How Art Made the World: Art of Persuasion

In this BBC series from 2004, Dr Nigel Spivey investigates everything from cave paintings to ceramics, pyramids to palaces and icons to artifacts across five continents and 100,000 years of history.

The leaders of most modern countries exploit a powerful political tool – the power of images. These techniques, in fact, were invented thousands of years ago by the leaders of the Ancient World. But how do politicians actually use images to persuade us – often without us even knowing? How did they do it thousands of years ago? Episode 3 of this series explores how art can be used as a persuasion device by those in power.

The use of art as a tool for those in power, started at different times, in different cultures. Near Stone Henge the grave of the Amesbury Archer was discovered in 2002, the grave was different to those previously found near the site, as this one was not Roman but much earlier, dating back to when the first sarsen stones were erected there. What made him interesting was the gold hair tresses, which are the oldest dated cast gold in Britain, and the fact that he was a foreigner from the region that is now Germany / Switzerland. The archer had completed an epic journey for the time and the treasures in his grave show a man of status. Art for personal adornment, like these hair clasps, elevated him above his peers. So clearly it was learned early on in human history that art as personal adornment enhanced your status.

As time progressed, art became a political tool, kings competed for more dazzling adornments. As kingdoms got bigger the kings had to overcome communication issues.

Around 500 BC, Darius the Great, the King of the Persians, had taken control of a kingdom so large that he needed to find a new way to impose his power across this vast territory. He found the solution in the international language of images — Art. Decorating the staircase that lead to his great hall in the capital city of Persepolis (located in present-day Iran), Darius carved inspiring images of conquered peoples of the empire happily honoring their king with tribute, while interestingly omitting all scenes of war and retribution. This showed a sign of respect and the carvings communicated that Darius admired and respected his people.

But there were still millions of subjects in the empire that never came to the palace, but needed to understand his message: “I am justice and have been asked by God to promote happiness.” The challenge was to communicate this to people who for the most part couldn’t read, and spoke a dozen different languages. So Darius came up with the first political logo – an image of himself carrying a bow that could be easily reproduced. The bowman would have been an image familiar to all members of the empire — a symbol of not only military prowess, but of wisdom and leadership. So powerful and easily understood by the masses, Darius’s successors continued to use his logo, and build upon his achievements, for centuries after his death.

Alexander the Great went one step further than Darius in developing the political logo. As a foreign invader, Alexander knew he had to win the hearts and minds of his new subjects, and he clearly understood the power of the logo art technique used by Darius. But Alexander had to come up with his own image unique — and he did, he minted his own face on a coin. He instinctively understood that the human face was a powerful tool, and that people were influenced by what they saw in it.

But Alexander’s political portrait – something entirely revolutionary at the time – wasn’t thought up over night. On the contrary, from a small ivory head of Alexander’s found in his father’s tomb, it became clear to archeologist that Alexander’s image had been designed for him long before he ever went to war with the Persians.

Augustus Caesar Statue

Many leaders after Darius and Alexander used images to promote themselves and their message, but some of them were far darker and more sinister in nature. They took art from being a tool of relatively benign political promotion to an instrument of mass deception. The first political lie was probably invented in Rome, by Augustus, some forty years before the birth of Christ.

Rome was on the point of collapse; for decades a civil war had divided the city into two camps – the old Roman family republicans, and the monarchists, who wanted a powerful king to rule. Augustus came from the monarchists’ camp, but in order to unite the city behind him, he knew he had to change his image.

Augustus had a problem with older images of himself. His big-haired look was favored by the monarchists, but hated by the republicans. His sculptors came up with something far more modest. His hair was flattened, his face made gentle and mature—more like someone you could trust. Augustus had hundreds of copies made and sent out all over the empire. But it wasn’t enough. The republicans still didn’t trust him. So to win them over, he needed to come up an image that would persuade them once and for all. His ultimate political statement rests in the Vatican:

This is the image that finally won over the republicans. At first glance the statue shows him as a powerful general, but it is much more than that. He’s wearing a military breastplate, but there’s no suggestion he’s ready for action. His arm is outstretched, but with no weapon—more statesman like. Augustus’ feet are bare of military boots—a sign of humility rather than power. Emblazoned across the breastplate is Augustus accepting the surrender of Rome’s sworn enemy (Parthians), while the Gods look on in approval. This is the ultimate in political art, with something in it for everyone.

Augustus reinvented himself through the use of art. His sculptors came up with an image that was far more humble, a sort of man of the people image, and it allowed him to unit the two camps of Rome. But it was all a lie – he had duped the citizen of Rome. While he portrayed himself as a peace maker, he was getting rid of the opposition; while he was preaching humility, he lived like corrupt royalty and while pretending to hand power to the people he reinstated himself as a king. In reality, Augustus founded a system of dictatorship that would last over four hundred years.

The leaders of past used paint and marble, today we use digital manipulation. But as humans we still remain vulnerable to the persuasive power of art.


How Art Made The Word:

How Art Made The World is a 2005 five-part BBC One documentary series, with each episode looking at the influence of art on the current day situation of our society. The essential premise of the show, according to Nigel Spivey, is that of all the defining characteristics of humanity as a species, none is more basic than the inclination to make art. Great apes will smear paint on canvas if they are given brushes and shown how, but they do not instinctively produce art any more than parrots produce conversation. We humans are alone in developing the capacity for symbolic imagery.

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