Graphic protest: Using images to sell ideology

Carol A. Wells is the founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles, the largest archive of post-World War II political posters in the U.S.

Playwright Tony Kushner’s foreword to “The Design of Dissent,” Milton Glaser and Mirko Ilic’s book about protest graphics, reads like an adventure novel. Kushner, a master storyteller, quotes another master -- Stendhal -- to present a fascinating tale of a late-18th century political cartoon that inspired action against an oppressor.

But the history of the protest graphic is even older -- they have been used to educate, agitate and inspire every movement for social change since the Protestant Reformation. Issues may change over the years and across continents, but political graphics are still the dissenter’s tool of choice. And despite the many technologically advanced ways to create and distribute images today, protest posters remain a functional and popular form of dissent throughout the world precisely because they are low-cost, low-tech and relatively easy to disseminate.

Kushner’s essay should be read by anyone wanting to understand the power and purpose of the political poster. He identifies three characteristics of successful graphic dissent: “It is shocking, it is clever -- even funny in a grim sort of way -- and its meaning is instantly intelligible. And perhaps it shares one other characteristic: It is, or at least it seems to be, samizsdat, dangerous, forbidden.”

While not all the graphics presented in “The Design of Dissent” possess these qualities, enough do to make it a compelling collection of visual protest. More than 350 images by 240 artists cover graphic dissent from many countries, cultures and conflicts. In addition to the traditional poster format, the authors have included magazine and book covers, buttons, comic strips, coloring books, murals, billboards, fliers, stencils, stickers, T-shirts, invitations, logos, advertisements, inflatable sculptures and even condom packaging. Although the graphics span the period from the 1960s to the present, 90% were produced after 1990, and more than half since 2000, making this a significant collection of early-21st century political design.


The book’s authors are internationally renowned. Milton Glaser is one of the most respected graphic designers in the United States. His “I {heart}NY” -- designed to promote tourism in New York state -- is often called the world’s most frequently imitated logo, and his stylized silhouette of Bob Dylan remains an icon of the 1960s. Born in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mirko Ilic did illustrations and art direction for posters, record covers and comics in Europe before moving to the U.S. in 1986; he has served as art director for the international edition of Time magazine and for the op-ed pages at the New York Times.

Steven Heller, whose interview with Glaser is included in the book, is art director of the New York Times Book Review and has written many books on the history of graphic design. Heller and Glaser’s discussion leaves one exhilarated and frustrated: Ideas are thrown out and interesting tangents develop, but only one is followed. The conversation touches on, but never develops, the critical connection between aesthetics and message, form and content. When Glaser points out that the work of amateurs is often as powerful as that of professionals, Heller asks an important and fascinating question: What does the professional designer bring to the party that the amateur cannot?

Not only is this query never answered, but the two well-known Vietnam War protest posters cited as examples of works produced by “amateurs” -- “Q: And Babies? A: And Babies” (by Irving Petlin and Jon Hendricks) and “War Is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things” (by Lorraine Schneider) -- were in fact designed by art professionals. There is a distinction made between graphic designers and artists, but it is never defined or discussed; because the book contains work by both, these differences are obfuscated.

Other problematic questions arise, including how images were selected, as Glaser and Ilic never explain their criteria. More artists represented here are from the former Yugoslavia than Africa and the rest of Europe combined, and although more than half the artists are from the U.S., only a few from the important tradition of Chicano printmaking are included. The book is also hard to use as a reference tool: There’s an alphabetical list of contributors, but it has no page numbers to facilitate finding their work.


Given that this book is by prominent graphic designers and contains important work not widely seen, it will probably become a standard reference on protest graphics. This makes the many errors all the more unfortunate. For example, “War Is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things” was the logo for the organization Another Mother for Peace, not Mothers’ Mobilization for Peace.

The authors’ reference to the “famous phrase from the 1960s, ‘The revolution will be televised’ ” is incorrect: The line is actually “The revolution will not be televised,” the title of a 1970s song by Gil Scott-Heron. “Mom We’re Home,” a poster designed in 1987 by John Yates, could not have been designed for the 1991 Persian Gulf War. And there is no excuse for spelling “Guerrilla Girls” (anonymous art activists who wear gorilla masks in public) different ways on the same page.

As Kushner points out, a protest graphic must be immediately understood; as soon as the time, place, or both, changes, explanations often become necessary. For example, nothing in the “Q: And Babies?” poster stated that it was about the My Lai massacre committed by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam -- that wasn’t necessary when the poster came out, because the story was headline news. Thirty-five years later, it needs an explanation, and the book provides a brief one.

But in Favianna Rodriguez’s “Hermano Kyung Hae Lee,” only the anti-World Trade Organization statement taken directly from the poster is cited, and there is no date given. To understand this poster, it is important to know that Rodriguez produced it in 2003, one month after a 50-year-old South Korean farmer died of stab wounds to the chest that were self-inflicted as a protest of WTO policies.


Despite its flaws, “The Design of Dissent” reveals the power of political graphics. Although the book focuses on contemporary graphics, by including earlier examples the authors make the point that some issues -- such as peace and equality -- inspire political graphics that span borders and generations. Other topics, as reflected in posters on communism or the graphic commentaries on the 2000 and 2004 U.S. presidential elections, are very time- and place-specific. New issues include opposition to genetically modified food; there are also fresh approaches to old issues, such as using the threat of mad cow disease to promote vegetarianism.

Transitions are often seamless, with the iconography of the last graphic in a chapter frequently paralleling the first image in the next; this illustrates how a single poster can speak to multiple issues and how the same image can be used in more than one context. This is especially dramatic in the first and second chapters: The last poster in Chapter 1 (“Communism”) and the first in Chapter 2 (“Palestine and Israel”) both use Michelangelo’s Pieta to make their points.

In the first poster, “Hommage a Romania” by Peter Pocs (1989), the only alteration to the sculpture is the Romanian flag tied around the elbow of the dead Christ. Rebecca Rapp more dramatically transforms the Pieta in “Israeli Law Enforcement” (2003) by replacing the sculpted Christ with a photograph of a dead Palestinian youth and framing the piece with blood-red paint.

In fact, “Palestine and Israel” is one of the most provocative chapters in the book. Although it includes works from the United States, Poland, Turkey and Iran, the three Israeli artists represented reflect the greatest ideological diversity, and they use their graphics to provide a powerful insight into the divisions in Israeli society regarding the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories. Half the works in this section were created by two prolific and prize-winning Israeli designers, David Tartakover and Yossi Lemel, whose hard-hitting -- and often self-produced, posters are in collections all over Europe but are rarely exhibited in the U.S.


Tartakover won the 2002 Israel Prize Laureate for Design, the most important design award in that country. His work uncompromisingly critiques the occupation by and the practices of the Israeli military. Documentary photographs are central to Tartakover’s work, and he combines grainy or pixilated images with text and hand-drawn graphics to criticize Israeli military actions for audiences at home and elsewhere. “Pain” (1989) shows a young Palestinian girl who lost an eye to an Israeli rubber bullet; the poster was created for a group of Israelis who refused to perform military service in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories and who appealed to others to do the same. In “Childhood Is Not Child’s Play!” (1998), Tartakover incorporates the official statement issued by the Israeli Defense Forces, which expresses sadness over a 6-year-old Palestinian boy’s death, but goes on to explain that he was killed according to regulation. He superimposed the statement over a photo of the child, taken while he was alive, and drew cross hairs in red -- the only color in the poster -- across his chest.

Lemel also uses photography, but his photos are slick, posed and manipulated, with the deeply saturated color of commercial advertising. Unlike Tartakover, who focuses on Israel’s actions and responsibility, Lemel’s graphics attack both sides in the conflict. In “Blood Bath” (2002) the viewer looks directly down upon a white-tiled room containing a white bathtub filled with blood, evoking morgues and suicides; the book’s annotation describes the seemingly endless bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians, “in which neither side is able to wash away responsibility for the situation.” Lemel’s “Israel Palestine 2003,” which shows the dove of peace preserved in a specimen jar, is reminiscent of John Heartfield’s skewered dove from 1932, whereas his “Israel Palestine 2004" is more suggestive of body parts painted by Theodore Gericault, with a handshake amputated at the wrist, suggesting the cut-off peace process.

The chapter’s single poster by Israeli designer Dan Reisinger does not oppose his government’s policies -- as graphics of dissent by definition would -- but its inclusion provides another perspective. In “Separation” (2003), Reisinger supports the building of a wall to separate Palestinians and Israelis. A howling black wolf and a white lamb -- the racist implications are not subtle -- are shown in various combinations (wolf’s head on lamb’s body, etc.), but in the end, the poster claims that only separation will work.

This section may be the most challenging for many in this country who, if they rely on the mainstream media, rarely hear about or read about Israelis opposed to their government’s policies -- not unlike the lack of dissenting views presented in our own country. For this reason alone, the book is important.


“The Design of Dissent” shows the power and continuing need for protest graphics. It documents issues and conflicts both well-known and unfamiliar. Some works are beautiful, others horrific. Some are clever, and others manage to elicit humor in the midst of death and dying. The book’s images will test the visual literacy and political awareness of many readers and will challenge preconceptions and assumptions. That is exactly what graphics of dissent are supposed to do. *