The Art of Manipulation at MHC

Posted: May 2, 2008

Studying how leaders have influenced and controlled their societies through history is interesting enough in theory, but a trip to the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum gave students in the international relations course Propaganda and War an opportunity to see and handle the tools of mass control firsthand.

Politics professor Kavita Khory and associate professor of international relations Jon Western, coteachers of Propaganda and War, joined with curator Wendy Watson and art advisory board fellow Laura Weston to identify objects relevant to the class from the more than 21,000 to choose from in both the Art Museum and the Skinner Museum.

On Monday, April 21, the class visited the Art Museum where Watson and Weston had arranged an impressive collection of coins, sculptures, paintings, photographs, and posters that exposed students to a wide range of representations and images illustrating the history and techniques of propaganda, with examples ranging from ancient Greece to World War II.

Western noted, "The sensory experience of the original objects in the museum--for example, holding an ancient Roman coin with various representations of the Roman Empire and the glorification of war--added a depth of understanding and awareness that we could not possibly create in the classroom."

Students, Khory added, were especially moved and intrigued by Jacques Callot's etchings on the miseries of war from the Thirty Years' War in the seventeenth century, Roger Fenton's photographs of the Crimean War from 1854, and a remarkable collection of World War II era U.S. War Department posters. Also displayed to the class were a Nazi armband, a Civil War volume from 1862, and an Native American war club--all from the school's Skinner Museum, a wide-ranging collection of American and European furniture, decorative arts, crafts, tools, and geological specimens.

"It was a revelation to me to view all the different mediums of propaganda through the ages, which our modern society has inherited," said Tori Kerman '08, a student in the class. "From statues, to coins, to books, to paintings and photographs, the items the museum staff showed us are all a part of our world, in addition to the new media forms that surround us. It's amazing to think that all these things we take for granted have actually been created to elicit certain reactions from us, or even to lead us toward certain behaviors."

Hillela Simpson '10 observed, "I think that visiting the museum was a great way to see some of the propaganda we have been discussing in context. Viewing the propaganda as it was originally viewed, face to face, provided me with a different and interesting perception of its visual power."

Watson's narration gave students a sense of context and history, and encouraged them to think more carefully about the artists' and photographers' uses of different materials and techniques to represent the waging of war and its repercussions. As she noted: "A print from 1944 about the horrors of war by the German/Israeli artist Jacob Pins, for example, was executed using the woodcut technique. The artist carved and slashed at the printing block, using tools that almost resemble weapons themselves, in the end creating a unforgettable artistic commentary on the disastrous consequences of warfare."

The World War II posters, in digitized forms, were also used in an evening session drawing together students from Propaganda and War; Italian Literature and Fascism taught by assistant professor of Italian Ombretta Frau; and War Memories in Germany and Japan, a first-year seminar offered by German studies professor Karen Remmler.

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