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Artist Unknown

Essay, Therese Heyman, Curator
While many contributed to this genre's explosive use of color and typography, only Victor Moscoso brought to it the sophistication of his studio training at Yale, where he had studied with Josef Albers in his famous color course. In that milieu, students experimented to determine how hues and saturations would appear to change and flutter, to jump forward or pull back, depending on their juxtaposition. In his 1967 Chambers Brothers poster, Moscoso handles this visual illusion with great skill.

More recently, the rock-poster sensibility that predominated through the 1970s has given way to a multitude of quite individual approaches. In the 1990s, many graphic devices were introduced to play on the tensions between high and low art. Art Chantry and others create exhibition and film posters that evoke the look of flyers advertising discount-store sales or spreads from Sears catalogues displaying tools. There is American style in both the original use and its play with reinvention. The contrast bridges the gap between what the art crowd expects to see in a poster and what the mass "do it yourself" audience accepts.

Although often a powerful means of communication, posters acquire another life in the hands of collectors, or in the more informal setting of a college dorm or teenager's room where posters reflect personal identity. One critic adds that these almost private uses of a public medium often endorse controversial causes, such as draft resistance. In the privacy of the home, it is possible to align oneself with the postermaker who announces Girls Say Yes to Boys Who Say No, while that position might be more difficult to defend in public. The many celebrity posters now sold to mass markets may depict personal fantasies through their use of such perennial favorites as Kim Novak or the star of Nine Inch Nails.


Of Raisins, Chicanos, Bread & Jim Crow
As they use either verbal or visual shorthand, postermakers may rely on stereotypes. Posters can use long-held assumptions about particular groups to paint with a broader brush across the social and cultural landscape. An unconscious aspect of the message embodied in many posters, such practices are now being challenged by minority groups. For example, an amusing vein of visual contrasts was created in the ad campaign for Levy's bread, ordinarily an "ethnic" Jewish product. The text, now famous, is "You Don't Have to Be Jewish to Love Levy's," while the picture is of a Native American. More seriously, an ad for raisins is reconstructed as a poster to protest labor practices that affect a largely Chicano migrant workforce.

In 1988 for the first time, the Bureau of the Census sought a more accurate way to count the Native American population, which until that time had been understandably suspicious of the United States's efforts to list or describe their tribes and their urban members. The new program was designed, with the advice of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to reach out to the community. Tom Oxendine, who was named leader of the effort, turned to the Santa Fe–based Institute of American Indian Arts, a Native American center for design and schooling in the arts. Posters were selected as a crucial medium. The school, Indian leaders, and the Census and Indian Affairs bureaus chose a Native American designer to produce five posters. The messages for the set were "Name Your Tribe," "Listen to the Drum," and "Calling the Eagles." The series was used to encourage the cooperation that would eventually benefit the group, which received federal support based on the number of people counted. The posters did not explain the need for the count, but the design used familiar elements and was intended to allay fears that the census might be misused.

Ancona & Koehler

Are You Doing All You Can?

Fight! Vote! Work!
Propaganda posters have a long history. Widely dispersed in low-cost campaigns, they typically present a pointed, hard-hitting image that screams out its message. Among those issued during World War II, the award-winning This Is the Enemy (1942), by Victor Ancona and Karl Koehler, represents a brilliant use of image and reflection. The American design vocabulary expanded rapidly with the influx of emigré artists, architects, and designers who left Europe at the outbreak of war for safety in the United States. Among these were Joseph Binder and Jean Carlu, who brought with them a modernist vision notable in the posters they completed in the late 1930s and 1940s.

The outrage that combines propaganda and protest is most memorably conveyed by the American Ben Shahn in Break Reaction's Grip—Register—Vote. A pair of hands crumples the map of the United States, while the text urges Americans to take action. As modernist design was increasingly accepted in America, Shahn became the artist who best conveyed American challenges, among them the need to vote and to be aware of the character of presidential candidates. Familiar phrases were employed to new advantage as an American idiom, such as "Watch out for the man on the white horse." It is intriguing to speculate on how the then-head of the Office of War Information (OWI), the poet Archibald MacLeish, may have encouraged such creativity.

Most of these posters were a form of home-front propaganda, and a significant number of them show imperiled children, muscular American men handling complex machinery, and strong women with their sleeves rolled up—competent women who can do the work required by hard times or war—who can maintain morale while the men do battle on far frontiers. The figures, design, and composition of these posters convey a sense of American power and purpose as well as a dedicated home front. Much of the propaganda effort had roots in the visuals of World War I; the famous I Want You of 1917 was recycled twenty-three years later for the new war.

One significant difference between the poster campaigns of the two wars was the way in which the U.S. government targeted the enemy. During World War I, the public reaction of German Americans to the vilifying, apelike caricature of the Hun clearly indicated that this approach was counterpersuasive, not believed, and therefore ineffective. Instead, MacLeish explained,"I hate Nazism and Fascism and all their words. But the campaigns of personal hatreds, of hatred for whole nations of human beings, are disgusting to me. There is a clear difference between the hatred of persons and the hatred of evil."12 The OWI's posters usually succeeded in avoiding outright bigotry and instead celebrated a positive sense of American values. But other poster campaigns were hateful and demeaning, most notably the privately issued posters of the 1940s that bore scurrilous images of the Japanese people and gained wide circulation during the war in the Pacific.

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12. As quoted by Stacey Bredhoff in Powers of Persuasion: Poster Art from World War II (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Office of Public Programs, 1994), p. 28. [Back to Top]

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