hope to nope
“Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008-18”, at the Design Museum until 12 August 2018

This article is a preview from the Summer 2018 edition of New Humanist

For all the talk of something disturbingly novel and unknown about a post-Trump world, with its crumbling trust in mainstream media and lack of faith in the institutions of democracy, there’s also something curiously retro about the whole thing. It’s not simply the US president himself, whose brash, greed-is-good confidence and private-jet-and-golden-tower personality were obnoxious enough the first time round, in the 1980s, nor his adoption of an outdated rhetoric of an America reawakened. It’s also in the rhetoric of his rivals, who have reached back to Cold War imagery of Soviet spy threats and reds under the bed when invoking the probable Russian interference in the 2016 US election.

It’s not just collusion in Trump’s campaign they’re warning of. It’s also a return to that seemingly most Soviet of influences – Russian propaganda – finding its way into the innocent homes of the American people. Twitter bots, online trolls and “fake news” have all been described as modern propaganda, updated versions of the bold posters and misleading pamphlets of official Stalinist culture. Their role, it’s claimed, is nothing less than undermining truth and knowledge itself, the values on which democratic culture is built. How did propaganda get such a bad name?

Determining the root of its ignominy is complicated by the fact that the term has itself been adopted as a slur to throw at the political arguments of one’s opponents, but in his influential 1928 book on the subject Edward Bernays, the godfather of Public Relations, regarded propaganda as vital to the flourishing of democracy: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.” No one person is capable of truly grasping the collosal amount of information needed to make an informed decision in the modern world, he argued. Instead, politicians should corral the facts into a coherent narrative to present to an irrational public, in order that they might understand the effects of policies being proposed, convincing them, in the process, that their vision of the nation was clearly the best. “Modern propaganda is a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group.”

While such work is today is known as public relations or “spin”, propaganda is more usually associated with the bolder, supposedly more simplistic political communications of the clashing ideologies of early 20th-century Europe. The posters and films produced in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s have become totemic representations of the genre, and as such the idea of “propaganda” is now synonymous with aggressive, bold representations of utopian ideals, spouting malicious untruths against enemies, or manipulating and controlling their compliant populations.

Such a simplistic conception undermines the often complex, creative and thoughtful productions of propagandists whose work in that crucible of political agitation still appears fresh and thought-provoking today. Artists and designers weren’t simply parroting a party line in visual form, but were frequently aiming at producing new visual languages to make sense of a world of increasingly fast-paced technological development and social upheaval; to build a sense of class consciousness amongst workers, and to demonstrate the hypocrisies and inhumanities of fascist and imperialist politicians. Publications such as the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (Workers’ Illustrated Newspaper), pioneered by the maverick propagandist Willi Münzenberg, not only gave space to professional artists but also to amateur photographers, industrial workers who were documenting their own working lives and living conditions in an attempt to present the realities of both the capitalist West and the Soviet Union.

Although collagist John Heartfield, whose work appeared in A-I-Z, wasn’t an amateur photographer, his work also came “from the ground up”, representing his anger at social injustice as he experienced it in Germany in the 1920s and 30s. Much of it was targeted at the poor living conditions of the working class, suffering under economic hardship of hyperinflation and recession. His pioneering collage technique harnessed the shock of contrast and contradiction; in one piece, “Spitzenprodukte Des Kapitalismus” (The Finest Products of Capitalism”), an unemployed man wears a sign begging for work, his feet trampling into the train of an ostentatious and expensive wedding dress. Heartfield’s work was often darkly humorous, aimed to be easily read as a visual metaphor. In a cover for a French magazine in 1936 Adolf Hitler is depicted as a chef in a bloody apron, sharpening his kitchen knife whilst looking hungrily at a French cock dressed in a Phrygian cap, representing liberty. “Don’t Worry!” ran the caption, “He’s Vegetarian!” Heartfield was didactic and powerful, but so was the political threat he was countering. His propaganda was aimed at making the public aware of the reality of the situation, and steeling them for the fight.

Of course, it wasn’t just self-representation or satire that marked alternative forms of propaganda in the 1930s. Alongside the Austrian sociologist Otto Neurath, the German graphic designer Gerd Arntz worked to produce Isotypes, a system for organising and representing complex, important statistical information to working-class people who had suffered from a low level of academic education, many of whom were functionally illiterate. Arntz was already a politically engaged artist, producing woodcuts and illustrations for leftist magazines, when he met Neurath. Together, they worked to produce over 4,000 small simplified images that could be used in series as a pictorial language to inform ordinary people about complex economic and political issues. Between Arntz, a council communist, and Neurath, an administrator in the Social-Democratic government of “Red Vienna”, the mission was avowedly political; like Bernays before them, although from a different ideological position, the way information was presented to citizens was a critical aspect of modern politics.

As Stalin tightened his grip on the channels of representation in the 1930s, the idea of political propaganda emerging organically and chaotically from within political struggles receded into the background. During the years of the Second World War and the early days of the Cold War, all the world’s superpowers poured resources into more centralised, organised channels of political messaging. The idea that, far from being an important component of organising information in a democracy, propaganda was a deceitful tool aimed at coercing the public began to become an article of faith. Indeed, whilst he spent much of the war producing propaganda as part of the BBC’s Eastern Service, author George Orwell noted in his diary in 1942 that “All propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth.” It’s not simply dishonest content that corrupts, he suggested, but even the very form of propaganda is mendacious. The negative connotations of the word continued throughout the Cold War, fuelled by its weaponisation by authorities and newspapers alike as a term to discredit any official representations by the enemy.

It is Orwell’s vision of propaganda that is invoked today, when commentators, journalists and columnists discuss the resurgent Russian threat. “Fake news” and co-ordinated Twitter bots are, they argue, the Kremlin’s new propaganda campaign, and while it seems likely that Russia is involved in a media war online, the scope of contemporary propaganda is far wider. The explosion of social media a decade ago has created vast new bandwidth in communication with, and between, the public. Much of this new territory of political communication is the subject of Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008-18 at the Design Museum in London, an exhibition covering the changing landscape of politics in the last decade through the propaganda it has produced. From the student demonstrations in London in 2010 through to Brexit, Corbyn and Trump, the degree to which the internet has revolutionised this political discussion is enormous, and it shows.

With access to the tools to make and disseminate political ideas, the general public has once again become a key player in the media war, and most political communication today emerges from within the body politic. Through memes, videos and homemade placards, we are seeing a return to a propaganda not coming from centralised political parties but emerging out of a desire to communicate both everyday struggles and new political ideologies. Their superseding of centralised political communication develops out of what the social media researcher Jay Owens, in a recent essay on the subject, refers to as “relatability”.

“Memes help people speak truths,” Owens writes, saying that their repetitive nature makes it easy for people to express more complex new ideas by inserting them into familiar visual forms. As in the work of Heartfield, the combination of image and text allow for contradiction and contrast, making political ideas easily digestible. And in the spread of emoji, we see a mutated form of Neurath and Arntz’s isotype find explosive growth as a visual language amongst an increasingly visually literate population, but this time as a shorthand for emotional responses rather than as a universal alphabet for understanding statistics.

It’s not hard to see how this rebirth in political discussion through visual means has been coterminous with a rise in populism, but claims that the public are being misled by centralised propaganda don’t account for the fact that both the propaganda being shared and the ideas involved are often rising up from the grassroots, becoming demands that put pressure on populist and liberal politicians alike. As Owens says, we are living in a “post-authenticity” era, and, as the propagandists of the 20th century understood, it matters less whether the opinions are balanced and more that they resonate with their audience. Some mourn the collapse of the honest, ideology-free centre, others question whether it ever really existed, but the fact is that this is our new reality when it comes to political communication, and it is resonance, the ability to capture the imagination, that wins in the new media war.

“Hope to Nope” is at the Design Museum until 12 August