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.
Although this one isn’t available online, you can rent it from LoveFilm (or Netflix) and failing that, it is available in Amazon UK and Amazon.com there is also an excellent micro-site on the PBS website with in-depth information and links.
How Art Made the World : Episode 3, Art of Persuasion
This episode explores how art can be used as a persuasion device by those in power and when did we learn to use images, to create a powerful icon or symbol, this way?
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.
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. Darius the Great of Persia, ruled over 20 nations from Persepolis. As very few people could read, Darius had stone reliefs created that combined styles from all over the empire, the carvings showed each nation bring tributes to their king. This showed a sign of respect and the carvings communicated that Darius admired and respected his people. Darius created a symbol for himself, that of the archer, symbolic to Persians as leadership and wisdom central to the concept of kingship. Darius embossed this symbol on gold coins which became the currency to trade within the empire.
Darius’ conqueror, Alexander the Great, took this concept further. Even from an early age, Alexander’s image was being made for him. In his fathers tomb, an Ivory head recognisable as Alexander’s was found, showing that his image had been made for him in advance of him becoming king. In Pompeii, a copy of an original Macedonian painting, shows Alexander the great, shown fearless, fixated on his enemy and leading from the front. He is in the midst of battle with king Darius, shown fearful and panicking. Where Darius had used a symbol to communicate his power, Alexander used his face. On defeating the Persians, Alexander melted down all their coins replacing them with coins bearing his head. Test have shown that people are more influenced by the image of the head and this technique has endured 2500 years and still used today.
This artistic power can be used for sinister purposes, to persuade us to see things a certain way or even deceive us. The earliest known use of this dates back to the Romans. In 40bc Rome was in crisis, the city state was split between royalists and republicans. You could tell people’s political allegiance by how they dressed. Octavian (Augustas) understoof the power of art and used it to his advantage. He needed to persuade his opposition and used artists to create a less threatening image, one that won over the republicans. Although the image showed him as a powerful general, it didn’t show any military arms, and his gestures were more about humility than power. His armor breast plates show him accepting surrender of the Parthian Empire, with the gods looking on approvingly. The statue offered reassurance, but it was all a lie. 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.
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.