APSU Notes

Chapter 9: Art and Power

Learning Outcomes

After completing this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Describe why and how art and artists have in some cultures been considered to have exceptional power.
  • Distinguish between images of persuasion and propaganda and specify characteristics of each.
  • Recognize how and why images are used for such purposes as to display power, influence society, and effect change.
  • Indicate ways that images establish and enhance a ruler’s position and authority.
  • Identify changes in images of conflict, heroic action, and victims of violent confrontation in various cultures and time periods, including the artist’s intentions as well as the public response.
  • Differentiate between and discuss the prohibition of images enforced within some religions.
  • Explain why protestors or conquerors might destroy images and monuments of a past or defeated culture.


  • Muse: a personification of knowledge and the arts that inspired the artists
  • Genius: from the Latin verb genui “to bring into being or create”
  • Visual Literacy: the ability to “read” and understand images through a common “language” of subjects, symbols, and styles.

Art has always been associated with power. The visual force of an image or object has been used throughout time to communicate messages. These messages can contain information of a political nature, community nature, economic nature, religious nature, or simply an informative nature.

Propaganda, Persuasion, Politics, and Power

Art has always been associated with power. The visual force of an image or object has been used throughout time to communicate messages. These messages can contain information of a political nature, community nature, economic nature, religious nature, or simply an informative nature. Art has been used to spread political ideas of rulers from the earliest times. These works were seen as means of Propaganda and Persuasion. Propaganda has not always had the negative connotation we associate with the word today. The word propaganda – borrowed from Classical Latin – originally meant simply to spread or promote an idea. It did not have a negative connotation. In the 17th century propaganda was a movement for the spread of particular doctrine, especially within the Roman Catholic Church. By the 19th century we start to see propaganda take on the negative connotation it has today. It becomes the systematic dissemination of information, especially in a biased or misleading way, in order to promote a political cause or point of view (https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/152605?result=1&rskey=0pH60X&) Persuasion – is simply seen as addressing an idea in order to introduce cooperation, submission, or agreement by others – giving a compelling argument. One example of an ancient building that shows both political propaganda and persuasion is the Apādana at Persepolis

The Apādana palace is a large ceremonial building. This is a Hypostyle plan – meaning the roof is supported by columns. The Apādana originally had 72 columns – only 14 remain standing today. The columns were 24 meters tall with capitals of either twin-headed bulls, eagles, or lions. All these animals represented royal authority and kingship. The stairways from the east were adorned with relief sculpture that depicted representatives of the twenty-three subject nations of the Persian empire bringing gifts to the king. The relief program of the Apādana serves to reinforce and underscore the power of the Persian king and the breadth of his dominion. The motif of subjugated peoples contributing their wealth to the empire’s central authority serves to visually cement this political dominance through persuasion. The awe inspiring size was propaganda to the viewer who knew the king had formidable power.

Video on Apādana Capital Columns


Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, 1801, oil on canvas

The portrait of ‘Napoleon Crossing the Alps’ was a work of propaganda, pure and simple. Charles IV, King of Spain, commissioned this portrait to be housed in the Royal Palace in Madrid. The portrait was to commemorate Napoleon leading his groups in a military campaign across the Alps agains the Austrians. The only support Napoleon provided in the creation of the portrait was to say he wanted an equestrian portrait of him calm on a fiery horse. He felt it was the best way to demonstrate his ability to wield power. The fact that Napoleon crossed the Alps days later after his troops on the back of mule was irrelevant.

Imagery of War: Historical/Documentary

Art has been used to present a wide range of messages about war over many centuries. Artists have responded to war creating works to mark moments of triumph or to interpret conquests. We must consider how accurate these images are, are they documentary or are they propagandistic in purpose. Trumbull immortalized the events of Warren’s death in dramatic fashion, elevating them with a heroic iconography that recalls. religious art and eschews many facts of the battle in favor of contemporary artistic preferences for nobility and spectacle. His composition refers to old master images of the Lamentation of Christ. It is not an accurate depiction of battle but shows the heroism even in death. War imagery has also been used to show the artist’s response to the horrors and agonies of war and injustice.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, The Third of May 1808, oil on canvas.

War imagery has also been used to show the artist’s response to the horrors and agonies of war and injustice. Goya’s ‘Third of May’ showed the fear and horror that war brought to the citizens of a Spanish town. As response to a rebellion, French soldiers pulled citizens out of their houses at night and killed them.

Honoré Daumier, Rue Transnonain, le 15 Avril, 1834, Plate 24 of l’Association mensuelle, 1834, lithograph.

  • Caricatures: portraits containing features or characteristics exaggerated for comic effect

Honoré Daumier dramatized the injustice of a night raid in a working class home in Paris after a protest. It was in response to a shot being fired at soldiers from the building during the protest. The soldiers killed all 12 members of the family. Daumier’s works were part of the reason that political caricatures were banned in Paris. It helped to show the power art could have.

Photograph of bodies on the battlefield of Antietam during the American Civil War, Alexander Gardner

Artistic depictions of war changed as warfare changed. We start to see images closer to the true events. These changes were heightened by the advent of photography. The Civil War was the first time photography was used to document a war. Many of the photographs taken during the Civil War were publicly displayed, in order to bring the realities of war to the forefront of the general public’s attention. Gardner’s images were some of the few to hit home the hardest. These image did not show the action of battle, photography was not up to capturing action yet, but the aftermath.


John Singer Sargent, Gassed, 1919, oil on canvas.

By WWI the war imagery, both photography and paintings, had a different feel. We see paintings that show the artist’s personal response to war. These were in part due to the changes toward realism in the 19th century. Sargent shows the realistic results of a mustard gas attack on British solders. The panoramic scene not only shows the devastation to the young men in uniform, but in an ironic juxtaposition, a football (soccer) game is being played in the background seemingly unaware of the damaged and blinded parade of Tommies (the nickname of British soldiers).


Reflective/Reactionary and Anti-War Images

The use of photography was expanded during WWI. The British army was the first to use photography for aerial reconnaissance. They realized the use it provided and did not see it as a security concern like some leaders.

Pfc. W. Chichersky, Bones of anti-Nazi German women in the crematoriums in the German concentration camp at Weimar (Buchenwald), Germany, 1945.

During WWII we see photography expand to show the brutality and horror of war. American military used photography to show the horrors with concentrations camps and gain support from Americans back home. They also started using photography for espionage and to assist with training.


During the Vietnam War, we start to see photography documentation of the war from not only military personnel, but from photojournalists who were now getting unprecedented access to the war zones. Where as the military used photos during WWII to gain support from the citizens back home, the photos taken during Vietnam were having the opposite effect. Many photographs from Vietnam started to negatively impact the public support for the war.

Mihrab, Great Mosque at Cordoba, 8th century

  • Aniconic - symbolic or suggestive rather than literally representational, or without idols or images

Several religions oppose representation in art, and are against using idols or human images. These are called Aniconic – without idols or images. Early Buddhist art and Islamic art are examples of religions that avoid use of human images.


A person who attacks settled beliefs or institutions. A person who destroys religious images or opposes their veneration.

As early as the 8th century we start to see an assault on figural imagery within the Byzantine Christian Church. The idea of iconoclast and iconoclasm has continued from that time until today. We see disagreements in the 1500s over icons that lead to the Protestant Reformation. From 1525 – 1648 we see the Wars of Religion in Europe in which structures were damaged in anti-church sentiment. We still see iconoclast today - discuss some modern issues.

Article and Three videos



Assault of the demon Mara, 2nd Century CE, Stone Relief

  • Aniconic: the avoidance of figural imagery


Lecture Video


Chapter Nine: Art and Power Quiz