Art & Nationalism

In 1983, Benedict Anderson, a political scientist and historian, published one of his most important works Imagined Communities in which he presented nationalism as a way of imagining and creating a community.

Finally, it [the nation] is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (1983)

Nationalism is closely associated with artists, its main concepts–nation, homeland, autonomy, unity, identity, authenticity– require concrete and expressive representation with the potential to mobilise the people. They participate in the creation of the nation’s identity, they give it body, authenticity and in some ways immortality; after all what better way to express one’s love for their nation than through art that can withstand time. However, art is also a form of dominance and a way of coercing an individual or a crowd into following someone else’s agenda.

While many associate propaganda with the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin, sometimes believing that it came with the 20th-century emergence of mass media, it’s actually much older than that and has been around for millennia. Some of which we deeply value today, despite being wary of the term ‘propaganda’. Egyptian Pharaohs erected grand monuments to glorify their name and showcase the extent of their wealth and power, thus convincing rivals and their own people that they were worthy to lead. Another example is that of the Greek Doryphoros, a 6.6-foot tall statue depicting a muscular young man, a perfect and idealised representation of Olympic athletes in all their glory, and by extension glorifying the nation.

Image result for daddy what did you do in the great war

As previously stated, when talking about propaganda one’s initial thought goes to the 20th century during which the development of mass media and the current conflicts were ideal conditions for its growth. Laced with themes such as patriotism and nationalism, propaganda was relied upon to justify the war to the people and compel them into joining the army. In 1914, Britain regularly used the religious symbolism of St George slaying the dragon–in this instance the Germans– as a way to appeal to one’s honour or prompt shame, the end result is the same: justification of the war. Children and women were also used in the same way, either to call upon their honour and sense of righteousness or to their shame. Savile Lumley’s 1915 poster being one example: ‘Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?’

Whether it is used to create an artificial sense of community or as propaganda, art has power. Benedict Anderson writes:

Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.

Art, like media, is usually ensnared within the agendas and demands of others, which reminds me of Noam Chomsky’s video The Five Filters of the Mass Media Machine, an explanatory video on how the media work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=34LGPIXvU5M

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