Countries use tanks, guns and bombs as weapons of war, but these are not the only weapons available to governments. Images are some of the most powerful weapons available to governments and citizens alike.
Kristin L. Matthews, co-curator of the Museum of Art’s “America at War” exhibit, spoke to students about war propaganda and its reflection of American culture and traced how American thought has evolved over the last hundred years.
“Each illustration tells a story that is a part of the greater American tale, and I am not talking about the one with mice,” Matthews said.
War propaganda appeals to three themes: fear, duty and nostalgia.
Images can evoke a fear of oppression, violence or destruction; many war pictures used women and children to evoke fear.
“[Women and children] were used to represent the most vulnerable, innocent and virtuous members of society,” Matthews said.
Images of fear were used in support of world wars and opposing the Vietnam War. During the Vietnam War, artists created fear from the inside. They painted a fear of America being crippled by war.
“The cost of war became something to fear,” Matthews said. “[America] feared losing its soldiers, its greatness and its values.”
Duty was used differently between the world wars, Vietnam and the current war in the Middle East. During the world wars, Americans had a duty to family, God and country. This duty was a justification for sacrifice. During the Vietnam War, “Artists for Victory” became “Artists Against the War.”
“America’s duty was either to come up with a good plan or get out,” Matthews said.
After 9/11, Matthews, as a war historian, began conserving and saving metal and plastic as would have been expected during earlier wars. Instead, Americans were asked to spend money to enhance the economy to help the war efforts.
Nostalgia creates a shared past and motivates people to defend that shared past.
“It is an ideal toward which Americans are always striving,” Matthews said.
Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” posters are examples of nostalgia used in propaganda. The posters represented freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear and freedom from want.
“[The posters say] here is what America always stood for, and here is what needs to be protected,” Matthews said. “It attempts to invoke in the viewer a desire to return to that.”
While the themes stay the same, the subjects change throughout the years.
“America is not a static nation, but one that is always wrestling with itself and its national identity,” Matthews said. “Nation-building and democracy are a process.”
Artists and propagandists played a critical role in defining and evolving democracy.
“[Artists] reaffirmed the very principles of democracy they were struggling to protect,” Matthews said.