Art Fights Back
March 11, 2002 9:29 PM   Subscribe

Art Fights Back — an exhibit of poster art at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines, Iowa — displays images dedicated to the memory of September 11 and support of the Unites States and its troops. Seems like a typical thing to do around war time, right?

Take a close look at the actual poster design. Don't they seem rather non-American in their artistic style? In fact, they recall an era of poster design for a dramatically different context than what was typically thought of as U.S. patriotism.
posted by Down10 (39 comments total)
Yes, I know how to spell "United States." I'm not a Commie.
posted by Down10 at 9:31 PM on March 11, 2002

Lacking any major "American" artist in the vein of Norman Rockwell - someone who spent a career capturing the essence of America - or perhaps lacking the talent to create images in a realistic fashion, designers turn to the blocky and woodcut look.

We have no clear enemy, but we have co-opped so much into the modern american psyche, that nothing is uniquely american anymore. American as Apple Pie? Not when you can get Apple Pie at the McDonalds on the main road in Barcelona and Moscow.

What ever happened to the WWII look of posters? The "We Can Do IT!" poster with the woman rolling up her sleeve to go to work in the factory, etc. That look and feel? Oh, can we not copy ourselves, only OTHER, foriegn designs are good? ugh.

I'll stick with my 1940's "Uncle Sam wants YOU!" and "This is Our Flag. Be proud of it!" posters.

As for the soviet-esque posters, Joseph McCarthy, eat your heart out.
posted by eljuanbobo at 9:38 PM on March 11, 2002

These posters looked decidedly Nazi-esque to me. Just substitute the eagle for an albatross and we'll be ready to commit mass genocide.
posted by dogmatic at 9:50 PM on March 11, 2002

For the kind of things the government is doing, both inside and outside the country, I think they look quite appropriate...
posted by five fresh fish at 9:55 PM on March 11, 2002

Just substitute the eagle for an albatross and we'll be ready to commit mass genocide.

Please tell me I missed at least a slight sarcasm tag somewhere...
posted by Cyrano at 10:07 PM on March 11, 2002

They're taking cues from both Soviet Constructionism/ Social Realism and American WWII propaganda posters, but the main style showing here to my eye is good ol' generic Amercian Adobe-Illustrator produced Art Explosionism.

I like some of the designs, but the unity of style in this exhibition is a little creepy and depressing. I wonder how many hands are at work here.
posted by furiousthought at 10:09 PM on March 11, 2002

Wow! Some of the posters in the "Art Fights Back" collection are great! I've always loved art deco and it's astonishing to find that some modern artists are trying to get there!
Um, sorry, Down10, but the other site you linked to is "socialist realism" and that ain't the same thing at all. Socialist realism sucks. Always has, always will.
Thanks for the brand new art deco link, 'cause I hadn't seen it, but if you think that second link bears any resemblance to your first, I think you ought to clean your glasses ;).
posted by realjanetkagan at 10:10 PM on March 11, 2002

I thought the designs were interesting, and there's sure to be a market for them.

But if the slant is on 11 September and the terrorist attacks, what's with the "Public Servants - PS, We Love You" poster depicting a mail carrier??
posted by cyniczny at 10:16 PM on March 11, 2002

all the posters were done by the same artist at this company, and some of the sponsors are printing companies and PR agencies.

i've seen this promotional tactic before: companies band together to create portfolio for themselves, then bill it as public art for a cause. they get industry alliances, piles of swoony press, and awards galore. it's kind of hollow.
posted by patricking at 10:24 PM on March 11, 2002

Here's a nice site with some examples of the more famous posters produced during WWII by the likes of Ben Shawn, Thomas Hart Benton and the aforementioned Rockwell. An interesting quote from the page:

"The Government tried to identify the most effective poster style. One government-commissioned study concluded that the best posters were those that made a direct , emotional appeal and presented realistic pictures in photographic detail. The study found that symbolic or humorous posters attracted less attention, made a less favorable impression, and did not inspire enthusiasm."

I actually like a few of the posters on the page you linked, Down10, mostly for their strong graphic quality, something sorely missing in most contemporary posters (seen a good movie poster lately?). And I love that someone is making these kind of iconic images for current events. I would just like to see examples of this in other genres/styles.

PS: Here are a few of my favorite posters from the site I mentioned.

and cyniczny, re the mail carrier: remember anthrax?
posted by evanizer at 10:24 PM on March 11, 2002

art explosionism is my favorite new term. while I do like some of the designs, they all look extremely clip-arty. and wow is that "only cowards kill and hide" poster ridiculous.
posted by chrisege at 10:33 PM on March 11, 2002

patricking: aha! I was about to say it may all have been done by one talented designer, but with Adobe Illustrator you never know.

Upon further reflection I like the more art-deco posters, but the portraits really fall flat for me. And the whole "Issue War Bonds" thing comes off as awfully precious.
posted by furiousthought at 10:46 PM on March 11, 2002

after more inspection, i'm even more skeptical. this feels so manufactured (and possibly shady): all art by the same person, all promoted by companies in related fields, no real information about how much of the proceeds are really going to any sort of charity.

but then again, something about its perversity really delights me: i enjoy how the posters' styles are slapped together with no regard to the actual stylistic period. it's so theme-park-not-a-real-experience.
posted by patricking at 11:09 PM on March 11, 2002

I want to like these posters, I really do, but they're just ... dreadful. They look like the sample/tutorial art that comes with Freehand -- or even worse, Print Shop Deluxe circa 1994. (Lay off the gradients.) And don't even get me started on the actual content. Many of them are just plane crude. (WTC in crosshairs? Jeez.)
posted by artifex at 11:22 PM on March 11, 2002

designers turn to the blocky and woodcut look.

Looks like they've all turned to the Adobe Illustrator look, to copy furiousthought's remark above. Or whatever design program is hot right now.

That's something I've never understood about design in general over the last 15 years or so. There's been tons of great work done over all that time, but almost all of it REEKS of being designed on a computer. As a non-designer, I have to ask: Why doesn't this bother the design community? You'd think they'd want to try as hard as possible to get rid of that Adobeish feel.
posted by aaron at 11:23 PM on March 11, 2002

I agree. There's a clear intent to echo WWII and WPA-era poster art, of which there was a strong American tradition. (Where's that LOC thread? Here's a collection of WPA posters.) The graphical limitations of poster art -- short, pithy messages, blocky imagery that looks good from a distance or while in motion -- include more than just socialist realism; and all nations in WWII utilized posters to send messages, unite their people, and focus their energy and daily economic choices.

Unfortunately the artist here seems to have what we might call a tin eye. They're far overblown compared to what they ought to be. First of all, we're not required to mobilize our population the way we needed to in WWII -- either for soldiering or in war industry. The messages are not those that seem to be on our minds at the moment, but are instead truisms. We don't need to be commanded to respect public servants. If I were designing a 'fireman' poster, for example, I might choose an emotional narrative that brings the viewer into the poster with a message that resonates -- a weary fireman, his face white with WTC ash, and a message like "We'll never forget your heroism."

The few things we need in terms of posters might be a poster for people waiting in airport security lines: Keep your cool! Everyone needs to be checked! ... If it's in your case, you're off your flight (with imagery of weapons) ... Be alert! Help protect your air crew!

See, it's the things we don't like to do, or that we forget, that need posters.
posted by dhartung at 11:41 PM on March 11, 2002

That's just it: I think it's cleverly marketed satire. It's blatant U.S. propaganda, but the influences span from many different countries—USA, Russia, Nazi Germany, China, Spain, etc. Anyone with a world view and a recollection of art history (I'm guessing Des Moines isn't full of those people), would see the obvious context of the images.
posted by Down10 at 11:53 PM on March 11, 2002

Me: Just substitute the eagle for an albatross and we'll be ready to commit mass genocide.

Cyrano: Please tell me I missed at least a slight sarcasm tag somewhere...

Not at all.

I think Down10's right. I don't think these designs are actually meant to inspire. I think the artist created them to mock the ridiculousness of our War on Terror©.

Now's the part where I hide in fear from our shadow government, lest they toss me in a gulag.
posted by dogmatic at 12:04 AM on March 12, 2002

I agree, Down10, but as a non-American, there is something sinister about them.
posted by salmacis at 12:22 AM on March 12, 2002

I think the artist created them to mock the ridiculousness of our War on Terror©.

i dunno. i looked at the rest of his portfolio; it all looked like that. this isn't commentary. this is a marketing ploy.
posted by patricking at 1:07 AM on March 12, 2002

i dunno. i looked at the rest of his portfolio; it all looked like that. this isn't commentary. this is a marketing ploy.

I completely agree. Why anyone would feel the need to create 30 seperate badly-thought-out posters to heal the wound, I don't know - unless they wanted the kudos from idiots in doing so.

The worst thing about this is that I didn't think of it first.
posted by Neale at 1:42 AM on March 12, 2002

These posters are bad; I admit I can't tell whether they're supposed to be satire or not, though. The style reminds me of the art in one of the Sandman books. But whatever the intent, they're just not very interesting. Maybe they should have hired the guy from the other thread with the broken camera.
posted by bingo at 2:20 AM on March 12, 2002

I should add that I love the Sandman books. There, the style of art in question was used quite well, and had a reason for being there.
posted by bingo at 2:21 AM on March 12, 2002

recollection of art history (I'm guessing Des Moines isn't full of those people)

We have buildings designed by I.M. Pei and Frank Lloyd Wright, not to mention an art collection profiled by the New York Times a while back. But then again, we do just grow your corn right?

all the posters were done by the same artist at this company, and some of the sponsors are printing companies and PR agencies

You're right on this one. Sayles does posters for companies in the Des Moines area, and everything single poster, handbill, or coaster they've ever done has smacked of this same style. It's not satire; it may just be plain bad.
posted by Homeskillet Freshy Fresh at 3:15 AM on March 12, 2002

At the risk of going against the grain - I like 'em!
posted by davidmsc at 4:42 AM on March 12, 2002

What ever happened to the WWII look of posters? The "We Can Do IT!" poster with the woman rolling up her sleeve to go to work in the factory, etc.

eljuanbobo, That very poster is currently being used by an Italian ad firm to promote the hiring of women in Italy. One thing was changed - an Italian flag replaced a US flag. I heard about this on NPR some months back and don't have a link unfortunately.
posted by Qubit at 4:53 AM on March 12, 2002

Here are some more examples of the soviet posters in question.
Some of the later, WWII-era posters seem to have more in common with this stuff. I like the color scheme in the Soviet posters better, though.

I agree with dhartung, actually, about the utility of imperative propaganda -- although i have to say that the whole idiom seems out of place, and what with concerns about personal rights being jeapordized in the name of increased security, it seems like the last thing we would want in our airports are ominous looking Uncle Sams pointing accusing fingers at us underneath demands to stay calm and submit to searches.
posted by milkman at 5:00 AM on March 12, 2002

posted by ColdChef at 6:15 AM on March 12, 2002

I think it's cleverly marketed satire.

That was my take, from this side of the Atlantic. Gave me a wry smile. Either that or it is just plain bad. I can't bring myself to think that anyone could really take these seriously, though.
posted by walrus at 6:17 AM on March 12, 2002

Time will tell. Will be interesting to see how much a set of them will sell for in 50 years.

I think the average person will see them for what they are - posters in the style of the 30's and 40's. Obviously not the same quality, but I kind of liked 'em. But then, I have an US flag decal (in the non-billboard size) on the back of my truck, so my taste is pretty suspect.
posted by groundhog at 6:42 AM on March 12, 2002

Jeez, those designs are ugly. I prefer something along the lines of this little gem which was popular a few months ago.
posted by StOne at 6:54 AM on March 12, 2002

A) It's Ben Shahn, not Shawn.

B) From the color palettes, shading and typography, those posters are completely and unmistakable American. They lack the organic curves of European deco and nouveau and the typography of soviet constructivism or Nazism.

I don't understand the reason for this thread. Those posters (even though many of them are ugly, badly typeset and whorishly copy-catted) are quintessentially of the WPA/streamline-deco/WW2 propoganda variety, and all very, very American. What about them looks un-American?

It may be satire. But an inarticulate statement (like most of mine) is worse than none at all.
posted by luriete at 8:39 AM on March 12, 2002

Luriete, spare us the trolling will you?
posted by xena at 9:28 AM on March 12, 2002

Come on. It isn't wholly WPA/American. The guy clearly adores Constructivism (Let Freedom Ring/ Stop Terrorism - though that one's kind of a mash of all breeds of turn-of-the-century poster art), Deco (the one with the Liberty Bell), and Soviet agit-prop (the God Bless America poster).

But, again: the style is more 90's-era American commercial art than it is anything else. And like most people commenting here I don't read satire in the posters so much as I find an artist who can't shake his wink-and-nudge tendencies and summon grit when the subject matter demands it.

And how is luriete "trolling"?
posted by furiousthought at 10:07 AM on March 12, 2002

I don't think it's intentional satire. I think they really were trying for that nationalistic patriotic meme. They just did it badly. Some of those designs just hurt to look at. The pledge of allegiance one is an assault on good taste and non-blurry vision. The designs that show promise are all incredibly derivative.

As propaganda goes, it's memes here. Step away from the Photoshop and nobody gets hurt.
posted by dejah420 at 11:47 AM on March 12, 2002

Anyone with any experience looking at these images knows that Luriete is totally correct. This is a heavy handed composite of misunderstood styles which some designer crammed all together in Illustrator (or Freehand, lets be fair).

This person is no Alexander Rodchenko, that much is clear. This is heavy handed, clueless, unpresentable and just quite ugly. No talent to be seen here. Just move along. The similarity to Constructivist graphics is probably due to the angular nature of those works, although at least they had the decency to limit themselves to black white and maybe 1 color.

To me it more recalls the terrible illustration which was in favor about 5 years ago and still persists.
posted by Settle at 3:27 PM on March 12, 2002

Okay, I think I have devised some new poster concepts which will appeal to milkman:

Airport Security Guards: Watch out for Big Brother! .... along my graphic of a suitcase holding a gun and knife, Dissent is more valuable than safety! Challenge absurd federal rules! ... Take careful notes! Suing airport security will keep their hands off your ass! Call 1-800-SUE-FAA at handy kiosk past the metal detector. ... If you're white, nobody should be searching you. Oh, yeah, if you're Arab, nobody should be searching you. Oh, hell, everybody storm the guards. Who cares?
posted by dhartung at 10:20 PM on March 12, 2002

oh cummon. you're just baiting me. you continue to lose credibility by hyperbolizing and polarizing.
posted by milkman at 10:27 PM on March 12, 2002

Matt hasn't implemented the <sarcasm> tags, apparently.
posted by dhartung at 1:53 PM on March 13, 2002

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