While new production techniques have emerged—the digital world has created new opportunities that didn't exist a decade or so ago—there is a continuity between old and new traceable back more than a century and a half. Like protest posters of decades past, some of those arising as Occupy pokes its way into new corners of the national consciousness are destined to become iconic.
In the best posters of now and yesteryear, edgy message and edgy design combine with searing images, original or "borrowed," to elicit a visceral reaction from those whom the poster-maker seeks to strike a chord, to create an appreciative nod, to lure or goad people into action. Humor, irony, stunning color mixes and, call it a freshness, often play roles in creating posters a viewer immediately knows "speaks to me." In the best, long after the details of a single protest or entire movement have been forgotten, the poster lives on, not infrequently to show up in some new iteration. For instance, James Montgomery Flagg's 1916 "preparedness" image of Uncle Sam used as a military recruiting poster in World War II and its opposite during the Vietnam War never stops serving new protest needs.
mask joins the famous
"I Want You" Uncle Sam
recruiting image to deliver
both an old and new message.
Sandwiched between, with the civil rights and antiwar movements raging, I came away covered in ink from hours making silkscreen posters imprinted with, among other things, images of Vietnamese peasants and giant letters saying "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" Like the participatory democracy many of us espoused, it was a messy, but deeply satisfying hands-on process. In addition to the mass production, there were also hours spent cranking out one-of-a-kind posters with our own impromptu, sometimes misspelled, grease-pen messages.
posters boast a serrated sense of humor.
For instance, earlier this month, Molly Fair of the 26-member Just Seeds Artists Cooperative highlighted a reflection by David Spataro, an "Occuprinter," about the experience of skilled printers working with new arrivals at Zuccotti Park:
What is the best way to demonstrate to people that they should jump in? To demonstrate that the person printing in front of them actually just jumped in an hour ago – they were where you are and now they're printing! Who needs what kinds of push and when? It's simple and complicated at the same time. I needed Jesse and Josh in the diner telling me to chill out. That it's fine to start printing with an incomplete process, because the simplest solutions will get you out there faster and because other people will help you when you hit a wall. And for that I owe them, and all the other relentless self-organizers out there, immensely.
At Groundswell, A Journal of Art & Activism, Mallory Knodel writes:
The movement has exploded with catchy and poignant slogans. On-site screen printing of t-shirts and placards is one manifestation of the way slogans and graphic design are reproduced and disseminated immediately, just like on the Internet.
general strike/Sven Eberlein
The written word is made visual a few feet away at the screen-printing operation, where protestors apply messages to T-shirts, jackets and just about any flat surface. The graphic design produced at this table, which is manned by at least three people at any given time, combines the look of street art, revolutionary imagery and a sense of irony cultivated among under-employed sophisticates. A design declaring "I can't afford a lobbyist" recently graced the table, and the image of a messenger-bag-toting young woman with the words "Rise Up" is prominently displayed.
"People were standing in 45-to 90-minute lines for T-shirts," said 28-year-old Haywood, who would only give his first name and, though he was wearing a name tag that said "info," insisted that he didn't represent the movement: "I'm no one's boss, and no one is the boss of me."
Lincoln Cushing, a fine poster creator himself, joined Timothy W. Drescher, in a fascinating, hard-to-put-down book, Agitate! Educate! Organize! American Labor Posters. There are 268 images in the book. Cushing himself was a 20-year veteran of the Graphic Communications International Union. In a 2009 review, Randy Shaw wrote:
It forces readers to think about the values that inspired these posters, and that produced the movements from which these art works emerged. One could understandably wonder why the causes and unions trumpeted in the posters were not more successful, and why the integration of cultural work and labor unions—so prominent in the Industrial Workers of the World, the United Auto Workers, SEIU Local 1199 and the United Farmworkers of America (UFW)—remains the exception and not the rule.
Best of all, thanks to a grant, Cushing has produced a database of labor protest posters containing 900 images.
and no loss in pay." Artist unknown,
UAW Education Department (circa 1950s)
Any labor activist reading through this book has to ask how unions lost their marketing advantage over corporate America—and by seeing how prior generations used posters to build broad support for economic justice, today’s activists’ can initiate innovative strategies to regain it. ... Throughout this history, graphic design has played an important supporting role: bringing workers together, calling for action, celebrating victories and commemorating fallen heroes. ...
Emerson: What surprised you about doing the book?
Cushing: I’ve done labor posters and I thought I knew what I would run across. But I kept seeing particular styles and subjects that were just mind-blowing. Like the range of social issues under the “workers” umbrella—because it’s not just about unions. Take posters about occupational safety and health. There’s a focus where we think, “Ew, how do you design an effective poster about people losing their fingers?” Well, there're some pretty good ones in there and it’s a pretty important subject. But if you grabbed a designer out of school and said, “Would you like to design a poster about occupational safety and health?” they’d look at you like you were crazy.Emerson: It was interesting to see the wide variety of visual strategies: from photo montage to simple cartoons, from the monumental figures of the WPA images to the florid and psychedelic lettering of 1960s posters. Some images were clearly designed to be posted in a workplace, some were designed to be held up on a picket line. And there were a couple of early offset images that were very elaborate and luxuriously illustrated and printed. I wanted to know more about these.By Lincoln Cushing (1979)
Cushing: That elaborateness was typical of posters from that period. You could do a dissertation just on all the objects in those posters: What’s the poster in this poster?
As for the stylistic range, many of these were not designed by professional graphic artists. They were done by volunteers who would help out for the cause. Or they were early projects of people who might have had some training. Occasionally, you’d clearly have something done by a professional design firm, but it really does run the gamut. It’s fun to compare them and see which are effective and which less effective. We tried to pick the strongest ones in terms of both historical developments and design. But many are sort of outsider art and it gives a fresh perspective on design approaches.Emerson: As a poster-maker, did you find some that were more effective to you, say, using humor or outrage or visual metaphors?Archivist Lincoln Cushing, former Black Panther Minister
of Culture Emory Douglas and artist/activist
Favianna Rodriguez on a panel at February's
Political Poster Jam held at the Oakland
Museum of California. An excerpt is here.
Cushing: One measure of a powerful image is whether it gets recycled. So we showed the example of “We Can Do It.” As far as I can tell, it’s the most imitated and reproduced image of the labor movement. I’ve got dozens and dozens of examples that I’ve just touched on in this book.
The evaluation of how effective a poster is would really require after-the-fact interviews and focus groups. Most of it is conjecture. But you can always look at an image and say, “Huh, it works for me.” ...
My mission in life is to lend some respect to scholarship around political poster art—that it’s not just a goofy, marginalized, misunderstood genre, but has a lot of parts that merit respect and recognition.
My next book is about the unique role of the San Francisco Bay area in poster art. This region has been continuously producing independent political posters since 1965—longer than anywhere else. Many other places have had major moments of poster output. Minneapolis is a smaller city that gave rise to a huge number of posters. Usually it takes a bigger city to have a thriving poster culture. Tiny little towns don’t often do it. But sometimes you have a gifted artist and a community that works together and you have a blossoming.
You can read another interview with Cushing here.
Labor first used posters as part of its organizing more than 100 years before most of the posters in Cushing and Drescher's book appeared. But it was the anti-slave movement that led the way. Abolitionist posters often copied the technique of "broadsides" in using wooden type-faces that were becoming increasingly common because they yielded larger print. And they used images as well, including the powerful and iconic "Am I Not a Man and a Brother" that appeared everywhere, and, after 1838, in an "Am I Not a Woman and a Sister" version. Color was still rare. As can be seen, the poster on the left was mass produced with blanks left for date, time, place and speaker to be added later locally.
The posters sold not only products but an image—the image of the ideal life and the ideal woman. Although probably not a novel concept, Cheret's use of pretty young women to advertise retail products was widely copied. His fantasized provocative beauties, dubbed "Chêrettes," (often 8 feet tall) were an unhealthy first step towards media promoting impossible body types for women."
Lars Hasvoll Bakke writes:
One of the great aesthetic legacies of the Soviet Union is the great wealth of magnificent propaganda posters it left behind. In this post, I present some personal favorites.
With the coming of revolution in Russia in 1917, one of the great powers of the world turned abruptly into a regime that embodied ideas that were radically different from those of the established powers of the day. Accompanying a new outlook on politics and economy, there had to be renewal and change in other areas too, including the way the new state presented itself and its ideas.
The revolution coincided with a period of many radically different art forms in western culture, dada, futurism, constructivism, surrealism and so on. Especially in its early years, propaganda posters produced in Soviet Russia were influenced by such movements.
Though the more experimental looks eventually gave way to designs more akin to what could be seen in other western countries, Soviet propaganda still retained a look of its own, beyond the presence of cyrillic lettering.
Of these posters, Stefan Congrat-Butlar writes:
The Bolshevik posters of the period mirror the conflicts and concerns of the Revolutionary struggle: exploiters and exploited, world capitalism, the Czar and his henchmen, the call to arms for the cause, an appeal to the workers of the world - or, at least, of Russia—to unite. When the Revolution of October-November 1917 ended in victory for the Revolutionary cause, the slogans became peace, Lenin's hoped-for "general peace, without annexations and without indemnities," land reform, economic reform.
With the outbreak of the Civil War after the signing of the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty in 1918, the poster designers, legend writers, and Soviet publishing houses turned their attention to the emergencies created by adherents of counter-revolution and foreign intervention and to new personalities and events: again calls to arms, anti-Bolshevik White Guards and their leaders, the foreign interventionists and their Russian supporters, the Polish landed gentry and its marshal and leaders and their dreams of an empire "from sea to sea" (Baltic to Black). ...As for artistic merit, many of the posters are the equal of anything produced in other cultures. Some are brilliant and shocking and evocative and provocative; some are impressionistic, others expressionistic; some are definitely forerunners of the future Soviet socialist-realism.Liberated Women Build Up Socialism
by Strahov-Bratislavsky Adolf Iosifovich (1926)
Some were designed and executed by the foremost Russian artists of the day—Moor, Apsit, Lisitski, Ivanov (Mayakovski alone produced more than 600)—others by unknown and unrecorded but significant draftsmen, caricaturists, and artists. The motifs and styles and sources of inspiration are varied. The posters speak for themselves and for their creators and for the times.
Not too long after the Soviets started producing posters that have connections to what we see today, the Nazis did the same. But I'm. just. not. going. there. The 1930s saw another example of posters with a variety of artistic styles, the more than 1600 produced with funding from the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project, mostly by local government commission. On my shelves is a book edited by Ennis Carter , Posters for the People, with images of some 500 of these posters, many of which are exhortations to be careful on the job, take time to read, save the birds, and a seemingly endless collection of poster advertising for cultural events.
As artifacts, the posters serve as an important snapshot of a moment in our nation’s social, cultural, and art history. Their creation played a key role not only in promoting the hopes and aspirations of a government but also in advancing American poster design and printing techniques.
Technically, the posters represent innovative developments in American graphic design and poster printmaking. Production shifted from hand-painted images on easels to woodblock and lithography and, in 1936, to the revolutionary use of silkscreen, previously only a commercial medium.
With the exception of the civil rights movement, the 1950s were hardly known as an era of protest, and it wasn't until the 1960s that protest posters began to appear regularly along with a changing consciousness among a large segment of the population. With segregationists fighting against every attempt to fulfill to objectives of the Civil War amendments passed a century before, several organizations of the civil rights movement produced powerful photographs to bolster their struggle.
Photographer unknown (1963)
(1964 — photographer unknown)
Among these were Martin Sharp's "Madonna of Napalm" poster depicting President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the pro-war Australian Prime Minister John Gorton, and the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky.
Johnson, in fact, caught a major dose of political attacks from antiwar protesters, many of whom abandoned the label "liberal" for themselves because the President and other leading Democrats were Cold War liberals who may have internally found themselves unhappy with the war, but didn't start saying anything publicly until hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asians and thousands of Americans were dead.
Just how much the political artistic focus was on LBJ can be seen at Art for a Change. An excerpt:
The unbridled fury aimed from some quarters at President Johnson and U.S. foreign policy was evident in this 1968 street poster, Guilty Of Murder LBJ-USA. The poster utilized the artwork, Calavera Huertista (Skeletal Follower of Huerta) created by the Mexican printmaker, José Guadalupe Posada in the last year of his life. The anonymous poster designer no doubt chose this image by Posada (1852-1913) because it was an attack against the followers of Mexican President, General Victoriano Huerta, who seized power in a 1913 military coup.
The contemporary designer therefore was able to draw a connection, albeit an obscure one, between L.B.J. and one of Mexico’s most reviled military despots. Huerta’s reign lasted a year before he was driven from power by the combined revolutionary armies of Álvaro Obregón and Pancho Villa.
While the controversial LBJ-USA poster was based upon an appropriated or un-credited "borrowed" image, the graphic was fairly well known as having been created by Posada, whose legacy was undergoing a renaissance in the U.S. at the time thanks to the burgeoning Mexican American civil rights and Chicano arts movement. Furthermore, the anonymous poster was not utilized to garner profit nor boost someone’s career in art; its purpose was strictly and solely meant to serve political ends—emaining an anonymous production even till this day.
Other artists took different approaches, producing posters without words as shown in José Gómez Fresquet's graphically stunning comparison of the life of young women in America with those in Vietnam as the war raged on and on and on.
Among the more captivating poster images were those produced by the Black Panther Party, with its widely adopted "Power to the People" slogan combined with in-your-face images.
if you'd like to read more about political poster art, you can find some good material at Social Design Notes, Design History and Art for a Change. And, if you're in the Los Angeles area, I highly recommend a trip to the Center for the Study of Political Graphics. They have an open house scheduled for Dec. 3. More poster art from Occupy and previous protest eras appears below the squiggle.
(1971, artist unknown)
by Barbara Morgan (1976)
Another Mother for Peace, Inc. (1966)
of Chemical, Energy, Mine and
General Workers' Unions (1998)
Municipal Employees, Wisconsin. Photograph taken
in 1968 by Ernest Withers of striking
sanitation workers in Memphis. (2011)
by Rafael Morante of Organizacion de Solidaridad de los Pueblos
de Africa, Asia y América Latina (1971)