September 2004: The candidates were neck and neck in the race for the White House. George. W. Bush, would need to do something spectacular to persuade enough hearts and minds to win presidency and where better to make a statement than Madison Square Garden, NYC. His advisors understood that this event was crucial to how he was presented and they decided to exploit the power of art.
Firstly was the environment at Madison Square Garden, the original stage was ripped out, and a brand new one was put in. He walked alone to the stage, commanding, confident and in control. He was raised slightly above the crowd but stood amongst the people. The stage was simple but dominated by the symbols of his power and and the cameras captured the conviction on his face.
If that wasn't enough, his advisors exploited the most potent political images of his presidency — his presence at Ground Zero. Strong and commanding, yet still appear caring and warm, these were the pictures that defined his presidency.
The strategy worked, he shot ahead and stayed there until the election was won. But why did it work?
The political power of art was discovered in the ancient world by kings and rulers. It was these leaders who used imagery to manipulate their subjects. There was a time where we lived in small communities, families or clans with little tools to communicate power. So what happened? How did imagery become to be used as a political tool?
Stone Henge is a mystery of the ancient world, but it is here that we may have found an answer. Several steps from Stone Henge, a grave was found of no ordinary man. He was found with over 100 objects in his grave, which is the richest tomb in historical continental Europe. But whose was it? Historians have labeled him the "Amesbury Archer", in his tomb were some particularly interesting objects: two identical pieces of gold, ornaments, probably hair clasps. He was a foreigner with knowledge to shape gold and he dates to the time of the construction of stone henge. The gold had created a image of the leader, fascinating the locals with their simple animal skins. Although still in discussion and not fully agreed upon among archeologists, this man is likely to have built stone henge, organising the 100s of people needed to construct this mammoth structure.
It is here that art as as personal adornment, enhances your status — it lifts you above your peers and it is this universal human trait that persists to the present day. The adornment of office enhances and symbolises your power.
Later in history, the problem was kingdoms were growing in size, but the bigger they became, the harder it was for leaders to communicate their power. Their subjects simply couldn’t see them, which takes us to the world's first empire (2500 years ago) ruled by Darius the great — the king of the Persians (his capital was Persepolis). Rather than war and brutality, he offered peace and cooperation, but how was he to communicate this to everyone else? Very few people could read and there were dozens of languages under his reign. Firstly in his palace he combined artistic styles from all over the empire so visitors could see his acceptance of all. There was also national costume reliefs of people happy to honour Darius. He used art, the international language of images. But still millions would still never see inside the palace so in a nearby well trafficked desert (of the time) is a huge political billboard, displaying his style of leadership in it Darius is holding a bow — the people of the time would have known what it meant. To the Persians, the archer was symbolic not just of military power but of wisdom and leadership — a good archer had sense of balance and control. This was the first Political logo: Darius the Archer. For 150 years after his death, his successors continued using his logo and to build on his achievements.
But it was destined not to last, because Alexander the Great had his sights on this land. Alexander wanted much more than to just conquer, he needed a way of uniting the Persian empire behind him. How as a foreign invader would he win the hearts and minds of his new subjects? Alexander understood the power of art that Darius had used but he had to come up with an image all of his own. Archeologists understood for a long time how Alexander won the war, but not so much on how he planned to win the peace. He planned to win the peace through an image, which was designed before any battles (a winning image to take on the world) in his home land, Macedonia. It was the birth of the political portrait, it contained political power and strength. Alexander replaced the logo with a face.
Studies have shown that people will more likely go for an image of a face over the image of a logo as humans are influenced by what they see in a face. Alexander may have had the perfect image but it was useless unless he could get it circulated around his new subjects. Today, we take it for granted just how easy it is to distribute an image; with just a few clicks, you can send a picture to vast numbers of people almost anywhere in the world. Alexander needed to give his people a way of reminding them everyday of who was in charge. His solution was simple, put his image in the palms of their hands — on their money, on their coins — and generations after still used this image.
But there’s a more ruthless form of leader in the modern world. It’s more ambitious that just self promotion, much more darker and sinister. It’s the power to persuade us to make us think the way they want us to think and to see things they way they do, to deceive us. How did art go from political promotion to mass deception?
40BC, Ancient Rome was on the point of collapse, The city was split not just politically but culturally. You could actually tell people’s political allegiance but what they wore - how they were dressed and here is where we meet Octavian or what he would be known as Augustus. Augustus understood the power of art in it's ability to send a message; his goal was to convince the more politically conservative crowd to his side while still maintaining his image of new and relevant to the other crowd.
His image took many refinements, this image (which was distributed widely) was a less threatening face, still frowning to be serious yet humble. It worked for the most part, his power and fame rose but half the city still were suspicious. He needed a better image, he needed a powerful image of authority, an image to win everyone over.
And this was the image that was finalised; while is shows him as a powerful general, there’s more to it then that. Although he’s wearing a military breast plate, there’s no suggestion that he’s ready for action. The outreached arm bears no spear. You’d expect military boots, but they’re bare — more a sign of humility, than power. There's something in it for everyone. Emblazoned across his breastplate was a scene that was designed to calm any lingering doubts, a story of the gods looking down and supporting Augustus. So the statue contains ecstatic reassurance — Augustus is strong but not threatening, the leader who guarantees his people the new golden age. It worked, Augustus had unified the two camps of Rome and he had done it using the power of art. Although it seemed like this — it was built on a lie. The people had been duked. While portraying himself as a peacemaker, he was eradicating all opposition. While preaching humility, he and his family lived like corrupt royalty. And while boasting he was handing back power to the people, he was a king in all but name. In reality he had formed a system of dictatorship which would last 400 years. He had used images to manipulate people into believing one thing when in fact the very opposite was true. Augustus discovered how to use art to tell a political lie, it is a technique that would be used by dictators down the ages.
So what should we take from this? It's simple, we humans remain vulnerable to the persuasive power of art and we even do it to ourselves through social media platforms, building images and stories of ourselves that may not even be true.