Catalysts in the Cataclysm
By Tom Wachunas
“We did not call it propaganda, for that word, in German hands, had come to be associated with deceit and corruption.” ―George Creel
EXHIBIT: Stark County in the Great War - Commemorating the centennial of America's involvement in World War I, featuring artifacts from the permanent collection, and community members, celebrating those who served from Stark County, Ohio. / at Massillon Museum, THROUGH NOVEMBER 12, 2017 / 121 Lincoln Way East, downtown Massillon, Ohio
With this exhibit, the Massillon Museum lives up to its mission of sustaining a place “Where Art & History Come Together” in a remarkably comprehensive and reverential manner. Here’s a link to Gary Brown’s excellent Repository look at the overall scope of the exhibit:
In addition to the many photographs and artifacts on display, including a superbly composed video documentary produced by Massillon Museum – “Massillon in the Great War: Voices from the Archives” (Massillon Museum web link posted above) – an especially fascinating art element here is the selection of lithographic posters, produced for the Committee on Public Information, established by President Woodrow Wilson in April, 1917, and overseen by American propagandist George Creel. In the course of two years, painters and illustrators created some 1,400 propaganda posters and pamphlets used to encourage or arguably scare American citizens into either serving as soldiers, or contributing to the war effort in a variety of other ways. The mass dissemination of such printed materials was an urgent matter of enlisting public support for America’s entry into the war, and as such an aggressive appeal for loyalty, solidarity, and duty.
Speaking of being scared, I included the first image at the top of this post – which is NOT part of the Massillon Museum exhibit – simply to get your attention…to condition and manipulate your thinking… to win you over to an idea. That is, after all, the raison d'être of propaganda. This particular poster from 1917 – “Destroy This Mad Brute” - was a U.S. adaptation of an earlier British design. Notice the distressed, half-naked woman clutched by the helmeted, drooling ape as he stomps on to the shore of America. She’s a symbol of Liberty, and the rendering of her form recalls 19th century paintings in the Neoclassical and Romanticism styles. A similar treatment of Lady Liberty can be seen in some of the posters on view in this exhibit, though perhaps not quite as startling.
Still, the posters here are surely arresting enough, designed as they were to sell an agenda, color public perception, and command a specific response. When I think about how freely the term propaganda is applied to this form of illustrative art, George Creel’s words quoted at the top of this post are somewhat curious. Certainly by the 20th century, the term had already taken on negative connotations (well-earned, thanks to politics), long before Germany’s use of it. More than ever before, though, the term is widely considered pejorative in nature – as if to say all propaganda is inherently deceitful and corrupt.
But actually, the term, from the Latin propagare, simply means to propagate, to spread, and originally referred only to the practice of spreading the Catholic religion to non-Catholics in the 17th century. These days, assessing and validating the motives, methods, and truths behind any sort of ideological spreading is another matter altogether, and an increasingly difficult one at that.
While the posters in this exhibit certainly have an old-school patina about them – a sort of dark naïveté - they remind me nonetheless of the powerful effectiveness of linking evocative images with all manner of slogans, mottos, and dictums designed to inspire, inoculate, or incite public response. The big difference between the practice of propaganda in 1917 and today is the method of delivery. We’re no longer so beholden to mass printings of artful graphics to deliver our catalysts for action, our rallying cries to judge, confront, fight, rebel, or destroy. Now we can cloud them, so to speak, via the Internet, sending them aloft into the forbiding fog of societal angst.
So when it comes to addressing matters of war in our current global age – an age heavily entrenched in its own moral bankruptcy and political depravity – we’ve made significant strides in advancing our agendas, virtually assuring them instant worldwide visibility. That said, there are many times when I fantasize being an interstellar researcher, sent by my otherwordly employer to observe and evaluate life on Earth. I scour the Internet, learning the history of humanity’s hate affair with itself. Sufficiently overwhelmed, I report back to my employer only my utter astonishment that there are any humans left at all on this planet, adding, “Lord, I hope they feel blessed.”