Carol Wells, Director, Center for the Study of Political Graphics, Los Angeles
December 13, 1991
WELLS: Fine art, the art that you'll find in galleries and museums, takes, has a very specific audience, it's an audience that is educated, is an audience that has a high literacy about the language of art, the meaning of art and it's very different than the kind of protest posters that you'll see plastered on a wall of a street, of a street anywhere in the world. Because a protest poster is intended to get people's attention immediately, get the message out immediately, be clear, be informative and not assume a lot of information that the viewer has to bring to the picture, where the fine arts want the viewer to work at the meaning, they don't want the meaning to be clear, they don't want the meaning to be immediate, then it becomes too much like an advertisement. A political poster does function like an advertisement, it want's a message out, it wants a message out fast, it doesn't want the viewer to have to work to hard at getting the message and so there's a real difference in how those two kinds of visual forms work.
Robbie's work, in a sense straddles the two because he's using them in a way that political posters should be used, he's plastering them everywhere, he's getting publicity around them. Most political posters aren't used in as good a way as Robbie's stuff is because there much more timid, they don't get that kind of exposure and so he's really exploiting a way of pol-pp-political poster that is not used enough. But on the other hand his stuff is more art, than protest poster because you have to work at it, there's a lot of ambiguity, the thing that makes most protest posters work is clarity and with a few exceptions, Robbie's really take a high level of cultural literacy, a high level of art literacy, a high level of political literacy.
His Jesse Helms' posters, that's not a face recognition that most people are going to have a recognition walking down the streets are going to have any idea who it is. So it really, you have to work at it, you have to look at it, his, the SEX DRUGS ROCK & ROLL is another one even people with high political literacy had a lot of trouble figuring out two of the three of those profiles of those pictures.
So his stuff is in a sense taking an artform and putting it on the streets and getting a lot of exposure but it has its, it's ambiguous in many cases and it's uh, it doesn't have the clarity that a protest poster would, would almost require for it to do its job...
I would put that what Robbie has done with plastering the posters and letting people know how posters can get this attention. How posters can get people talking and get on the news and get discussions going and get articles about them that why doesn't the political community use posters in the same way? What Robbie has done is shown people that these are a way of communicating in a very dramatic, very effective way and other people who want to talk about A.I.D.S., who want to talk about women's rights, who want to talk about any of the issues - the homeless, any of the issues that are immediate now. Why aren't they getting the posters out there in the same way? The walls are there. People go by those walls every day and it's an extremely effective way of communicating and very few people are using it and I think that the kinds of images that could go up there could be even more powerful than the ones we've seen but it's a very underused medium, it's a very unused form of communication.
WALKER: And it's the most simple.
WELLS. Think, think back, who produces political posters and why? For the most part, the people that support the government, the people that support the status-quo, they don't make post, protest posters because they've got the White House, they've got the L.A. Times or the N.Y. Times or the channel, you know, the six o'clock news, so their point-of-view is being expressed in the mainstream, they don't have to protest, but to buy TV time or to buy newspaper to get your positions out is extremely expensive. So, posters, are a relatively inexpensive way of getting an oppositional viewpoint out. So protest posters are usually, not a hundred percent of the time, but primarily a tool by people out of power, by the disenfranchised, who want to change the system, who want to change the status-quo, who are not happy with the way that things are. So its a way of communicating that people who don't have the power and don't have the money to use another way. So that's why most po, most political posters are protesting, they're protest posters, they're opposing, oppositional, opposing the status-quo.
If we look at who's using those posters and that, that, you can make that same statement from Central America to South Africa to Western Europe to the United States, that people out of power are using posters, then those are the people that could use this medium in a far more effective way than just to have a demonstration. A demonstration has a life for the, for the two hours the demonstration lasts, if it gets covered on the news, you're lucky, if you see that news coverage for thirty seconds, then you're lucky, but a poster saying that same thing, "Stop Funding the U.S. War in El Salvador!" is going to be on that same street corner for months and months and months and that message is going to get out there for months, way longer than the two hour demonstration. So, I think both have to be used.
I think the demonstration is not going to be a form of protest that's gonna, that shouldn't be eliminated, I think there should be more of them but I think it's very short sided to put all the emphasis into one kind of protest and not take advantage of one of the most effective forms of protest that there are, which is using visuals.
If we think of a country such as Nicaragua where posters were used to communicate to a population that was highly illiterate, you had a 56% illiteracy rate at the time of the Sandinistan victory. Posters were able to communicate a message through the graphics to people who could read or who couldn't read. They work on two levels. Then you look at the United States where we have close to 30% illiteracy, you're having, you have, a high, I think it's the highest illiteracy rate of the developed countries is in this country. So that's another way, people aren't going to read to newspapers, because they can't, newspaper readership is going down. People get the information from visuals, they get them from the television which gives a very abbreviated, a very unsubstantial interpret, analysis of the news. Not that posters can give a, a depth analysis, it certainly can't. But it gives a message that you don't get in the newspaper, it gives a way of looking at the world that is challenging the general interpretation, so people, at least are thinking, "you mean, it's not the way it is in the, the way way were told. It's not the way Bush tells it is, tells it. There's a different way of looking at the world?"
And so a protest poster can put an idea out to make people think. "You're using our tax dollars to, to, to create a war someplace instead of feeding people here, housing people here. How come?" And a poster has a ability of making that snap of making that connection like an advertisement.
It's hard to find good places to put posters. I think that is maybe part of your, your question. Because the, in order to pr, in order to present, prevent, um, oppositional statements on public streets you have laws put uh, created that makes it illegal to put posters this place, that place, the next place. So, but that doesn't mean they're not, they're not found all over the place and construction sites are probably one of the easiest, safest places to put them up because it's temporary, it's um, it's not glass and stucco in the sense of a final building. So it provides a place to put a poster up that's probably just as visible, it's got prime visibility, but it's, it's not as um, alienating as sticking it up on somebody's um, you know, private window which would create a lot more problem.
Well, I would, kind of I have sort of a take off on that, I mean, are you ready? Okay. Let me think how to start this... All art is political, okay, historically art has always been political, whether, from the, from the pyramids to um, the Gothic cathedrals. There's never been a art production commissioned by a government or a Pope or a King that has not had a political purpose. The whole idea that art was not to have a political purpose developed in the 19th century. Okay, in France. Art for art's sake. It was away of taking the power away from art because art, which was not controlled by the government, was too dangerous, so the whole ideology of "art for art's sake" developed as away of taking the power away from art.
We actually, in a strange way, owe Jesse Helms a thanks because he understands the power of art and by saying that art shouldn't say X, Y, Z he kind of woke up a lot of the art community that was looking upon themselves in a very privileged, elitist way and not taking full advantage of their ability and their power to communicate as very few other people can and I think that that was a very important thing to happened because art,
Art has always been political and the fact that people took the bourgeoisie definition that art for art's sake, that art should not be political and internalize it for the last hundred years, more than a hundred years, has, has allowed the governments of the world to use culture in a political way but the people have been denied that. So oppositional movements have been denied the power of art which the corporations have always been clear on. So now finally it's back on the table again. The discussion is back on the table again. You ran out of film?...
WALKER. ...the danger then becomes that they get the poster and they frame it and they put it up in their living room and then that was it. They think that by supporting Robbie, by buying his poster, that they've supported the anti-Gates movement or they've supported Los Angeles' moment of transition of trying to oust Gates and I don't think so.
WELLS. I think, the, the,.. The oppositional movements have always had a conflict between trying to get into the mainstream, trying to get their message out there and then when their message gets out there they always say, "oh, it's not the way it should be, it's too, it's watered down, it's, it's become too high fashion."
The same argument is going on with Frieda Collow. Frieda Collow is now um, such a popular icon, within the artworld, that people are not looking at her politics. People are not looking at what she stood for, what was important in her life.
So what happens is when you finally get to the mainstream, a lot of the information becomes diluted and that's a problem and all you can hope for and work for is that there's still enough people there that are giving the next level of interpretation, the next level of information so people are finally aware that "you know, Bush, Bush is not perfect, Bush can be um made fun of, and if you start making fun of somebody.
I mean humor is an element that is present in a lot of Robbie's posters that is a very rare element in political posters, there's very little humor, which is a problem. Because if you can make fun of a public figure then all of a sudden you've taken them down a notch and you transformed a potential fear of authority into making fun, you've poked a whole in their power and so humor is a very effective tool that's also underused, that's also other people can taken a lesson from using that humor.
So that parts real important, but then it doesn't go the next step, it doesn't say, it doesn't talk about a specific policy. It doesn't talk about a specific issue. Well, then some, another group can come up or another poster maker come up and then take it the next step, we now know that this is iconoclastic, we can make fun of these people, now what? Now lets put out the positions that we want.
So I don't think we're going to find the right or perfect answer in any one artists' production but by encouraging more and more people to produce them and raise sensitivity in the audience to look at them and get feedback about them. You know, this one makes sense to me, this one doesn't make sense to me. Why? To talk about it, because what happens is political posters are sometimes made by individuals that don't have any connection with an organization or group or they're made by committee and then you have problems with either way. You have problems with being too much input in and maybe the power of the graphic has totally been lost for the political correctness of the message or you have the other, the politics of the message has been diluted for the aesthetics, that it looks good. And it's very hard to get a poster that has everything in, but there are some and those are the ones that tend to be the most powerful and tend to have a life beyond the specific date of the event that they were produced for.
So I think there's a lot of things going on that people have not taken the medium of political posters seriously because it's an item that has been produced to be destroyed. And in this country and in most countries what you put value on is items that are made to be valuable, that are made to last. Not items that are intended to be short lived, intended to be ephemeral or intended to be destroyed and so political posters have not been taken as seriously as a medium as an art form, as a form of communication for that very purpose and I think that if, if Robbie's stuff is, because it straddles the line between protest and art and if it brings people aware, people aware of the pow, potential power of the medium then that's great.
WALKER: ...If you go the other way, both ways, talk to Gates, I think it's going to bring it together. And it's going to confuse it, somewhat, because it is confusing - Gates, the Rodney King attack was not so clear cut, well it's pretty clear cut what happened and why, but, with Gates' resigning and all, it's so muddled and we asked him what are your plans...
For someone who buys Robbie's posters and says "oh, Robbie's the greatest commentator and we love him, you know." Them over there and Gates sitting here are two different things. If they want to make a difference then they should drive by Parker Center once, acknowledge where it is in Los Angeles, maybe see what it might be like to walk in that building or to walk into City Hall and sit in on a City Council meeting...
WELLS: See, I mean, one thing I didn't say that I should have most of...
WELLS: Okay, a good political poster will not only criticize an issue but motivate people to do something. And, Robbie's posters don't ask you to do anything. So there's that motivational push is certainly not in those posters but I'm thinking of the posters saying "write your congressman, come to demonstration, stop letting your tax dollars be used for uh, making war." So a lot of posters say, give you something to do...
WALKER. People become very numb to that.
WELLS. Look how em,(bombarded) by images. You cannot walk out your door, you're in your house, the TV is on whether you watch it or not. How many magazines and junk mail come with pictures in them for advertising? You drive on the street, there's billboards. So we're bombarded with images which is one of the reasons that political posters can be effective because (camera starts) they tend to take a familiar image, we can make it in a, shock, often shocking way. Take it and put it in a context that is not familiar, that's more grading where, where the advertising is kind of soothing or even if it wants to get your attention, it's not doing it in a way that's perhaps, ugly or cruel or violent. That you have to the, you know, watch on television. You see those on the news, you see the violent images. But to see an image of dead bodies and U.S. tax dollars on a billboard. You're not going to find that. They're expensive. But you will see it on a poster and it will attract people's attention because it's, "What do you mean? My dollars are being used to do that?" It's not the kind of advertising that they see which is usually selling sex, you know, and a false happiness. So it's not saying, showing the downside of life. So posters, are, can be very unique in having an image that's not a traditional image at all. And that way they attract people's attention and that way they can be very, very effective.
WELLS: The Center for the Study of Political Graphics is a non-profit political poster archive. We collect international protest posters and then we put them into theme exhibits that travel around the United States and abroad. And we have posters from, I think every continent by now dealing with both general issues of human rights and things that are very local, very specific. So this, talking about very specific, very local the Gates' poster that Robbie did, this is another one. This is one that was put out by a local Los Angeles organization. There's no names on it, no dates on it, you don't know who did it, um, it's also quoting him. It's using a photograph. This is going to be understandable to people in L.A. right now.
In ten years from now, it's gonna, people aren't going to be so clear as who he is, why it was made, so what's happening with the Center is we're collecting these posters and then we're also keep the information so in ten years, twenty years, we can say, this poster was produced around a major police brutality issue, and talk about it. And we will also exhibit this poster with images of police brutality from El Salvador from China, from Tieneman Square. So it becomes a part of large context, it's not a unique issue, it's not unique to L.A. there's other examples, and it's not unique to the world. There's unfortunately many examples so the posters then become a record of a history that is not written in the history books. It's a record of oppositional movements.
This is one of my favorites "Until the Lions Have Their Historians, Tales of Hunting Will Always Glorify the Hunter." What we're doing with posters is we're creating a visual record of the history of the lions, because that's what protest posters are. And so that way people have a record, there's a record of, of history that is, that is not your mainstream history. It is a re***cord of oppositional movements of people who are trying to make life better for themselves and their hopes and their dreams are all in these posters."
Alright, you would ask me to find some hard stuff. Let's see, oh here it is. (CONTRA COCAINE) Yes, this we used in, the last show we used this in was called the "The Price of Intervention From Korea to Saudi Arabia" uh, from Korea to the Persian Gulf. It was the first poster exhibit in the country that opposed the Gulf War, and we pulled the thing together from idea to opening in less than thirty days.
And there were over a hundred pieces in it and the opening was 6 days after the bombing started it was almost to close to handle. We couldn't, we had trouble dealing with protesting the war in the middle of the war (in a gallery) because we felt that we had to be in the streets demonstrating and to start mounting posters, it was very, it took a level of control that was a very emotional time, it was a very painful, very difficult to uh, realize that people were dying and here were trying to mount an art exhibit to stop the dying and you wonder how, what kind of power you really have to do that, but we, it was real, it hurt, it was real important because people were so overwhelmed with the news coverage making them feel that they were the only person in the country to oppose the war and by having these posters and showing, and having, and HUNDREDS of people came to that exhibit.
People realized that they were not alone in opposing the war that there were a lot of people out there that opposed that war and it was the media part of the propaganda campaign to make people think that everybody supported this war and not everybody did support the war. And by showing posters, this one was certainly about an earlier issue. This is dealing with the Contras and the drug connection with the um, Reagan-Bush Administration in Nicaragua. But, there were, we had about a dozen posters that were made right at the time of the Gulf War from all over the county opposing the Gulf War so it allowed people to see that they were not isolated, that they were not alone.
That there was a national movement in opposition to that war and so that was real important that the posters become empowering, that they break down isolation, they showed that people are not alone in their struggles. That there's people otherwhere, Everywhere that are working for those same things and that um, we need to keep struggling, we need to keep fighting. That we need to keep fighting, we need to keep struggling....
Edit me down to coherence.
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