David Kunzle. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 5. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
Protest, in the context of this entry, is understood as more or less public visual dissent from an official governmental authority or from customs sanctioned socially by the dominant classes. The protesting voice may be that of a minority or a majority but is here defined, following historiographical and ethical norms, as being directed toward “good causes”: democracy, civil rights, justice for all, equalization of resources within societies and between countries (e.g., North and South), halting ecological destruction, freedom from repression, and especially (in the twentieth century) a world without war or fear of war. The lack of these qualities has been most vigorously protested in the so-called Western democracies, where a certain freedom of speech is offset by governments’ control of the major media of printed press and television. The avenues of protest discussed in this entry include cartoon, comic strip, painting, mural, and especially poster; the latter are most conspicuously mobilized in mass demonstrations, such as those found worldwide in the early twenty-first century opposing the U.S. war in Iraq. This peaceful expression of public opinion, uniting literally millions of bodies in one place at one time, may be the most powerful manifestation of the lack of democratic access to the approved organs of power and information, that is, major communications media and government itself.
Those opposed to the goals of the iconography of protest, when they cannot ignore it, characterize it as the propaganda of the ignorant, and insofar as such iconography constitutes “art” (if not “Art”), critics set up false dichotomies between aesthetic merit and political message, between form and content, the former falling in value in inverse proportion to the strength or immediacy of the latter. The best “visual dissent” is remembered, indeed is immortalized as such, on aesthetic as well as moral grounds, the two aspects being inseparable. While visual protest is here being considered as a mass medium, that is, as imagery available to large numbers of people at one time and over time, new ideas generate new media. To the major public vehicles of visual protest cited, one may add such minor and individual political manifestations as graffiti, a banner unfurled over a freeway, the message chalked on walkways, lapel buttons, refrigerator magnets, bumper stickers, and, above all, T-shirts. Moreover, the poster fixed on an office wall or a newspaper cartoon pinned to a bulletin board may have a social afterlife or ripple effect long after the event that occasioned it has been forgotten.
Cartoon and Caricature in Early Modern Europe
Before the invention of printing, nonmilitary expression of resistance to authority was limited. The evidence for visual protest before the sixteenth century is sparse and fragmentary. It may be, however, as recent scholarship has claimed, that the eleventh-century Bayeux tapestry contains in its margins and elsewhere, through representations of incidental cruelty to civilians, subversion of its overt purpose, which was to justify the Norman invasion of England In the later European Middle Ages, alternative, critical, and satirical views were expressed in the marginalia of religious manuscripts and in the sculpted misericords and capitals of churches, which mocked aberrant ecclesiastical behavior and the abuse of sacred rituals, as well as human foibles. Absent a connection to wider currents of opposition, it is safer to see these as expressions of playfulness and mild irreverence toward the human, in the context of unwavering respect for the eternal verities of the divine and the fundamental structures of belief.
The invention of printing allowed for new modes of dissent and popular expression; henceforth, visual and literary protest marched hand in hand, the visual (readable by semi-literates and illiterates) acting as a means of popularization, a true international vernacular. The satirical engraving and woodcut, virtually coeval with the invention of printing from movable type in the middle of the fifteenth century, first came into its own as a polemical tool during the Reformation, fostered directly by Martin Luther (1483-1546) himself and executed in large numbers in separate single-leaf prints (broadsheets) and as illustrations to the Bible and other religious texts by the Saxon court artist Lucas Cranach (1472-1553). They were crude in style and rude in intent and probably as effective as any cartoon campaign has ever been. Two examples illustrate different modes of operation of the “cartoon” (the word itself did not come into use until the mid nineteenth century): realistic representations confronting the ideal and real (Passional), and the fantastic/grotesque, or allegorical (Pope-Ass). Since the propaganda was waged intensively on both (or all) sides, it is remarkable that the Lutheran cartoon enjoyed qualitatively and quantitatively complete supremacy against its Catholic counterpart. This is because the established church eschewed and despised woodcuts, which it considered vulgar and subversive, like as any uncontrollable means of expression generated from below.
Later in the sixteenth century the Dutch used allegorical-polemical engravings in their fight for religious and political independence from Spain; their old habit of close visual and moralizing observation of social reality became a satirical reflex in the seventeenth-century Golden Age of Dutch painting and engraving, which abounded in political as well as social critique of all kinds. Meanwhile, in Germany, a great painting tradition had subsided in the course of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) into pathetic complaint against war in word and graphic image, such as broadsheets complaining about the devastation of Germany by foreign armies. The best visual record of this period, however, is that of Jacques Callot (1592-1635), who protested the military abuses of his prince, the duke of Lorraine, in his Miseries of War (1633), and also military cruelty to civilians in general. His denunciation of war, artistically nonpareil at the time, was unequalled until The Disasters of War by Francisco José de Goya (1746-1828), also a great satirist of the mores, clerical and lay, of his country and age. A comparison of the two series illustrates how style is bound by time and country: Callot’s soldiers and peasants, in their sparkling elegance, add up to no less a heartfelt denunciation than the gritty, visceral etchings of Goya. Both were court artists secure enough to dissent, although Goya’s etchings denouncing the Napoleonic invasion were not published until 1863, and his work was censored.
People tend to honor the moral value of dissent by its willingness to confront censorship, but the definition of censorship is a difficult one, and dissent in the great democracies in the early twenty-first century is often stifled by internal censoring or self-censorship, apathy, and largely government-influenced or corporate major media of newspaper, television, and commercial advertising. In the early modern age, all European governments sought control of publication, but this occurred perhaps least of all in the Netherlands. Toward the end of the seventeenth century, antiwar art was best represented in the engravings of the Dutch artist Romeyn de Hooghe. The wars and massacres he opposed were those of Louis XIV of France, the national enemy, and he expressed his opposition in the spirit of Protestant and Dutch patriotism.
Rich as the eighteenth century was in satire of all kinds, a new technique, caricature, first nursed innocently in Italian art studios of the seventeenth century, gave new force and direction to visual protest. William Hogarth (1697-1764), painter and engraver, was certainly a key figure, but he was primarily a social rather than a political satirist, and he wanted to be thought of as the master of character, not caricature, which is constituted, properly and historically speaking, through exaggeration of the personal features of an individual. When the cartoonist attacks the individual (or the individual’s party) rather than the cause, it is often understood that by subverting or eliminating the peccant politician, something essential will change. This is especially the case when similar governments are constantly reshuffled, as in the two-party systems of the United Kingdom and United States.
The extraordinarily prolific golden age of caricature (c. 1780-1820) was a peculiarly English phenomenon, arising out of a tradition of relatively free debate, party rivalries, imperial-industrial-economic growth, and the fear of the French Revolution and Napoleon. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) became (with help from other countries) the single most satirized figure in history. The masters James Gillray (1756-1815) and Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) and, later, George Cruikshank (1792-1878), when not engaged in patriotic propaganda, took on a wide social range, scurrilously attacking individual political and social personalities. At this point, “protest” as embodied in caricature became a kind of social and political game played on shifting and not always honorable grounds. The broadsheet caricatures, often colored, were exhibited as conversation pieces in homes and became immediate collectibles whose seditious edge very occasionally landed artists and their publishers in jail. But to the degree to which the caricatures, some beautifully fashioned and labor-intensive (unlike the often rudimentary contemporary scribble), were entirely independent of the literary text, one may speak of a form of visual protest and satire sui generis, the equivalent of which in the early 2000s, in terms of its physical and moral independence, is the poster, not the newspaper cartoon, which, notoriously, is subject to being dropped or never being carried at all, if it might offend the newspaper’s owners or advertisers. The freedoms of the artists were in fact greater than those of the writers, and the attacks of Gillray and others on the British royal family were of a virulence approached (but not surpassed) only during the 1960s. In Gillray’s time the Royal family was embroiled in party politics, and attacked with a bias accordingly; and the Prince Regent, whose personal vices became a favorite butt, could only buy up copies of the caricatures against him, and hope to buy off the artist himself. Later, the anti-Royal cartoon was considered simply unpatriotic, and until the 1960s, in addition tasteless or cowardly in its attack upon a person or an institution not set up to respond in kind.
In terms of sheer recklessness, vulgarity, and, indeed, scatology, it may be that British caricature overreached itself, for the Victorian age demanded a quieter, more balanced, and less violent tone. Cruikshank is the transitional figure from Regency license to Victorian prudery, and Charles Dickens (1812-1870), whose literary art tried to subsume the pictoriality of the English satiric tradition, and who confessed himself a great admirer of Hogarth, could not afford his great predecessor’s sexual openness. The reform movements of the 1830s and Chartism were the last fling of pictorial satire, which by the 1830s was beginning to infiltrate newspapers and magazines. Henceforth, after early years in radical opposition, the weekly Punch (founded 1841), standard-bearer of the humorous cut and the political cartoon (the word derived from an Italian art term, cartone), settled into a cozy commentary of bourgeois mores and dignified allegories (by John Tenniel at their best) of current affairs, always “patriotic” when international. Like the New Yorker (founded in 1925) in the United States, Punch became a kind of “official” magazine of humor and critical commentary until it was superseded by the truly radical, muck-raking magazine Private Eye (founded 1961) in the United Kingdom.
Punch called itself “the London Charivari” after the Parisian magazine that spearheaded a great satiric movement of graphic opposition to King Louis-Philippe and his betrayal of the Revolution of 1830. As a form of virulent and hilarious visual dissent against politics and politicians, the French satirists, led by Honoré Daumier (1808-1879), Jean-Jacques Grandville (Jean Ignace Julien Gerard; 1803-1847), Edouard Traviès (1809-1865), and many others were stopped in their tracks by draconian press laws of 1835 and forced to confine their efforts to comment on the social scene. Not all their art was comic. It is ironic that the French demanded a freedom of the press modeled on that of the English at the very moment when the English were no longer exploiting it as they had earlier; so that French “caricature” for a long period (after 1835), while no longer personal-political, is much stronger, more socially dissident, and more broadly based than the English (such as the staid John Leech or George du Maurier inPunch), who became the amused “illustrators” of a status quo they condoned. The French were also more artistically ambitious, and the caricature magazines aimed to give “art prints” (usually lithographs) that were more supple in tone, striking and simply larger in format, than the modest woodcuts of the English. Muzzled under Napoleon III (r. 1852-1871), political fury returned in France with the Franco-Prussian War, the fall of the emperor, and the Paris Commune, the disaster of which excited both sympathy and revulsion.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the humorous illustrated magazine caricature, and its important offshoot, the comic strip, achieved status as distinct cultural phenomena, and was well established in Western European countries, Latin America, even Russia and the Slavic nations. One may ask whether the idea of actually changing political systems survived this social institutionalization. Did the cartoon aim merely to raise a chuckle over morning coffee? Was it a Band-Aid over social wounds, an anesthetic against social pains, like religion, an “opiate of the people”? Was it merely a safety valve permitted—even encouraged—by governments adept at co-opting social discontent? The advent of potentially revolutionary and actually revolutionary movements gave a new edge to graphics. Socialism and anarchism, then female suffragism, regenerated protest graphics and joined with a new art, larger than even the full-page cartoon of old—the posters. In the United States the cartoon achieved a moment of glory with Thomas Nast (1840-1902), the pro-Union, antislavery crusader who was credited by his political enemy William Marcy (“Boss”) Tweed (1823-1878) with having thoroughly exposed him in the eyes of the populace; it was through Nast’s cartoons that Tweed was identified and returned for trial from Spain to the United States on embezzlement and corruption charges. Second to Nast was Joseph Keppler (1838-1894), founder of Puck (in 1877), withJudge and Harper’s Weekly the leading U.S. critical magazine, which joined lustily in the strife caused by political rivalries, monopolies, and the emergent socialist and communist movements. “Dissent” during the whole era of democracy, when not truly radical (trying to uproot), may be defined as simply opposing the party in power from the viewpoint of its rival (in a two-party system, like that of the United States and the United Kingdom). To be sure, there have always been outstanding syndicated newspaper cartoonists taking on the fundamental questions of the age, but one wonders whether the larger context in which they are allowed to work, as a kind of “licensed jester” at the court of Capital, does not weaken any impact they might otherwise have. The advent in the 1960s of Ron Cobb cartoons in the so-called underground press (“alternative” or “radical” would be a better word), such as the Los Angeles Free Press and many college papers, offered drastic, existential views of war and other ills, which have struck deeper into the historical record.
Whether the numerous cartoons and posters produced to celebrate and promote the Russian Revolution (1917) may be counted as “protest” is an open question insofar as they were produced in cooperation with the new government. But patriotic protest existed to counter threats to the Revolution from the Western democracies and the reactionary White armies. In the early 1920s many Russian artists important as formal innovators in the history of art, notably the constructivists such as Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexander Rodchenko, and El Lissitsky, using a variety of styles, some abstract, some folk-derived, made posters demanding resistance to the enemy, the promotion of literacy, and the building of industry. The Stalin era crushed dissent and vanguard artistic styles, and it was only around 1990, following a period of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), that posters resumed a socially critical (if still largely officialist) function. In the later Soviet era, clandestine art, like the famous clandestine (privately circulated samizdat) literature, flourished. In the generation before the fall of the Soviet Union, impressive posters for peace were officially sponsored by the government agency Plakat, in “protest” one might say against the silent (or actively war-mongering) propaganda of the so-called Free World governments, bent on nuclear supremacy. Here one may speak of “protest” officially sponsored by the militarily weaker of the superpowers, against the officially sponsored warmongering propaganda of the other.
The posters from World War I produced by governments in the Western countries, in huge print runs and in innumerable different designs, were narrowly focused on winning the war, vilifying the enemy, and demanding sacrifice at home. They are hardly “protest” but become so in You Back the Attack! (2003), a book of “remixed” prowar posters from the two world wars, a classic example of using the enemy’s weapons against him. Here, a straight graphic of a heroic pilot stepping into the cockpit of his airplane, adds to the slogan “You Back the Attack! We’ll bomb who we want.” Thus the world of advertising, political and commercial, which has taken over entire public air and street spaces, not to speak of invading living rooms through newspaper and television, is subverted in its own language. “Billboard conversion” (or “correction”) is an illegal pastime of guerrilla artists who “improve” the slogans and images of billboard advertising. For instance, the addition to the egregiously sexist car ad saying “If this car was a lady, it would get its bottom pinched” of the words “if this lady was a car, it would run you down”; or the airline billboard “X airline flies every day to El Salvador” was changed by the substitution and addition of a few letters (fast, to avoid being caught by a passing police car) to read “Reagan lies every day about El Salvador.” It is only very occasionally that a peace group goes to the great expense of renting billboard space in the legal manner.
In the United States during World War I the real protest of the era came from the leftist periodical The Masses, which consistently opposed the war, unlike leftist sectors elsewhere in the United States and Europe. The Masses and The New Masses were dedicated to class struggle in the Marxian sense and used the (unpaid) graphics of brilliant artists such as John Sloan, Boardman Robinson, and George Bellows, who denounced the prevalent social injustices, especially war and racism. Masses stalwart Robert Minor eventually turned from militant art to militant activism. Several painters during the first third of the twentieth century, dedicated to realistic styles and popular subjects, such as William Gropper, Philip Evergood, and Reginald March, are remembered perhaps more for their prints denouncing poverty and other social injustices, which eventually merged into opposition to rising fascism.
The other great foyer of anticapitalist and antiwar dissent came from Germany, where new caricatural and Expressionist styles lent force to the graphics of Johnny Heartfield and George Gross in their exposés of the bitter conditions of living under the Weimar Republic and the rise of Adolf Hitler. Heartfield established a new medium of satire, photomontage, which in the Germany of the 1980s would undergo a potent revival with new editions of his work, and new photomontages by Klaus Staeck and Jürgen Holtfreter. A Heartfield photomontage shows, for instance, Hermann Goering with his real face and body taken from a photograph, but with a butcher’s arm around him and a bloody axe in his hand, while the Richstag burns behind him. Heartfield and Gross were satirists, using humor and the grotesque; Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), by contrast, from the turn of the century onward was always deadly earnest in her graphic manner, deploring the plight of the working classes and the poor. She has left one of the most enduring antiwar icons, the simple, anguished Nur Wieder Krieg, reactivated in recent decades.
Painting, Murals, Photography
Painting, traditionally commissioned and bought by the rich, generally supportive of the political and religious needs of established order, is by its nature less given to popular viewpoint and polemics, but certain figures stand out as exceptions: Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-c. 1516), whose paintings are certainly socially-critical of a gamut of personal vices, including those of corrupt lawyers, as seen in his Tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins (under Avarice), or those of the clergy, male and female, as evident in his Ship of Fools. On the other hand, the fascination of this artist lies very much in his works’ incomprehensibility to viewers of the early twenty-first century. Others are Hans Holbein’s (1497?-1543)Dance of Death (1520s-1530s); exposing again the corruption of Law and Church; Pieter Brueghel (c. 1564-1638), whose paintings and engravings condemn the lusts of emergent capitalism and the warring of states; lesser Dutch and Flemish artists making small paintings depicting contemporary (sixteenth to seventeenth century) military abuses of civilians, unique in Europe and intended for an antiwar public; Hogarth, who raised the satirical genre to aesthetic heights, but depended financially on the sale of engravings after the paintings; Théodore Géricault (1791-1824), exposing a great contemporary scandal in The Raft of the Medusa; and Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) celebrating the revolution of 1830 in Liberty Leading the People. From the middle of the nineteenth century Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was pleading for the dignity of the common man, and paid for his real-life (pro-Commune) radical activism with a prison term and exile. These are, however, exceptions in the mainstream development of painting as defined by orthodox art history, and sculpture hardly plays a role at all, apart from some small bronze busts by Daumier, ridiculing ministers and deputies, which remained, however, unknown at the time. The anarchism that informs the personal philosophy of the impressionist painter Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) is scarcely evident in his paintings, except as a vague sympathy for simple, rustic folk, equally present in the painting of the (earlier) Barbizon and other realist schools.
In the twentieth century the picture becomes wonderfully complicated. While the tendencies of certain late nineteenth-to early twentieth-century art in favor of the worker and the poor, heartfelt but unfashionable, such as the Ashcan School in the United States, seem to yield entirely to the stylistically and philosophically self-regarding—not to say self-indulgent and solipsistic—art that is now designated as avant-garde, this is a matter of ideologically driven historiographical bias. The Eurocentric, male-oriented, art-historical “canon” has been reluctant to admit the so-called “margins” (art of the Third World, minorities, women, lower classes). The caricature and “primitivism” that helped break the bonds of academic formalism also helped—partially or fragmentarily—to break the bonds of class prejudice. The bourgeoisie sought refuge for political revolution in artistic revolution, and drew on imagery from the (subjugated) Third World “primitive” to enrich rather than subvert. The artistic “revolution” of cubism is less socially conscious than those of dada and surrealism, which sought a kind of anarchistic destruction of social as well as artistic conventions. Surrealism particularly attracted communists and political radicals. The greatest artist of the age, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), grew increasingly narcissistic in his work, except when it came to certain egregious military-political horrors; Guernica (1937) and War and Peace (1952) both, in different ways, try to universalize a particular incident or a particular war out of historical specificity.
All the great social movements of the century had their artistic responses. Racism, the civil rights movement, the degradation and pride of blacks in the United States are among the themes of Charles White and Jacob Lawrence. Ben Shahn was the great poster maker for human rights. While abstract expressionism in the Cold War 1950s tried to transcend the very idea of social engagement and celebrate the individual-in-isolation, U.S. pop art in the 1960s embraced ironically but not critically the world of rampant consumer imagery, of advertising, and of fashion. Among all the competing “-isms” arising later in the decade, conceptual art was formally most suited to social critique, since it aimed to represent and challenge current ideas and concepts rather than extend notions of art-as-form. Hans Haacke in New York used the language of corporate advertising to expose the sinister links between art and its patronage in industrial corporations. The new feminists, who used a variety of new visual media, conceptual, video, performance, and body art, directed attention to their hitherto unvalidated personal, social, and biological condition, and to the ongoing subordinations of women and women artists. The very idea of an exhibition of all-women artists became a form of protest against historic exclusions. In the world of postermaking, the work of the New York-based Guerrilla Girls gained notoriety, not least through their (illegal) fly-posting on random public spaces, which was also the tactic of Robbie Conal, who has concentrated on large hostile portraits of politicians, and had many brushes with the law. The text-and-image art of Barbara Kruger, is close to the poster, and constitutes enigmatic and sardonic critique of life under capitalism.
In the postwar era there have been innumerable artists torn by the injustices of war, poverty, and racism; their efforts have been gathered into exhibitions, notably Lucy Lippard’s A Different War (c. 1990), showing works about the Vietnam experience, by U.S. artists and veterans of the war. Artists have formed into short-lived groupings (“Artists Call Against Intervention in Central America” in the 1980s, led by Claes Oldenburg, a pop sculptor with truly satirical flashes); and the commercial illustrator like Tomi Ubgerer was moved, by the Vietnam War, to do some of the most pungent posters of the era.
In Mexico following the revolution (1910-1920) the once-elite and almost forgotten art of wall-painting suddenly became populist, radical, and literally revolutionary: a major weapon in the struggle to preserve Emiliano Zapata’s revolution. Diego Rivera (1886-1957) returned from his early and commercially promising phase as a cubist in Paris to dedicate himself entirely to utilitarian, didactic, exhortatory, and critical revolutionary themes. Rivera and his successors, José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) and especially the politically hyper-activist David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974)—the three are known as Los Tres Grandes—laid the basis of an entirely new, socially conscious artistic movement in the very old medium of fresco painting. They revived ancient precolonial art forms, denounced the Spanish invasion, celebrated the war of independence and Benito Juárez, and damned the tyranny of subsequent presidents and the betrayals of the revolution. Their example fomented a conviction in the United States during the Depression years that art should speak to popular needs and hopes; so that a number of artists in the United States (where the three great Mexicans also worked) filled the walls of public buildings with socially relevant themes in a variety of non-abstract, easily legible, more or less social-realist styles. Since they were largely sponsored by the U.S. government’s Work Progress Administration (WPA), they could not raise their voices too loud, or communistically; and when Rivera dared to put Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin into his great anti-capitalist “Man at the Crossroads” mural in New York, the sponsor, John D. Rockefeller, had it destroyed. Printmakers followed the lead: Leopoldo Méndez established a Taller de Gráfica Popular, which, like the murals, has resonated ever since.
The Great Depression also saw the rise of a new art form as a means of social agitation: photography. At the turn of the century, Jacob Riis (1849-1914) and Lewis Hine had turned their lens upon the miserable tenement housing and the plight of immigrants. In the Depression years Margaret Bourke-White (1906-1971), Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), and Walker Evans (1903-1975) registered images regarded as artistic masterpieces: the dignity and pathos of the migrant worker, the terrors of unemployment, and the hypocrisy of the United States touting itself as offering the highest standard of living in the world, above a line of miserable and ragged unemployed. In the international domain, photography-as-reportage was
waged by Robert Capa, recording the Spanish Civil War from the Republican side, condemning the Japanese in China, covering World War II, down to Vietnam, where he was killed when he stepped on a mine. Poster makers have made full use of press photographs and photomontage where reality seems to condemn itself.
After World War II: The Poster and the Mural
The years immediately following World War II were deceptively quiescent in the West. By the 1950s, the civil rights movement in the U.S. South and protests against nuclear weapons in Europe generated some oppositional graphics. These were overshadowed in the 1960s by the war in Vietnam, which was the catalyst for the greatest popular mobilization in the United States since the Civil War, and an unprecedented outpouring of first posters and then murals. It has been estimated that perhaps 100,000 different posters were produced during the height of the Vietnam War (1966-1973), by individuals and small groups, usually in association with one of the many antiwar organizations, large and small. The simple artless slogan and design “War is not healthy for children and other living things,” conceived for Women Strike for Peace was repeated in every medium and endures. The posters may be regarded as a pictorial arm of the underground press, that alternative press made possible by cheaper printing; but many of the posters, produced in small quantities and silk-screen, testify to a crafts technology and the sacrifice of much time and personal money. Many of the more ambitious and professionally designed posters were sold from specialized stores catering to college students. Often unsigned, the posters used an array of styles enlarged by the simultaneous neo-art nouveau, psychedelic, and pop movements, with much reference to current commercial advertising, which it ipso facto subverted. The posters used national symbols such as the U.S. flag and the Statue of Liberty to expose the hypocrisy of the United States and its endeavor to suppress movements of national liberation; they condemned the suffering of civilians, the use of napalm and defoliants in Vietnam, and police brutality, the unfairness of the draft, and the corruption of the politicians at home. Posters took over the traditional role of the cartoon, which seems weak in comparison to the large, aggressive, and sometimes gaudy effects of the poster. Protest posters demanded an end to racism and the oppression of women, and moved ecology into public consciousness with awareness of destruction of the environment by industry.
The most bitter and pathetic of the designs condemn the cruelty perpetrated against Vietnamese civilians, and several of the concepts and photographs used have become classics. Live TV coverage (in color) and press photographs turned popular opinion and eventually opportunist politicians against the war. The photograph of a Vietcong suspect being shot in the head in broad daylight in a crowded street by an officer of the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese army; that of a ten-year-old girl running screaming and naked down a road, her back on fire with napalm; the Goyaesque heaping of corpses of the My Lai massacre—these images were used again and again. The latter was made and distributed for free by the Art Workers Coalition, an alliance of New York artists. A small number of posters actually called for the victory of the Vietnamese under Ho Chi Minh. The condemnation of the U.S. war in Vietnam, like opposition to the war in Iraq forty years later, was a global protest, and there was hardly a country in the West that did not contribute its share. It is justly claimed that the antiwar movement, which had its own genius for publicity, played an essential role in ending the war by forcing U.S. withdrawal. In France, exasperation with the Vietnam War and the government of Charles de Gaulle led to a unique outpouring of posters in support of the student-worker strikes of May 1968. The “Affiches de Mai” are a stylistically homogeneous number of posters produced by the ad hoc group of students calling itself the Atelier Populaire, which functioned out of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris The designs were all based on very simple and drastic stencils silk-screened onto the cheapest paper; the style was imitated by students in the School of Environmental Design in Berkeley (1970), where a comparable surge of protest followed the invasion of Cambodia.
Cuba experienced a dramatic vitalization of poster art following the 1959 revolution that was out of all proportion to its size and resources. The production of one organization alone, the Organization of Solidarity with the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAAL), which published the magazine Tricontinental, into which the posters were at first folded, ran into hundreds in the 1967-1987 period; the wit, ingenuity, and imaginative use of national symbols, in posters designed to support popular movements on three continents, had an impact far beyond the borders of the island nation, especially in the United States. The major dissident silk-screen artist-printmaker Rupert Garcia was much indebted to the Cuban style of posters, which acted on just about every sphere of Cuban life and revolutionary endeavor, consistently socialist, anticapitalist and anti-imperialist. Cuba’s is the best example of officially sponsored anti-imperialist protest art. Perhaps the most enduring icons that emerged from this context are the portraits of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the immortal matrix for which is based on a photograph by the Cuban photographer Alberto Korda. This has been called the most famous photograph of all time, the Mona Lisa of photography. The image of the communist guerrilla in an apparent moment of serene vision appears with an astonishing ubiquity on T-shirts, buttons, banners, posters, and all manner of consumer objects. There has been a popular transformation of the historic Che (murdered by U.S.-backed Bolivian military in 1967) into a symbol of struggle for social justice, hope for a better world, and the spirit of personal sacrifice. Given the relative lack of native production, the number and variety of OSPAAAL posters for popular struggles of Africa emerging from European colonization and resisting the apartheid-supported wars of Jonas Savimbi, where Cuban soldiers were much involved, offers to North and West the most accessible iconography of African liberation. The Cubans were producing posters for Nelson Mandela at a time when the United States was still branding him a terrorist; in terms of ubiquity, he stands beside Che Guevara.
The political poster, the graphics of protest, has become the subject of many books, conferences, exhibitions, and collections; political posters are also actively traded on the eBay Internet site and elsewhere. Like the mural movement, political poster-making is a worldwide phenomenon, and much of the subject matter is similar. More like a pamphlet than a book, posters are unattractive to libraries because of their fragility and are distributed in the most random fashion by organizations large and small at public street demonstrations and otherwise informally. The collection of the Los Angeles-based Center for the Study of Political Graphics consists of some fifty thousand works from some one hundred different countries, with many thousands of different items from (or about) Cuba, Nicaragua, and Chile. The “about” is important in such cases where the countries have endured assaults from the imperial power, for the poster is one of the most potent expressions of solidarity, and often uses text in more than one language (OSPAAAL used four). The extraordinary outpouring of posters made in Nicaragua to support the revolution there is matched by the numbers done with the same intent, and particularly to condemn the U.S.-sponsored Contra war, in Europe and the United States; the topics represented, literacy and health for all, the rights of women and children, the right to national sovereignty strike a common chord worldwide. The mural in Nicaragua, again quantitatively and qualitatively exceptional, has likewise been a means of establishing and calling for international solidarity, for about half of the three-hundred-plus murals done in that country between 1979 and 1990, and some of the very best, were done with the skills and materials brought by internationalists from twenty different countries, in cooperation with Nicaraguans. The destruction of many of the murals by the “liberal” post-Sandinista government represented not so much an attempt to wipe out dissidence as such (which was impossible), but rather a demonstration of the will to rewrite history in an anti-Sandinista light.
Murals in the United States appeared in the late 1960s and immediately became more strident and provocative than their Depression-era forbears. They have proliferated to an extraordinary degree, in every U.S. city and even small towns, and worldwide. Their function as “protest art” is harder to define than that of the posters, partly because they have relied on the sponsorship of businesses large and small, and local civic authorities, which tends to soften their subject-matter. Being location-bound, they tend to favor local issues. Some favorite topics, like drug-abuse and AIDS, may hardly be called countercultural. Murals have been more subject to censorship than have posters, and they may be termed ephemeral, liable to destruction by sun and rain and the wrecker’s ball. While it is virtually impossible to earn a living from making protest posters, there are many artists whose livelihood and reputation depends entirely on their skill as muralists.
Spray-can art, often mis-termed “graffiti” (which is something else), is the truly global, emphatically vernacular and irreducibly public mural style of the 1990s and early 2000s. Its explosively calligraphic style, which at its best attains to a Book-of-Kells-like intricacy of design, is less overtly political than populist in location (abandoned walls, playgrounds, and railway sidings) and in process: a joyous protest against the commercialdom of the world of high art, and the burned-and-bombed-out look of inner cities. With its multifarious references to pop culture (such as comic book, punk, hip-hop, and rap), it is both personal to the “writers,” as they are called (or “taggers”), and socially homogeneous in its anarchic, semi-legal, and often illegal way—this amid many attempts to coopt and institutionalize it.
The poster of protest has been to a degree institutionalized by certain large organizations such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and the German Green Party. The international human rights organization Amnesty International has used the talents of artists everywhere for posters, which run the gamut of the beautiful and terrifying (often combining both qualities), and ring changes on the concept of bringing hope to those in jail and suffering torture. An example, sponsored by a major German corporation, testifies to corporate guilt over connivance with or exploitation of injustices, and to the desire to present a morally conscious face to the world. Greenpeace and Green parties have not only defended the environment against its destruction by governments and industry, but also condemned warmongering. Greenpeace activists have also engaged in direct action that branches, such as the Greenham Common protests of the 1980s and 1990s, into theater: in March 2004 two youths climbed the Big Ben clock tower in London with banners denouncing government lies. The government ignored the denunciation, but not the dramatic breach of security.
The Japanese Graphic Designers Association in 1983 launched a worldwide Hiroshima Appeal Poster competition, which resulted in a series of posters; a counterpart was started in the United States by Charles Helmken. In Britain in the late 1950s, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) gave the world the most universal peace or antiwar symbol, and has continued to produce and inspire posters, as have the Quakers and many other religious or spiritual organizations such as the World Council of Churches. Particular events, notably the stationing of U.S. Cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe and the apparent readiness of the United States to consider Europe as a theater of nuclear war, elicited an array of visual protests of various kinds. The encampment of women against the missiles placed on Greenham Common in Berkshire, England, aroused great media attention for their theatrical flair and dogged determination in harsh conditions; the perimeter fence became the stage for both actions and decorations that frustrated and ridiculed the authorities. The demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 combined a variety of visual effects: posters, banners, and a huge sculpture of the Goddess of Democracy
The German Greens stand at the center of the immense German production of the last decades. Their posters are very large and colorful and reach into all corners of German political and social life. Other major sources are the antifascist organizations (“anti-fa”) resisting fascist resurgence and racism, which is anti-Turkish and anti-foreigner generally. The range of protest in Germany rivals that of the United States, touching U.S. missiles on German soil, the Berlin Wall, immigration (many posters are in Turkish as well as German and occasionally English), the plight of the homeless, housing, the right to legal abortion, and the rights of women, children, political prisoners, gays, and animals. Pollution, recycling, urban congestion, and every kind of environmental issue, as well as solidarity with popular struggles around the world, especially in Latin America, come under scrutiny. In the United States, Syracuse Cultural Workers have consistently produced designs, but the U.S. scene is more characterized by the sheer multiplicity of ad-hoc antiwar, pro-peace and solidarity organizations producing a design of the moment, often for an upcoming mass demonstration. Poster-making in Australia has also depended much on the consistency of small organizations, such as Tin Sheds (1972-1979), Redback Graphics, and the radical youth group Resistance (since 1967). All were inspired by the anti-Vietnam War movement but have also taken on local targets, especially the maltreatment of the Aborigines.
In Japan, emerging in 1952 from strict U.S. censorship, members of the Japanese Students Union (Zen Gakuren) opposed, in word and image, the Joint Security Pact of 1960 and the continued U.S. occupation and re-militarization of their country. The first and foremost to condemn the destruction of the country by U.S. bombers was the painter Matsumoto Shunsuke. Much protest art has been created by women, dealing with more than “women’s issues”: disarmament, nuclear power, and U.S.. bases. In Korea the underground woodblock prints emanating from the Minjung movement, composed of students, workers, and Christian churches, with their simultaneous reference to Western and Chinese traditions, especially the work of Käthe Kollwitz, protested the killings under the dictatorship and the rigging of elections and called for reunification of the peninsula. The artist Hong Song Dam used more traditional religious material.
In China a long tradition in the classical period of Chinese art, of subtle, personal forms of protest in calligraphy and painting, turned to open opposition against the nationalist armies and the Japanese occupation in the 1920s and 1930s. The stark and violent effects of German Expressionist and Russian vanguard graphics were turned to account, while Mao Zedong insisted, at the famous Yan’an forum of 1942, that all art be positive, supportive of the Chinese Revolution, and unambiguous, and so it was from 1949. There were two subsequent periods of protest: post-Mao, and post-Tiananmen. In the post-Mao era many artists exiled themselves to New York, Taiwan, and Hong Kong in order to express their opposition freely. Zhang Hongtu’s 1989 painting depicting Mao Zedong as Jesus along with his disciples, a travesty of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper, intended to mock the cult of Mao and Maoism itself, was completed and exhibited in exile. Since the Tiananmen protest and consequent repression, the openings for protest within China have wavered, with a modest policy of restrained censorship.
India inherited the lively British tradition of cartooning, promulgated in the 1920s and 1930s along with the Ghandian uprising. The cartoon was another form of English lingua franca that served to cut across the boundaries of the subcontinent, where a dozen or more different languages are spoken. Much protest, such as the Kaligat painting that caricatured the British, emanated from Bengal and denounced the ethnic and religious divisions. The high regard placed by leftist and Marxist collectives on the value of propaganda (by word and image), in tune with Gandhi’s insistence of nonviolence and his genius for self-presentation (as in the protest marches), ensured that visual protest in newspapers, posters, and on walls all over the country played a critical role in mobilizing masses against British rule. Since Indian independence, the cartoon has functioned much as it has in the West.
There has been a degree of international graphic solidarity with Palestine in its struggle with Israel. Resistance in the Occupied Territories is of course limited; even the use of the colors of the Palestinian flag has been banned. The work of the Palestinian poster artist Jihad Mansour (Marc Rudin) stands out, and among the many dissenting Israeli voices perhaps the most forceful has been that of the veteran Russian-Jewish Israeli David Tartakover.
Comic Strip and Graphic Novel
After a long period of sociopolitical quiescence—born of newspapers’ fears of offending subscribers and advertisers—the comic strip resumed some of its original satiric purpose, which it had shown in the nineteenth century. Walt Kelly’s Pogo in its innocent-looking, Disneyish, animal-fabulous garb, indicted Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s. The traditional taboo of the “controversial” was finally broken with Jules Feiffer, whose work was nevertheless confined to the progressive weekly magazine, unlike Garry Trudeau’s syndicated Doonesbury (commencing in 1970, in the early 2000s the strip appears in four hundred newspapers worldwide). Highly topical and scathing of government lies and deceptions (the Watergate scandal was for Trudeau what McCarthy was for Kelly), and sympathetic to new social movements such as feminism, Trudeau has been called the most influential (and is probably the most regularly censored) cartoonist in the world; he won a Pulitzer Prize for cartooning in 1975. The drawing is stiff, but the dialogue perfectly tuned. His nearest British equivalent is Steve Bell, a principled, caustic, socialist critic of capitalist antics, whose daily “If” has appeared in the Guardian newspaper since 1981. His crude, chaotic linear style and composition derive from his background in children’s comics. The child-like style, verging on bizarre abstractions, is best exemplified in the poster work of Berkeley artist Doug Minkler.
All kinds of long-established taboos, mainly in the social and sexual realm, were broken by the so-called Underground Comics (or comix) starting in the mid 1960s, led by Robert Crumb. These works heralded the sexual revolution that was also visualized by posters, and celebrated illegal drugs and the hippie lifestyle in a manner that is both hilarious and philosophical. Approaching the pornographic, such work endured brushes with law, and for a time it was easier to find these comics in Amsterdam than in their place of origin, the San Francisco Bay area.
The graphic novel emerged in the 1980s from the old comic book, which was typically a collection of short graphic sequences, related to and often reproducing newspaper strips. It has now become a major vehicle of social and political protest, gaining status from Art Spiegelman’s autobiographical Holocaust account Maus, which won many prizes and is sold in mainstream bookstores. The genre has lent itself to autobiography laced with radical social critique, as in the feminist advocacy of Marisa Acocella’s Just Who the Hell Is SHE Anyway? (1993). The comic strip and comic book format, much used everywhere for educational and didactic purposes, found essentially local critical forms in Latin America: the much-censored Rius (Eduardo del Rio) in Mexico, with his Agachados (The Downtrodden) and Supermachos (The Supermales), cutting a wide swath through the Mexican polis; Roberto Fontanarrosa, with his Boogie el Aceitoso (Boogie [from Humphrey Bogart] the Slippery), a crapulous, sadistic C.I.A. thug and U.S.-hired mercenary, whose laconic wit is his only virtue. Another Argentine, Hector Oesterheld, wrote for artist Alberto Breccia and his son Enrique a tragic life of Che Guevara (Che, 1968), which was burned and suppressed by the government, and Osterheld was “disappeared” (murdered).
An example of socialist political comic, which has remained unique, emerged in Salvadore Allende’s Chile (1970-1973), an exciting experiment that was aborted by the military coup of Augusto Pinochet, which banned and burned it. Under the generic title La Firme (Steadfast) the series told amusing Chilean-dialectal and dialectical tales in quintessential Chilean working places and locales, serving to explain the need for the socialist transformation that was then in process and under threat. This was undertaken in tandem with the first radical, and enduring, critique of the Disney comic, which was especially hegemomic in Latin America: How to Read Donald Duck (1971), by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, which was translated into a dozen foreign languages (the English edition, 1975, carried the subtitle Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic). After Chile’s bloody counterrevolution of September 11, 1973, José Palomo, one of the La Firme artists, fled to Mexico where he created a tiny, Wizard-of-Id-like dictator, not at all innocuous like his Brant-Parker prototype, under the title El Cuarto Reich, published in Uno mas Uno. Contemptuous and exploitative of the poverty and sufferings of his people, and backed by U.S.-trained thugs and death squads, he typifies the Third World dictator, especially in U.S.-dominated Latin America. This gag strip, hilarious as well as mordant, was little exported. Yet it is perhaps the only comic strip in the world about the life of truly immiserated majorities, although in the U.S. Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks does deal with the impoverished and unemployed black youth, as well as issues of war and peace.