Russian Revolution (1917). Propaganda as an art form was and still is used by activist groups, Governments and religious organisations attempting to influence their audience and producing an emotional response to their unobjective information. All you have to do is think of Vote Leave’s Brexit bus slogan “We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead”, to see the true effect of this.​

More recently, political modern art is used for election campaigns and political movements, but essentially it has the same motive as propaganda. The political motive of art can be particularly highlighted by Feminist Art - From the inspiring Suffragettes’ flags to present-day activists’ posters. Hence, art has played a significant role in the development of women’s rights and continues to create a conversation surrounding gender identity experiences and women’s presentation in the media. So, whether art as propaganda, directly political design or Feminist art, the line between art and politics is blurred because ultimately the personal is political.

Propaganda: Russian Constructivism 

Propaganda is typically defined as ‘information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view’ and many of the most common examples of propaganda established themselves during war time. With the effect of two world wars and the Russian Revolution, there was no longer a ‘uniform style’ for modern art in the 20th Century. Art movements themselves developed out of war and revolution, and ‘art and conflict’ continually influenced each other. In particular, borrowing ideas from Cubism, and Futurism, Russian Constructivism evolved in reaction to the October Revolution (1917).

Constructivism embraced the developments of a new art form which was much more fitting with the democratic and modern ambitions of the Russian Revolution. It was characterised by El Lissitzky and Rodchenko’s use of bold typography, vivid shapes of colour, and diagonal elements. Aleksandr Rodchenko, deemed one of the founders of the Russian Constructivism Movement, created ‘industrial art’ for the masses. His work is symbolic of the art and design of the constructivism era, as it signifies the Revolution’s goals of modernisation and how the Bolsheviks considered themselves the leaders of the working class and the disadvantaged in Russia.

Rodchenko's poster: Trade Union is a Defender of Female Labour. c.1925. Image from the Tate.

Aleksandr Rodchenko's Books (Please) In All Branches of Knowledge (1924). Image from Artsy.

Political Modern Art 

Today, political modern art is used for election campaigns and political movements, but essentially it has the same motive as propaganda – to manipulate and persuade. Even Bristol’s very own Banksy challenges the fine lines of politics and art – especially with his iconic ‘Rage, the Flower Thrower’ (2005) and his EU Mural in Dover. Throughout history, art has been inseparable from its context, it is inevitably bound to the political and social environment in which surrounds it. The borders between art and life are elusive, so art naturally has a political role within society.​

Yet, art which is purposefully ‘politically engaged’ plays an even more significant role in the modern world, addressing and leading to various actions and changes. Effective visual communication is evident in contemporary political campaign art - from the iconic “Guerrillero Heroico” photograph of Che Guevara, to the Conservative’s “Labour Isn’t Working” poster for the General Election of 1979. Art always has the potential for political change, whether through protests signs, election campaigns or street-art, because, again, the personal is political.

Conservative Party Poster 'Labour Isn't Working' by Saatchi and Saatchi for the 1979 General Election. ​Image from campaign.

Guerrillero Heroico, an iconic photograph of Che Guevara by Alberto Korda. Image from Wikipedia.

Feminist Art

Feminism’s most powerful tool for spreading its message was and still is art and design in its many different forms. Following the legacy of the banners and flags of the Suffrage Movement in Britain, it was the latter part of the twentieth century that saw Feminist Art rise to prominence in response to the momentum of the Second Wave of Feminism. It continued to challenge the enforced domestic roles of women and the neglecting of female artists. Against the fiercely male-dominated industry, Feminist Art presented women’s experiences with no singular medium – being a multi-disciplinary movement.​

Despite this, the goal of complete equality hadn’t been achieved by the 1980s and as a result, powerful activists such as the Guerrilla Girls organised protests, and created feminist artworks highlighting the gender and racial equality with their striking, powerful poster series. Their research found that in the MET’s public collections in 1989 in the Modern Art sections, less than 5% of the works were by female artists, but 85% of the nudes were female. Still active today, the group were highly influential in the feminist movement in the art sector and characterised the movement with bold statements and subversive designs, much like the works of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer.

Jenny Holzer, [no title] 1979-82. Image from the V&A.

Guerrilla Girls Pop Quiz (1990). Image from www.guerrillagirls.com.

A great example Feminist Art is that of Carola Adams and Leah Thorn’s ‘Some Girls’ (1981) poster series project which was initiated in the early 1980s after an action-research project working with young women in the West Midlands. Its feminist undertones are prevalent in the messages and ironic comments. Portraying ‘Girl Power’, the ‘Some Girls’ project discussed the difficulties of being young and female, resulting in a ‘gutsy, pictorial essay of hopes, hates and real-life experiences’ in relation to issues such as stereotyping and contraception. In particular, the ‘Girls Can Do Anything’ poster with the powerful focal point of the photograph of a woman sawing ‘girls can’t’, presents the message of powerful girls and their invincibility in reaction to discriminative attitudes.

Madeley Young Women’s Writing and Design Group, Girls can do anything (1982). Courtesy of Carola Adams, Graham Peet and Jonnie Turpie. Image from Inheritance Projects Ltd.

So, whether art as propaganda, directly political design or Feminist art, the line between art and politics is blurred because ultimately the personal is political. Seen in propaganda in war-time, conflict in society directly affects art and in turn produces and ends a variety of artistic movements and eras. More contemporary political art too is motivated by persuasion and manipulation with the deceptive borders between art and life. Likewise, against the fiercely male-dominated industry, Feminist Art harnessed the ideas of propaganda, as a tool of political communication, showing how Propaganda, Political Modern Art and Feminist Art are inter-linked through their motives in relation to political and social movements. Therefore, intentionally or not, art is subject to its surroundings and political context. With this in mind, all art should be seen as a form of propaganda.

Barbara Kruger: Rage + Women = Power, cover for Ms. Magazine. (January 1992). Image from MoMA.

Power & Equality by Shepard Fairey (2007). Image from MyHero.