Bulletin of the AOUON Archive, #3 (May 1981)
On The Character Of
The American Political Poster Renaissance
Some day, the renaissance of political poster art in America that began in the mid-1960s will be recognized internationally as a unique chapter in the histories of art and of political culture. Sixteen years into it, however, in 1981, this recognition has hardly yet begun to form in either mundane or academic circles. (0)
Nearness and Neglect
The posters slipped into our lives as unobtrusively as so flamboyant a flowering could. At first they seemed only a minor offshoot of the larger revival of posters and visual decoration sparked by the "counter-culture" era. If they came to public attention, most dramatically during the Cambodia bombings of 1970, it was not on their own account, but as a mostly-utilitarian accessory to the larger, hotter drama of political conflict. Though the media declared the Movement dead at Kent State, progressive social ferment continued through the next decade, and with it the accessory art of political posters continued to develop. By now the posters, however striking individually, have become almost as natural a part of our visual context and culture as matchbook covers, and almost as unremarked as such. They seem to have been here forever, at least in such places and neighborhoods as they appear in. Nothing calls us to remember how they began as a phenomenon or what they amount to.
Likewise, the political poster renaissance remains almost invisible or unnoticed in the formal worlds of art and political history, despite the recent broadening of both to respect more of popular culture, by reason not only of nearness but of various prejudices. Loosely speaking, to art historians the posters have not been art, and to political historians the posters have not been print; in consequence they have slipped through the categorical crack and been neglected by both sides. So far as I know, only one art historian (David Kunzle at UCLA) has published major work on some (early) aspects of this renaissance; his book-catalogue (1) had a press-run of 600 copies, and its Italian version too is a decade out of print. Besides this, the academic literature includes a meager handful of articles. Though posters from the political sector figure prominently in the main book covering modern American poster work (2), their provenance is slighted and the political poster movement as such is not considered there. Trade books have appeared during this time devoted to political posters from the French student revolt (3), from Cuba (4), from the Spanish Civil War (5). But the only one dealing with much recent American work (6) disperses it in a larger mass of international work, discusses only the general nature of posters as propaganda vehicles, and is also long out-of-print. Scattered articles in political journals may well have escaped me, but there has been no notable attention even there to what has become, in a modest and untrumpeted way, a minor political movement in its own right, than only an accessory to the general movement. (7)
Nor have the posters themselves, as tangible artifacts, gotten much better attention. Sporadic exhibitions have been organized since 1970, at some universities and even at the Library of Congress; but the only major show seems to have been at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1971. Only in the San Francisco Bay Area, from 1978 on, has a more focused activity of exhibition begun; and so far it has been concerned mainly with local and current work (as well it should, being inspired and organized by local artists currently at work). Certain local poster groups and no doubt others elsewhere have begun to keep approximately-adequate archives of their own production. But as for historical and general collection, by institutions or privately, activity has been scattered and minimal, sacrificing an irreplaceable opportunity and heritage. Of the accounted archives even the largest, the AOUON Archive -- holding 4,000 designs -- has at most 5% of the 80,000+ posters produced since 1965. The next-ranking collections are in the Library of Congress (1400 designs) and at UCLA (800+ designs). Besides these I have located only a scant dozen collections of 200-800 designs so far (some general, some specialized.) (8)
A Brief Resume
Despite this nearness and neglect, it is possible already to see recent American political poster activity as a distinctive chapter, still unfolding; and to begin to put it in perspective with other major chapters, present and historical -- both as a body of art, and as a social phenomenon. The historical chapters of the French and Russian Revolutions, the two World Wars, the Spanish Civil War and the recent French student revolt had each much shorter duration and a narrower focus; nor do the numbers of different posters produced seem to have approached the volume of this American chapter, save among all nations combined in WWI (and perhaps in Russia). Only the contemporary Chinese and Cuban chapters are of longer standing (30 and 20 years, as against 16, so far); and their total design productions may not be larger, though many of their print-runs have been huge.
The true distinction of the American chapter, however, lies not in its statistics but in its social and aesthetic character. The New Left had virtually no visual art of its own for the first seven years. The political poster renaissance began abruptly in 1965-66, not in simple imitation of the dance (and general) poster renaissance, but as a deeper consequence of the sudden impact of a new pulse of "counter-"cultural vitality -- itself a direct though unexpected consequence of the revival of social activism -- which came quickly to influence many of the modes and terms of progressive social activity. The first productions were sporadic, done by artists already established in other media (commercial dance posters, underground comix) and by amateurs within the Movement. By 1970, poster culture was widespread enough to generate an historically-unprecedented outpouring of work from popular collective workshops in response to the Cambodia bombings and Kent State killings (the poster workshops of the 1968 French student revolt may have been more intense, but were less widespread and prolific). (9)
By this time, the institutionalization of this renaissance had begun in earnest, as scattered groups of committed artists organized themselves around poster production as a primary, ongoing activity. The modes of their effort were characteristic of America and of their movement; this and the ups-and-downs of their efforts deserve separate discussion. But by 1981, in the San Francisco Bay Area alone there were a dozen active poster-producing groups, most over five years old, responsible for some hundreds of posters yearly and, in the Mission District of San Francisco at least, for training a generation of (Hispanic-American) artists in community service. Though no well-organized networks of communication or distribution serve such activity nationally, I know of similar groups in four other California locales and in six other states. Of the California groups, only three may have pursued national distribution; almost all mainly serve the local community, which suggests that the present national roster of such groups may well be nearer to 100 than to the 32 I've identified so far. (10)
State Sponsorship and Independence
This social evolution has proceeded so gradually and naturally that its audience, and most of its artists, are unaware of what a curious and unique phenomenon it has comprised. With the exception of the French student revolt, narrow in focus and transitory, every other notable modern chapter of political poster history been sponsored and supported by a national government. The vast productions of Chinese and Cuban work, the peak achievements of the Spanish Civil War, Mayakovsky's collaboration in 300 agitprop posters for the October Revolution -- all owed their existence to the State, and were shaped to serve the State's purposes, however much they also reflected a popular will. We must reach back to the posted rebellious broadsides of the American Civil War period and to the first flowering of political lithography in the French Revolution to discover the poster as a direct popular expression unmediated by the State -- but these earliest chapters seem not to have included any mass activities or ongoing organizations analogous to those in the modern American scene.
The American renaissance, on the other hand, has organized itself not only without the support of national or local government, nor simply in independence, but often and generally as an active agency of opposition to governmental policies and textures -- though not to the political system enabling this freedom of opposition. This freedom exists also in other Western industrial democracies; and analogous contemporary developments of poster activity have occurred also in at least Great Britain, Germany and Italy, producing notable work but so far no story to rival the American chapter in scope and complexity. Still, it is proper to understand this as the leading face of an international chapter.
Bereft of governmental support and constraint, the American political poster movement has organized itself in a positive anarchy. Some sectors of production have been subsidized as policy by national groups, e.g. the SWP (a would-be State), but these do not bulk large. Most production still arises on a spontaneous and completely decentralized basis, from a great variety of independent ongoing and ad-hoc community groups pursuing their particular needs and purposes, without much inter-relation or coordination. Even the most developed production has this ecumenical and responsive character: of the dozen ongoing workshops in the Bay Area, only two or three direct their work largely to a particular (ethnic) constituency, and none to a narrow theme or political tendency.
Given these lacks of constraint, subsidy and coordination, and this responsiveness of supply to demand, political poster activity has constituted a free market of sorts in the cultural economy of America, flourishing in unregulated vitality. It has also been an economic activity in a narrower sense, of a character again unique in political poster history -- due in part to the absence of governmental subsidy, and in part to the particular textures of American economic culture. Thus the considerable production of posters with political messages by non-political commercial enterprises, for sale as consumer decoration, has been a novelty twice over: once in short-circuiting their functional character as artifacts of public posting (a development anticipated earlier in the non-political sphere, with reprinted bullfight and travel posters), and again in the very privatization and commercialization of this aspect of political culture.
This dual novelty has marked much of the production by political groups as well -- for in serving their non- or anti-commercial purposes, many adapt standard commercial practices to exploit the attitudes of consumer culture. Posters are regularly created for sale to partisans and sympathizers to benefit particular causes and groups. Much of this action is ad hoc and sporadic; yet its accumulation accounts for a good share of the posters issued since 1970 in every thematic category, and for perhaps the majority in some (e.g., support for political prisoners). Certain activist groups, notably in the environmental issues sector, derive a significant part of their income routinely from poster sales, and have established marketing systems more substantial than the norm of sales at events and through bookstores. As for poster activists themselves, some groups remain adamantly free of commercial involvement; but the more usual tendency has been to plan part of their production specifically for sale to help support the rest of their activity.
Despite the progression of all these developments during the past decade, much and perhaps most of the current production is still fully non-commercial, and still meant for the traditional primary purpose of ephemeral public posting. Nonetheless, it is fair to identify the American renaissance as the first significantly-commercialized chapter of political poster history. The effects of this upon the idiom and medium of posters have been in part subversive, and are too complex to discuss here. But surely the extraordinary diversity and vitality of modern American work has been connected intimately with its peculiar economic character.
It is this diversity, rather than cultivation of a particular style, that defines the aesthetic character of the American renaissance and marks it as unique. Looking through the poster books of historical chapters, one is struck by how consistent an aesthetic each developed -- even the work of the Russian Revolution, quite the freest artistically of the lot before Socialist Realism quenched the spark. Were these books' leaves mixed at random together, one could readily segregate them out again without special preparation, so clearly are time and place encoded in their graphic art. This consistency might be due in part to the selectivity of book editors. But a look at the unedited wealths of recent Cuban and Chinese posters suggests the reverse: for their styles are so developed and distinctive as to be rather monotonous (even if, in the Cuban case, glorious), and a sensitive editor might well select to minimize this uniformity.
It may be that modern American work will seem so also, when viewed with more perspective in time and culture. But I think not, if only because it includes pieces inspired by or imitating every other major chapter of poster history, political or nonpolitical, and many other graphic traditions as well. Direct quotation of current Cuban and Chinese and older Soviet work is to be expected, of course, from artists of certain political tendencies, and parody of patriotic WWI work is irresistible. But for these to appear interspersed with the styles of Art Nouveau and Expressionism, of the Egyptian frieze, the medieval illuminated manuscript, African tribal sculpture and the Oriental ideogram, gives a uniquely eclectic character to the collective work they enliven. The American renaissance does have its own repetitive mainstream(s) of style, generally no more inventive and often less interesting than those of other chapters. But these do not compromise its unique character in the whole.
Three Grounds of Diversity:
A Parsing of…
Diversity, within a larger unity, is the key quality of this American renaissance. It is not a feature of aesthetic style only, nor a superficial quality, but rather is rooted deeply in the essential ground of poster-making in this particular time and place, in at least three distinct ways.
First, the ground is America the Melting-Pot, this community of diverse peoples; and the time is precisely when the ideology of melting falters and the lumps begin to re-form. The poster renaissance began in the year that Civil Rights mutated into the twin thrust of Black Power/Black Identity. Ethnic posters were sparse at first, compared to the flood of anti-war work; but by 1970 the tides of Brown and Red had joined Black in re-identifying themselves through social and graphic action. Two shades of Yellow followed, plus a motley of Jews, Iranians, and so on. Meanwhile Woman, i.e., feminists, began to explore a related metaphor of themselves as a distinct people and culture; and were followed in turn by the Gay, the Aged, and the Handicapped. Each of these peoples, ethnic or metaphoric, was led not only to express its particular concerns in public action and media, but to delve into its historical and cultural heritage to re-gather and reinterpret what was distinctive and vivifying for its purposes.
This process has enriched domestic poster art with a wealth of symbols, motifs, subjects and styles, drawn organically from many cultures and periods and imbued with the live passions of the day. In large part and properly, this enrichment continues to be segregated -- the massed works of Black, Brown, etc. postermakers are utterly distinctive and dissimilar. (Woman's work alone of the metaphoric peoples' is distinctive, but much less so). Still, this enrichment is a property of the whole, unparalleled in any other chapter past or present; and comes increasingly to mark the whole as the substreams of this renaissance slowly cross-fertilize themselves in public space.
A second essential ground of diversity lies in the nature of the political movement from which these posters come. Here again, the character is not only American, but of this particular era. From the first (1958) the New Left had no dominant ideology, centralizing organization, or concern. Civil Rights claimed its early attention less as prime cause than as prime inspiration; anti-war work preoccupied it for the next years as an anguishing distraction. Still, the seeds of diverse focus and action had been well-planted and thrived even during this time: of posters issued from 1965-69, only one-third were concerned with antiwar activities.
By the early seventies, the diversity portended in the Movement's beginning and amplified by the radical cultural openings of the mid-sixties had found full expression: the Movement as such, as one (semi-) self-conscious entity, lay dead, or rather dispersed into a hundred Hydra heads chewing separately at as many places in the fabric of American life. The ethnic and metaphoric liberation movements continued to develop among a bewilderingly broad array of social causes -- for the questioning of authority, the quest for reform and alternatives, had penetrated nearly every major social institution to leave groups working for change on long-term and relatively isolated bases. Moreover, the very bounds of political concept, discourse and action had enlarged dramatically, admitting actors and causes beyond the traditional canon.
In consequence, the posters of this era are a carnival, a flood of graphic passion illuminating each least theme of concern pursued by tens of thousands of independent groups. They defend the rights of food-stamp recipients and obscure butterflies; they advocate free love, municipal ownership of power systems, and an end to psychiatric confinement; they urge support for marijuana activism, women's health collectives, and the unionization of college faculty. Poster-works spring from each focus, as independently as its activities proceed -- yet what justifies regarding them together as a collective work is not only their source in a common time and land, but a deep sense of inter-relation shared generally, if not rigidly, among participants in these activities. As for aesthetics: here again, as above, each distinct focus of poster-work contributes its share of symbols, motifs, subjects and styles, drawn from recent and rediscovered traditions or newly generated, to enrich and influence the general pool.
… Poster Aesthetic …
The third ground of diversity lies in the peculiar aesthetic of this time and place. An American tendency of openness to variety and experiment reasserted itself radically in the mid-sixties, among the generational and cultural sub-class responsible for much of the political ferment. Modern systems of research and learning, mass media and new communication technologies exposed them in unprecedented degree to the cultural riches of the global village and its many-stranded history. As the domestic political consensus dissolved, so did the uniformity of clothing styles: variety was favored, not only between wearers but on the single body: one piece from this fashion, one from that. The "delinearization" of consciousness and communication, most notable existentially in the psychedelic drug subculture, extended through the avant garde in all the arts and many scholarly fields, as people sought modes and forms to encompass and integrate greater varieties of disparate elements.
The American poster renaissance as a whole is such a form and mode, as is the social movement that has been its complex substrate. The developments sketched above predisposed it aesthetically to entertain the multiplicities of peoples and causes, and their disparate artistic baggages, discussed earlier as independent grounds of its diversity. I have of course exaggerated the dominance of this "peculiar aesthetic" of eclectic assemblage, as if it were an apocalyptic vision from the Haight-Ashbury -- which it was, but even there new and old orthodoxies and uniformities soon reasserted themselves, as they did throughout the larger society during the 1970s, not least in progressive politics. Still those developments continued, and with them their aesthetic influence, shaping the character and texture of this poster renaissance as a whole and evident in many ways in particular aspects and works.
Thus we find the techniques of collage and montage used more frequently in this chapter than in any other -- often no longer as consciously "artsy" techniques but as routinely accepted ways to represent and integrate diverse elements of a complex reality. This generic task invites many other approaches. One poster embraces the Pentagon in multiple images of modern nuclear mushroom, ancient tribal shaman, Uncle Sam the WWI recruiter, photo of current peacenik poet (Ginsberg, finger upraised in warning), arranged all in a concentric mandala of Tibetan style with skull-and-crossbones at the focus; another juxtaposes twice as many distinct symbols from distinct sources in a Native American mandala to celebrate the union of the strands of alternative community; yet another shows these marking roads confluent at the mountaintop. A silkscreen for a feminist bookstore displays a quilt whose patches honor women at their various works, traditional and new -- honoring also this way of solving the generic problem in a different medium, both for its pure aesthetic and for its renewed meaning as an old and social craft rediscovered and extended anew in the lives of women. Such fully realized examples as these are not common, of course; but the trace of the general task, to harmonize the disparate, is evident in lesser and fragmentary ways in many posters.
These are the three grounds, then, that have nourished diversity-in-unity: a multiple people, a multiple politics, a multiple aesthetic: each key to the character of America, and re-emphasized, revitalized in this particular era. Their influences upon the emergent poster movement, their contributions to it, have been synergic and decisive, determining its character and content in both the large sense and the detailed small. No single ground sketched here is unique to America; each is rather a character of modern Western-urban civilization, whose working can be recognized in many countries' cultures now and traced in their own political posters. In this sense, this American chapter belongs to a larger one, international, developing more broadly and slowly, in the yet-young history of this social graphic form. But it is here that these grounds are most richly and powerfully expressed now, so much as to make this body of art unique among the past and present distinct chapters of political poster history, and of interest to the centuries.
(0) [Editorial note, 2007:] In recent years, such deficiencies have begun (barely) to be remedied, so their survey here is somewhat out of date although still accurate in spirit. The character of the renaissance continues to develop in accord with this early description.
(1) Posters of Protest: the Posters of Political Satire in the U.S. 1966-1970, David Kunzle (Regents of the University of California/Triple R Press, Goleta. CA; 1971.) 236 b/w ill., inc. 189 U.S., + 97 pp. Text. See also L'Era di Johnson: Manifesti della Gioventu Studentesca e Pacifista Americana, David Kunzle (La Pietra, Milano, 1968.) 98 b/w + 2 color ill., all U.S.
(2) Images of an Era: the American Poster 1945-75. (National Collection of Fine Arts. The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1975.) 257 color ill., inc. 90 from post-1964 progressive politics + 12 pp. text.
(3) Atelier Populaire: Texts and Posters. (Dobson Books Ltd., London and Bobbs-Merrill Inc., NY; 1969.) 197 color ill. + ll pp. text.
(4) The Art of Revolution -- Castro's Cuba: 1959-1970, Dugald Stermer, intro.by Susan Sontag. (McGraw-Hill, NY; 1970.) 97 color ill. inc. 39 political, + 20 v. large pp. text.
(5) The Palette and The Flame: Posters of the Spanish Civil War, John Tisa. (International Publishers, NY; 1979.) 140 color ill. + 13 pp. text.
(6) Prop Art, Gary Yanker. (Darien House, N.Y.; 1972.) 1047 b/w + 49 color ill., inc. 274 b/w + 13 color from post-1964 U.S. progressive politics, + 28 large pp. text. See also Posters of Protest and Revolution, Maurice Rickards. (Walker and Co., N.Y.; 1970.) 210 b/w + 18 color ill. inc. 8 b/w + 4 color from post-1964 U.S.., + 21 pp. text.
(7) [Update, 2007:] Since 1984, mainly since 1990, at least fifteen books devoted entirely or in large part to this work have been published, focussing on particular movements, regions, or individual artists. As of 2007, no treatment of the broad renaissance had appeared.
(8) [Update:] As of 2007, the two largest collections of contemporary domestic work – the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles, and the AOUON Archive in Berkeley – held respectively some 26,000 and 24,000 distinct designs. Their combined holding of about 38,000 designs is probably <6% of U.S. production during this era. That a scant half-dozen other institutional collections held by then as many as 2,000 to 4,000 designs emphasizes how poorly-collected this material has been.
(9) [Editorial note, 2007:] This sketchy account gives no credit to the vibrant work of the mainly-Chicano Farmworkers' movement during 1965-67, which was surely one of the three roots inspiring the political poster renaissance in the S.F. Bay Area. Save for a few locales in the Southwest, however, this influence was hardly significant elsewhere.
(10)( Bulletin of the AOUON Archive #4 (1984) identified 36 current and 15 defunct poster-producing groups. My estimate here of how many groups might be active in the U.S. was surely double the reality.
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