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Make Art, Not War

Posted on Feb 3, 2017

By Paul Von Blum

    A protest sign at the Jan. 21 Women’s March in St. Paul, Minn. (Fibonnaci Blue / CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Make Art Not War: Political Protest Posters from the Twentieth Century”
A book edited by Ralph Young

Political posters have intrigued and delighted me, both as an activist and as a teacher, for most of my adult life. My deep affection for this powerful artistic medium began in France in May 1968, when I happened to be in Paris following my university days. I took a small part in the massive demonstrations there, where posters were an integral part of the historic agitation. Images of brutal gendarmes, caricatures of Charles de Gaulle, attacks on bureaucracy, demands for free expression and many more radical themes all reflected brilliant design and powerful political criticism. Created daily by students and striking workers, these posters were central to the French rebellion and to 20th century art history.

   
    Make Art Not War: Political Protest Posters from the Twentieth Century
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Posters are both works of art and notices to the public. Intended for mass reproduction, they combine verbal messages with visual elements designed to attract viewers and solidify their commitment to the cause. Their effectiveness depends on efficient, inexpensive reproduction that will swiftly disseminate the work’s major theme or message. They performed this role in Paris in 1968 and have done so before and since.

Historian Ralph Young has presented a valuable collection of 20th century American political posters from the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives Poster and Broadside Collection of New York University. This collection contains over 2,900 posters from 1904 to the present, and addresses the rich tradition of social protest throughout that period. Professor Young’s selection is a useful historical and thematic cross section. Many of the examples are visually engaging and reveal the remarkable fusion of technical excellence and social criticism that highlight posters as a major feature of political art. Others are particularly significant because they encourage viewers to discover, through the posters, powerful features of international and American history that are rarely taught in educational institutions at all levels.

Young is a longtime scholar of political dissent at Temple University. His anthology of articles, speeches, songs, sermons and letters, “Dissent in America,” is an outstanding compendium of primary source materials on social protest. In the present work, he provides an essay contextualizing political posters in the broader tradition of American political dissent. His essay shows how this vital visual art form has been an indispensible feature of the various struggles in America to build a society that provides dignified lives to its workers; its women; its racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities; and its citizens opposing several immoral and illegal wars from Vietnam to the present. 

“Make Art Not War” is a pictorial volume, and Young’s essay is not intended to be comprehensive. It serves its limited purpose effectively, however, allowing readers to understand American political posters in the broad historical framework that gives rise to all cultural expression that supports movements for social change and transformation. The volume also offers a brief description of the Tamiment Collection, a remarkable resource for researchers interested in visual social protest. That resource is only one of many in the U.S. Many museums have substantial political poster holdings, and one of the premier political poster institutions is the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles, which has over 85,000 posters, including 2,600 online.

General audiences can enjoy the diverse visual examples in this volume, especially those people who have participated in mass movements and who have affectionate regard for socially conscious art. Educators, especially in high schools and colleges and universities, can take special advantage of many of the posters. Some of the book’s early entries lend themselves especially well to imaginative pedagogical strategies. 

READ, WATCH, LISTEN: A Revolutionary Art Form That Leads to Social Change

A 1949 election poster from New York’s American Labor Party, for example, proclaims “Make Marcantonio Mayor.” That provides a powerful opportunity to explain that for more than 20 years, a viable leftist political party existed and had some significant political successes. Among its key figures was Vito Marcantonio, one of the few genuine radicals to serve for an extended period as an elected official in the United States. The presence of this poster in the volume modestly counters the unfortunate reputational censorship that Marcantonio has suffered in the wake of Cold War anti-communism.

Likewise, the book features a 1955 poster entitled “Vote and Unite” that the Communist Party disseminated in Pittsburgh announcing a speech by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. In almost a half century of university teaching, I cannot recall any student who recognized her name, even though I have mentioned her and her contributions in various classes. Flynn was a founding member of the industrial Workers of the World, the original “Rebel Girl.” A lifelong socialist, feminist, labor organizer and overall giant figure of American radical history, her legacy demands respect. This poster can mobilize curiosity about her, the IWW and the still lesser known story of women in the struggles for social justice.

The crown jewel of this volume is Ben Shahn’s “This is Nazi Brutality.” Shahn was one of the finest political artists in American and world art history. This remarkable poster was a protest against one of the most horrific Nazi atrocities during World War II. After the Czech resistance assassinated Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, the Nazis obliterated the entire Czech village of Lidice, killing all the men and boys and many women. The remaining women and children were sent to concentration camps. I have used this chilling artwork often to inform students of the depth of Nazi depravity — and to remind them that mass murder hardly ended with the German defeat in 1945.

The remaining posters in “Make Art Not War” address modern issues with unusual contemporary relevance. Most of the posters reflect engagement with past problems that still require redress in the early years of the 21st century. Strong feminist posters pervade the volume, showing the historical emergence of women in the 1960s and 1970s from centuries of subjugation in a patriarchal society. But ironically, some of the issues in these posters could — and should — be displayed in public settings today. For example, “Don’t call me a girl!” reveals the repressive power of language in gender relationships. Women are not girls, a lesson that many of my female and male undergraduates, even now in 2017, fail to comprehend.

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