Ian Garrick Mason

Articles and Essays

National Post -- May 29, 2004

The power of art as propaganda

On Evonne Levy's Propaganda and the Jesuit Baroque

by Ian Garrick Mason

If asked to define propaganda, most of us would have a hard time coming up with a formal definition. But, we would probably say, we know it when we see it. Propaganda is the speeches uttered by Joseph Goebbels in the Second World War, for example, or the subtle distortions produced by the Soviet Union’s bureaus of disinformation, or the hate-filled radio broadcasts of the Hutu during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Propaganda, in other words, is something the bad guys do. Not us.

Given this, it seems natural to assume that a work of propaganda cannot be a work of art. “Art”, as we all know, is disinterested, individualistic, rebellious, and above all, honest. But artwork produced as propaganda is the opposite of this: interested, corporate, obedient, and dishonest. It is nothing more than a tool used to achieve an ideological or institutional goal.

Consider, as Exhibit A, the art and architecture of the Jesuit Baroque. Founded in 1540 by Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish soldier who had converted while recovering from a wound, the Society of Jesus grew rapidly over the next century. Essential actors in the Counter-Reformation, the Jesuits soon became the subject of ongoing controversy because of their transnational structure, comparative secrecy, mastery of argument (and concomitant political influence), and formal ties of obedience to the pope.

In its seventeenth-century heyday, the Society sponsored the creation of an immense amount of religious art and architecture. But as University of Toronto art historian Evonne Levy describes in her new book, Propaganda and the Jesuit Baroque, many of the art and architecture historians of the nineteenth-century would dismiss these works as “Jesuit Style”. The Jesuit Style, the critics charged, was meant to “intoxicate” viewers, to overawe them with silver and gold, stunningly realistic sculpture, and vertiginous vaulting. It was a mind trick, meant to convert the gullible and further the Jesuits’ aims of world domination. In short, it wasn’t art.

The notion of the Jesuit Style, however, was debunked by more systematic art historians in the early twentieth century, and replaced with the more neutral term “Baroque”. For a short time, Baroque art continued to be seen as a form of propaganda – a term that became familiar to the public after its heavy use in World War One. By our own day, even that label had vanished, and Jesuit art was free once again to be considered “art”.

Yet this is not a simple tale of enlightenment triumphing over prejudice. The reason for this last perceptual shift, argues Levy, is that twentieth century society learned to fear and distrust propaganda after two world wars and the unprecedented use of the press and broadcasting to further the war aims of various governments. Indeed, the postwar West was treated to a kind of anti-propaganda propaganda: the Soviet Union uses propaganda, we were told, and democracies do not. This story applied to art, too. “In the Cold War environment there was much at stake in maintaining that art could be pure and truthful,” she writes. Thus the perceived incompatibility of art and propaganda: a work could be one or the other, but never both.

Levy argues that the idea behind the Jesuit Style was not wrong, that Jesuit art and architecture was indeed propagandistic in both intent and effect. At the core of the Counter-Reformation project was the recovery of souls lost to Protestant sects, so from the beginning emphasis was placed on content over artistic style, and on the power of art to move a spectator, to induce them to change. “For Christian images there is one end: to persuade to piety and bring people to God,” wrote bishop Gabriele Paleotti, articulating the Catholic alternative to European society’s ever more secular view of the arts. Even the term “propaganda” was a partly Catholic creation, its present meaning deriving from the Sacra Congregâtio dę Propagandâ Fide – the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith – an organization of cardinals formed in 1622 to carry out missionary work.

The Jesuits were well aware of the effect that artistic and architectural grandeur could have on observers; they hoped that the admiration so generated would be transferable, “passing from the building built for God to God, producing devotion,” explains Levy. Yet this was merely a general effect. Propaganda must carry a message, and through the cult of St. Ignatius the Jesuits were able to communicate more than one of these.

By the time of Ignatius’s death in 1556, the Society of Jesus had become well-known for its willingness to perform missionary work overseas. Thus the story of the conversion of Ignatius, his founding of the Society, and the Society’s conversion of peoples around the world formed a perfect narrative for illustrating the hierarchical flow of divine grace: from Jesus to Ignatius, from Ignatius to the Jesuits, from the Jesuits to the world’s laity, both converted and yet to be converted.

Which is the very hierarchy painted by Andrea Pozzo on the vault of the Church of St. Ignatius in Rome. “The worldwide mission of the Society of Jesus” shows the Holy Trinity high up in the clouds in the centre of the ceiling. As described by Pozzo in his 1693 treatise Perspectiva pictorum et architectorum, from the wound in Jesus’ side “issue forth rays of light that wound the heart of St. Ignatius, and from him they issue, as a reflection spread to the four parts of the world…”

As a visualization of God’s grace passed down through his agents on earth, the painting conveys a precise, easily understood message. Yet at the same time it is conveyed with the most stunning of effects: the vault is painted as if the walls extend higher before opening out into a blue sky of puffy clouds, with angels and saints clambering and floating upward from the tops of the walls into an almost infinite distance. Pozzo was one of the outstanding theorists of visual perspective in the seventeenth century, and the effect he achieves is awesome – enough to humble the sinner, or to convert the wavering.

In order to boost the cult of St. Ignatius, the Jesuits decided to renovate the Chapel of St. Ignatius in Il Gesů, the Jesuit Mother Church in Rome, a commission which, after a controversial public competition, was awarded to Andrea Pozzo, himself a Jesuit. Completed in 1699, this chapel too has a typically overwhelming effect on a viewer -- but again, the overall effect is only part of the story. Levy highlights several of the most message-laden elements in the chapel’s profusion of art. One, the chapel’s central image, is a remarkable silver statue of Ignatius on the road to La Storta, where Jesus came to him in a vision and called him to found a society in Rome. As a saint, Ignatius was believed to be “radiant” – emitting the divine light one sees depicted around the heads of holy figures – and this effect was recreated by Pozzo by adding a small window behind the statue’s head. With the sun shining through the window onto the silver, the radiance around Ignatius would have seemed physically real, not just metaphorical. Again, the intent was to drive home a message, and if possible to turn a viewer into an adherent.

For all their sophistication, however, these propagandistic techniques were marks of insecurity rather than dominance. Levy points out that the Jesuits were competing for adherents on a worldwide scale, pressed hard by Protestant alternatives in country after country. What the Jesuits most feared was failure: their famously centralized control over church design, for example, was maintained so that Jesuit churches built outside of Rome by architects of varying competence would not fall down – which, if it happened, would reflect poorly on the Society.

If these themes – competition for customers, centralized control of design – seem familiar, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, modern organizations use techniques very similar to those of the Jesuits to advance their own causes and to win adherents. To raise money, conservation groups don’t send out detailed studies listing the scientific names of threatened species, but broadcast commercials that show the majestic beauty of whales and the viscerally disgusting pollution of factories. Likewise, to win public support, governments strive to stay “on message” at all times, and create simplified narratives about public policy issues that citizens can understand.

Propaganda is a technique of persuasion. Perhaps it is going too far to say, as advertising pioneer and WWI propagandist Edward Bernays did, that “whether, in any instance, propaganda is good or bad depends upon the merit of the cause urged, and the correctness of the information published.” But demonizing propaganda may be even worse, by leading us either to deny that it’s part of our society at all, or, if we do accept that it’s present, to demonize our society along with it.

For Levy, though, it’s a matter of how we understand art. The main problem with today’s anti-propaganda attitude is that it boxes us into a one-dimensional view. If we see only the propaganda, as the nineteenth-century anti-Jesuit historians did, we turn art into “evidence”, its aesthetic nature denied. And if we see only the art, as the twentieth-century museum, “its galleries filled with objects separated from the altars of their original gods”, does, then we turn art into a false idol, stripped of its context and purpose. Her point is simple: can we not learn to see both?