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Essay, Therese Heyman, Curator
The Street
How were these posters seen in their original contexts? American posters are encountered most often as a kind of "wallpaper" in shopping malls or on our streets—though many posters issued by the United States government to advise Americans on various issues were placed in smaller office areas. The size of available space and the competition for it often control the look and size of posters. Today, posters are frequently seen as the startlingly bright stock of museum shops, at travel agency desks, and in the situation most reflective of personal taste, in college dorms. Major poster auctions in New York and San Francisco offer collectors opportunities to buy from a stock usually arranged by theme—circus, film, performance, country of origin.

In America, the audience for posters used to be very broad, patriotic, and for the most part, English-speaking. Many community groups now address their audiences in other languages and with symbols that have particular cultural meanings. Some poster artists use all-purpose icons to convey a message (e.g., Lichtenstein and Rand). Details of commonplace services, such as David Goines's poster for Chez Panisse, tell their story to everyone—language is unimportant. But this approach no longer engages the American political audience, which could be addressed in a single voice from World War I through the end of World War II. Today, citizens are not engaged in the political process; they do not vote in large numbers, they have turned from public meetings, and they have lost their trust in government. To address a large number of disparate groups, today's postermakers narrow their scope and aim a particular message at a specific group. Postermakers rely on such tightly focused groups—museum visitors, opera lovers, working women—to share a specialized vocabulary and frame of reference.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of American posters is their genius for mirroring and enlarging American cultural issues. They mix art and commerce; they picture many forms of advocacy. Although we recognize that our response to many early American posters involves nostalgia for the times and events of our history, the most significant thread in our reaction to posters in all periods is a willingness to accept the disappearance of the distinction between high and low art. This is an American Style.

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