The Influence of Art on History, Part 4: Conclusion

Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of the series here.

As we can see from these three examples, art can be, and has been, used in a myriad of ways to influence politics. When looking at these pieces and compare them to each other, it is easy to see they all follow a central theme: the expression of an idea in an attempt to influence others to adopt that same idea. It is also easy to see that these pieces, though from different genres, all relate to each other in that they are responses to the social constructs of that time and that they each use symbolism, overt expression, and systemic ideology to convey their ideas.

Painting of Versailles, 1668.
Public Domain

King Louis XIV built Versailles in response to governmental restlessness, political instability, and a desire to cement himself as the absolute monarch of France. As a child he had experienced civil wars brought about by leadership inadequacies and he desired to put an end to any chance of civil discontent during his reign by instilling in his subjects the belief of his divine right to rule. In order to achieve this end, he needed to provide the country with a monument that would inspire them towards his greatness. The Palace of Versailles accomplished this goal in removing the court from Paris and placing the courtiers fully on the reliance of the King as well as providing constant visual indicators of King Louis’ power and his role as the heart of France.

The Bloody Massacre by Paul Revere
Public Domain

The Bloody Massacre was created in response to an event that itself was a reaction to an action perpetrated by the British monarchy. The American Revolution was seething below the surface, held at bay by the uncertainty of those who didn’t believe their situation to be as dire as the Patriots held it out to be. After the massacre, the Patriots saw their chance to capitalize on an event they could twist to meet their needs. The Bloody Massacre worked beautifully towards that goal and brought many indecisive and uncommitted individuals over to the side of the revolutionaries.

Oliver Twist serial cover
January 1846
Public Domain

Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist as a way of protesting the atrocities of the Poor Laws and systemic mistreatment of the poor in England. His first-hand experience of that treatment inspired his satirical work and his desire to bring about change. It took many years before those changes would come, but his work brought the plight of the poor to the forefront of artistic literature and made great strides in bringing those changes about.

When addressing how these works relate to each other, it is easy to see that they all contain certain similarities: King Louis’ creation of Versailles and Charles Dickens’ inspiration for Oliver Twist both came from firsthand experience. King Louis wished to change the tradition of civil unrest he experienced as a child while Charles Dickens wanted to change the treatment of the poor, which he also experienced as a child. For Paul Revere, his work is similar to Charles Dickens’ work because he wished to incite civil unrest, though to a far greater scale than Dickens’ and to a different end.

Aside from inspiration and theme, these works are also similar in purpose. Each is a method for spreading an idea and expressing an opinion. Each work promotes a cause and shows a desire to shape public thought. All express the superiority of their cause, work to persuade people towards a certain idea, and are avenues for gathering support. While each of these goals was achieved in different ways, these central themes stay the same across each of the works.

To achieve the goals of their central themes, each of these works had to go about it in a different manner. Changes in societal norms, culture, and the political arena were such that using the same methods of persuasion would have been counterproductive. Had Paul Revere or Charles Dickens chosen to build a vast architectural monument to gather support for the Revolution or to call for changes in policies towards the poor, these ends would not have been achieved. Had King Louis been content to have one picture made of him or a monthly article published about his accomplishments, he would not have reached the same level of adulation the Palace of Versailles propelled him to. On the same line, had Charles Dickens chosen to create a visual picture of the hardships faced by the poor instead of a literary one and if Paul Revere had chosen to submit a monthly story detailing a fictional character’s abuses, the Poor Laws may have been in place for decades longer and the American Revolution may never have started.

Because of their acute understanding of how to best reach the public and promote their ideas, these three works excelled at their desired goals.  The Palace of Versailles was used as a demonstration of King Louis’ superiority and importance to garner support for his centralized government while The Bloody Massacre and Oliver Twist were used to incite discontent with the current system, one aimed at displacing that system and the other with reforming it. And all three were very successful in each of their desired achievements, though they are dissimilar in how long it took. King Louis cemented himself as the greatest King of France after moving the court to Versailles 22 years after he assumed sole rule of France. The Bloody Massacre helped catalyze the American Revolution just 5 years after the incident was memorialized while Oliver Twist helped influence various minor reforms in the Poor Laws until they were abolished over one hundred years after the book’s first printing.

Another strong difference in each of these works is their veracity. King Louis was not, in fact, the soul and heart of France, but he was able to inspire that idea about himself in a majority of his citizens, thus bringing the idea to some form of truthfulness. The Bloody Massacre was based on an actual event, though largely fictionalized, and in some parts dishonest, to incite public outrage, at which it succeeded greatly. Oliver Twist, though a fictional story, was based on true events with historically accurate details in order to garner public sympathy, which it slowly achieved over time.

In terms of expression and reach, each work had different goals and results. While Versailles was a large-scale monument exemplifying King Louis’ greatness to the world, The Bloody Massacre was a small engraving meant to inspire revolution in the hearts of a nation while Oliver Twist was a serialized novel published in monthly installments with the intent to turn the hearts of the wealthy to compassion towards the poor. Two were long-term projects while the other inspired immediate outrage and hastened the onset of a war.

As we can see, art of every variety can be used to influence public thinking and promote social changes. Though compositionally varied and created for different reasons, the three works herein all held the same themes of expressing an opinion and influencing others towards those opinions. The Palace of Versailles was born of King Louis XIV’s desire to centralize the government and install himself as the absolute monarch of France while bringing himself and France to the forefront of the political and artistic worlds. The Bloody Massacre was created to stir the American colonists to anger against the British government in an attempt to hasten the onset of the American Revolution. And Oliver Twist was written to call public attention to the plight of the most poor and downtrodden of British society. Each work excelled at its goal and no matter what each particular end goal was, all three were powerful tools used towards a similar end: to influence the masses and bring about change.

As we better understand the influence art can have on society, the easier it will become to understand the purpose and the message in the works around us. Just as King Louis XIV wished to proclaim his dominance with the Palace of Versailles, people today wish to demonstrate their importance by designing, building or acquiring vast estates or majestic structures. Just as with The Bloody Massacre, photographers, artists and videographers can take an event and use creative manipulation to create a warped version of what actually happened in order to persuade others to their cause. And just like with Oliver Twist, authors, bloggers, social commentators and news writers tell stories of social injustice in an attempt to bring about change. And just like these artists, we can all use our own chosen artistic avenues to express our own ideas, share our thoughts, inspire change and influence others. Art is powerful and it can move nations.

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