New book illustrates the role of protest posters and the blind spots of the modern left
In the late 18th century, the English anti-slavery crusader Thomas Clarkson stumbled on a novel and powerful way to promote the end of slavery in the British empire, one especially well-suited to a culture with relatively cheap printing presses and lax censorship laws. He and his abolitionist group based in the port town of Plymouth created a diagram that illustrated with damning, understated exactitude just how tightly human cargo was packed on a slave ship called the Brooks of Liverpool.
They sent the drawing to reformers in London who, in the words of historian Adam Hochschild, “immediately saw what a powerful piece of propaganda it was … ran off some copies, sent off a bunch to their abolitionist friend Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia, sent some more to their sympathizer, the Marquis de Lafayette in Paris, and then they printed up 8,000 copies of it as a poster and put it up in pubs throughout the British Isles.” It was, argues Hochschild, “the first widely distributed political poster, and it had a huge impact on people.”
Thus was an amazingly potent and endlessly adaptable medium born. Since Clarkson’s day, the political poster has become a ubiquitous feature around the globe, even in countries that crack down on free expression, where artists and provocateurs somehow always manage to send their messages regardless of risk to life and limb. The Design of Dissent (Rockport), an engaging new paperback edition of a volume originally published in 2005, collects political posters from the last 40 years with anti-war, anti-globalization, and other themes created by artists in areas ranging from North America to the Middle East to Africa to the Balkans.
Edited by legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser (he designed the “I *Heart* NY” campaign, co-founded New York magazine, and created anti-Bush campaign buttons for The Nation) and Mirko Ilic (the former art director for the international edition of Time and the New York Times op-ed page), the book is consistently provocative and occasionally stunning. It is also ultimately frustrating and unintentionally revelatory in ways that suggest not only the limits of trendy left-wing politics but arguably of the poster as a political intervention.
At the core of The Design of Dissent is an inability or unwillingness to rethink a tired, played-out relationship to capitalism and markets, which, precisely because they force the constant renegotiation of value, meaning and significance, create space for radical technological, cultural, and political change.
Instead there is, at best, hand-wringing ambivalence. “The marketplace,” writes Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner in a foreword, “created graphic design, its vocabulary, its ether.” Yet “twenty-first-century admirers of great political graphic design can’t banish an uneasiness in appreciating design’s power to catalyze change. We’ve seen too often how great design successfully sells monstrous lies, and we know how closely related to the whole process of selling and branding, of merchandising and commodifying, how intimately related to business, to commerce, all graphic art is.” Ad men remain hucksters, it seems, whether they are selling dissent or Dentyne, imbued with priestly powers to mesmerize all who gaze upon their work.
More important, the audience remains essentially passive, lurching back and forth between better-designed campaigns for war and peace, mass slaughter of farm animals and vegetarianism, despoilment of the environment and conservation. There’s little sense in this volume that the marketplace of ideas, like the marketplace for goods and services, creates and depends on individuals capable of critical and independent thought.
The range of topics covered among the book’s 14 sections—segments titled “Iraq War,” “Animals,” “Corporate World,” “Gun Control” and “U.S. Presidential Election"—is bewildering and ultimately promiscuous due to the vastly different levels of moral seriousness. A haunting poster titled “Don’t,” which takes aim at the second-class status of Malaysian women, resides a few pages from “Bloody Mickey,” a banal and predictable attack on the planet’s best-selling cartoon rodent. In the latter, Mickey Mouse’s silhouette is turned into a practice target from which blood is dripping; among some leftists, apparently, Mickey Mouse is the world’s longest-surviving dictator.
Powerful examples of newspaper ads and billboards from the early anti-Iraq War group “Not in Our Name” are undercut by pieces such as “Supersize,” an anti-fast-food spread done for a Japanese magazine, in which french fries, presumably from McDonald’s, are shaped into a pistol.
“The inherent health risks in consuming fast food, America’s most visible and influential export,” the editors solemnly declare, are “clearly communicated in these simple yet powerful images.”
Well, maybe, though just for starters the phrases “inherent health risks” and “most visible and influential export” call out for dissent, or at least clarification. This much seems clear: A U.S.-based artist mocking American fast food in a high-end Japanese magazine is less an exercise in dissent than the embodiment of smug self-congratulation.
On what terms, one wonders, do working-class Japanese consume McDonald’s, or Coca-Cola (another product pounded like an Abu Ghraib prisoner throughout this collection)? Rather than signaling capitulation to the American global hegemon, perhaps eating a Big Mac in Tokyo is a way of speaking back to an often stultifying, protectionist Japanese economy and culture, somewhat analogous to the way East bloc dissidents fetishized Levi’s and Marlboros as a “fuck you” to local powers. Maybe it’s the equivalent of wearing a beret in certain parts of the U.S. Even as the editors note that all meaning and dissent are ultimately local and contextual, they betray no interest in audience reception and reaction, in how these works actually fomented dissent.
As a guide to four decades of political posters and the graphic vocabulary employed by artists around the globe, The Design of Dissent is rarely less than captivating. But as an indicator of contemporary left-wing thought, and as a gauge of the modern left’s continuing discomfort with markets, it is more interesting still.