It Speaks to Me: Sam Durant on a 1953 Cold War poster at the Wende Museum in Culver City

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This Soviet propaganda poster from 1953 depicts an American child looking at a sign that says “school closed.” It shows America as a sort of crumbling, Third World-looking country, very dark and ominous — probably close to the way we thought of Russia at the time. The poster says that the USA spends 1% of its budget on education and 74% on the military, and more than 10 million people here are illiterate. So this is something of an exaggeration. But I’m interested in it because of what’s going on right now in the U.S. with the defunding of public education and the vilification of unionized schoolteachers. As a child of public education when it was maybe at its strongest point in the ’60s and early ’70s, what’s happening today really angers me.

I’m not planning on using this particular piece in my own work, but after doing a show and book with Emory Douglas, the Black Panther artist, I’ve had a keen interest in political propaganda and its relationship to culture. And I’m interested in the transitional historic moment that the Wende Museum represents. It’s dedicated to the fall of the Communist bloc in 1989 and has all types of material culture from East Germany and the Soviet Union — everything from chunks of the Berlin Wall to paintings. It also has a huge collection of surveillance equipment, which is fascinating.


--Artist Sam Durant, as told to Jori Finkel

K. Ivanov and V. Briskin’s Soviet Union poster: ‘In the U.S.A.’ from 1953. Courtesy the Wende Museum in Culver City, open by appointment Monday through Thursday and without appointment 10am-5pm on Friday.