Propaganda: Power and Persuasion at the British Library: Reading between the lines

Although we might be confidently distant from the Orwellian imagination, systems of information control are still being perpetuated. How can we continue to read this age-old manipulation, as it appears in ever more insidious forms?

A Chinese film poster from 1950.
The White-Haired Girl. A Chinese film poster from 1950. Image: British Library.

The essential tenor of the British Library’s provocative exhibition Propaganda: Power and Persuasion is that the age of propaganda persists in our age of globalisation. Although we might be confidently distant from the Orwellian imagination, the systems of information control are being perpetuated. How then, can we read this age-old manipulation, as it appears in ever more insidious forms?

Quietly hidden away behind more familiar exhibits such as Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and the infamous Iraq War playing cards issued by the US Military, the curators have found space for an Occupy Wall Street poster. Emblazoned with the bold Occupy aphorisms, “Fight Back Worldwide: capitalism is the crisis” and “the 99 per cent have no borders; decolonize globally”, the poster’s protagonists emerge from radiant sunlight. At first glance, the Occupy Wall Street poster phenomenon seems to be illustrative of the particular fusion of bold graphic design and protest rhetoric in the age of social media activism. The curators are not giving away much either, merely observing the ways in which Occupy imagery subverts the iconography traditionally associated with the state. In doing so, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion misses out on telling the critical narrative of propaganda as it exists in the 21st century. Of this, more anon.

In many ways the most compelling argument of the exhibition is how it searches for a more neutral portrait of propaganda, scraping away the extreme negativity surrounding it. The origins of the term in papal text are documented here, in the literature produced by the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith), a committee founded in the 17th century by Pope Gregory XV to counter the Reformation. Within this singular argument lay the seeds of our wholly oppositional understanding of propaganda, and through both world wars the emotional charge of the word was reduced to pure deception. And yet the global history of propaganda has been far more complex. In China, ‘propaganda’ (xuanchuan) cannot be distinguished from the more innocuous ‘publicity’. Instead it is a legitimate mechanism for the Party’s construction of society. The question the exhibition poses is essentially: can you engage in rational dialogue with a mass audience? Is propaganda more than just persuasion dialogue, but rather a mechanism aiming to elicit action, in which the ‘truth’ is no longer the logical endpoint? In getting to grips with the very essence of propaganda, the Aldous Huxley quotation resonates through the exhibition chamber: “The propagandist is a man who canalises an already existing stream. In a land where there is no water he digs in vain.”

The sources upon which the curators draw on, from Josef Goebbels’ ‘Volksempfänger’ radios designed for Nazi broadcasts through to the iconic imagery of Mao kindling the flames of revolution in Anyuan in the autumn of 1921, are breathtaking in scope. At the exhibition’s heart are the Norman Rockwell posters The Four Freedoms, aimed at Americans buying war bonds in World War II by appealing to core familial and religious values. Above all, this exhibition excels in showcasing state propaganda, whether in the form of Boer War board games, Cold War imagery or even public health campaigns. Exploring themes of ‘nation, enemy and war’, the wash of propaganda reaches for increasing sophistication.  But nuance is looked for in the explorations of a ‘national branding’ project that was implicit in the 2012 Olympic Games in London, a side perhaps missed out when compared to the unambiguously aggressive glorification of the state that so thoroughly informed the previous 2008 Beijing Games, in which regulated spectacle celebrated ‘shengshi’, an age of prosperity.

While the exhibition may be aesthetically impressive, from the opening floor of projected viral imagery through to the close in which a wall forms a cascading screen of twitter streams reacting to the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony and Obama’s re-inauguration, by the end we are no closer to really grappling with propaganda today. In the age of social media, “everyone is a potential propagandist”, we are told. But what is constantly alluded to but never properly addressed is perhaps the untold story: the elision of systems of state propaganda, modes of dissent and the framework of advertising. In the wake of the Tiananmen protests, the Chinese Communist Party looked to the West for new sources of inspiration, and found it in Coca-Cola. By 1996, a Party textbook proclaimed that the soft drink brand was the example par excellence to be followed: “if you have a good image, any problem can be solved.”

The iconic Occupy Wall Street pamphleting, in its stylistic borrowings from the romantic well of Russian Revolutionary and Soviet propaganda, is the perfect evocation of how 21st century activism embodies all the trademark hallmarks of marketing. The French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard wrote of this process in his 1981 Simulacra and Simulation: “The whole script of advertising and propaganda comes from the October Revolution and the market crash of 1929”. Baudrillard went on to observe that “both languages of the masses, issuing from the mass production of ideas, or commodities, their registers, separate at first, progressively converge. Propaganda becomes the marketing and merchandising of idea-forces, of political men and parties with their ‘trademark image’.” The Occupy poster is the epitome of this convergence of the worlds of advertising and activism.

In one of the many video portraits scattered across the exhibition space, the journalist John Pilger recalls a Czech dissident telling him during the Cold War: “You believe everything you see on the TV or read on the papers, but we’ve learnt to read between the lines.” Deploying everything from money to stamps and charting the shift from print to social media, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion offers a powerful insight into state influence and the flows of information that fashioned the 20th century political landscape. With Nazi propaganda nestled next to Britain’s own war campaign imagery, the exhibition never shys away from foregrounding the monsterization techniques behind audience appeal. Its co-curator David Welch argues that the danger only lies in a monopoly of propaganda, as seen in totalitarian states. But the sorry truth is that we can no longer afford to make political and commercial distinctions in propaganda today, when faced with a real loss of meaning, reading between the lines becomes all too urgent.