Reflection: The power of protest by design

By Hayley Robb, F/G Scholar

The second half of the 20th century marked a change in the expression of the United States people. The art began to mimic the attitudes of the 1960s and 70s, and differed from the bright colored war propaganda of WWII, said Brian Resnick in his article, “Protest Posters From the Vietnam Era.” Art began to challenge the U.S. government and question the intentions of the war. College campuses, in particular, exploded with dissent and activism–one being Kent State University (Hensley and Lewis, 2010). On May 4, 1970, after days of protesting, fires, and speeches had already been exhausted, the National Guard was called to end a rally on KSU’s campus (Hensley and Lewis, 2010). The protesters threw stones at Guardsmen and verbally abused them yelling “pigs off campus,” “green pigs,” and “fascist bastards” (Henley and Lewis, 2010, p. 21) In response, the Guardsmen threw teargas and charged the group. They opened fire on the crowd killing four protesters (Hensley and Lewis, 2010).

Hensley and Lewis (2010) make the claim that Kent State University will now always be known. However, Kent State will not be known not “for the quality of its faculty” or the “beauty of its now-quiet campus, but for what happened during thirteen fateful seconds on May 4, 1970” (p. 28) The deaths at Kent State marked a turning point in U.S. history, but Kent State was not the only vocal campus at the time (Hensley and Lewis, 2010). In fact, there were plenty of other universities even more active in the fight against the Vietnam War such as University of California, Berkeley and UCLA (“Decade of Dissent” – Jay Belloli). The nation was split, and it is not only reflected in the things they said, or the events that took place, it is evident in the art students produced. The following designs are remnants from the time period and analyses on the intentions behind each detail from either the artist themselves, or art experts. As each of these posters prove, sometimes speech is even more powerful when not said at all.

1970 – “Amerika is Devouring its Children”

Poster 1: “Amerika Devouring Its Children” (1970) by Jay Belloli

The artist, Jay Belloli, attended University of California, Berkeley in the 1970s pursuing a major in art history. He said in an interview with the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG) that you could not attend Berkeley and not be involved in politics during that time critique (“Decade of Dissent – Jay Belloli,” 2012).

“It was the time when Berkeley was all about politics,” Belloli said. When explaining his design process, he said he can hardly remember why he made the painting now but that he chose Francisco Goya’s “Saturn Devouring his Children” painting, because it provided a dark context to pull from (“Decade of Dissent – Jay Belloli,” 2012).

“Words are powerful symbols,” Belloli said. “This image would be strong, but it is basically made by the words.” He said he didn’t really know what he was doing with the poster. The only thing he knew was that it had to be “graphically clear” (“Decade of Dissent – Jay Belloli,” 2012).

“You know when you’re making a work of art, you’re just kind of doing it,” he said.

The university held an exhibition for all of the posters that were emerging on campuses across the U.S. Belloli took matters into his own hands and visited other schools such as Northridge and UCLA to collect posters of dissent and from there the exhibition just grew and grew (“Decade of Dissent – Jay Belloli,” 2012). Since the war was televised, the war footage ran in the back of the gallery amongst the posters, making a statement all by itself. He said the impetus of the entire collection was just to highlight the disappointment and the upset felt by the people about America’s involvement in the Vietnam War (“Decade of Dissent – Jay Belloli,” 2012).  Belloli said it was less about becoming curators and more about expressing political dissent (“Decade of Dissent – Jay Belloli,” 2012).

“Sometimes the art can basically help, help define what the ideals are and sometimes it can respond to issues, which is what the posters did in 1970,” Belloli said.

Belloli was not credited to the poster in 1970 and he said it really didn’t bother him. He said he made his poster for the public and for that, associating his name really didn’t matter (“Decade of Dissent – Jay Belloli,” 2012). He said an art museum in Amsterdam contacted him to try and get the rights to the poster and he responded by saying, “do what you want with it” (“Decade of Dissent – Jay Belloli,” 2012). He said that is what it was made for–public use.

“America is still about devouring his children, right at this moment in Afghanistan, so the sentiment is still accurate alas,” he said during the time of the interview in 2012 (“Decade of Dissent – Jay Belloli,” 2012).

1974 – “Fuera de Indochina!”

Poster 2: 1974 – “¡Fuera de Indochina!” (1974) by Rupert Garcia

Rupert García was born in French Camp, Calif. and came from a family of creators. He served in the Vietnam War in 1966 and enrolled in the San Francisco School for the Arts on the G.I. Bill when he came back to the U.S. However, he discovered his love for art while serving in the armed forces and discovered his love for politics as he continued school and self-reflected back home (“Rupert García,” n.d.).

García created his “¡Fuera de Indochina!” in response to the Chicano Moratorium, which was formerly known as the National Chicano Moratorium Committee, built by Mexican-Americans to oppose the Vietnam War (“The Chicano Moratorium,” 2018). He said this poster, in particular, was interesting because it was a form of self-critique (“Decade of Dissent – Rupert Garcia,” 2012).

“I was in the Vietnam War,” he said in a 2012 interview with the Center for the Study of Political Graphics. “I mean my own ass was right there and I supported it all the way no question about it.”

He said he came home and began to question his support. He began learning about a lot of things concerning the U.S. and about life (“Decade of Dissent – Rupert Garcia,” 2012). He said it was coming back home when he learned that the Vietnam War was truly problematic (“Decade of Dissent – Rupert Garcia,” 2012).

“I finally (found) myself thinking, ‘Where do I fit in this critique?’” García asked.

He said he never told anyone he served in the military, but he said he found this identity manifesting in his work. He said he was inspired to create this poster when he saw a design featuring a Vietnamese soldier with his arm and gun up in the air and a certain emotional gesture in his outcry that drew García in (“Decade of Dissent – Rupert Garcia,” 2012).

He said his poster and the inspiration for his piece differ in the subtle possession of a gun. He said compositionally, he chose not to show the gun directly, García said the gun is implied in his work behind the darkness of the face (“Decade of Dissent – Rupert Garcia,” 2012).

“When I was in the military for four years, I was always armed and so I don’t need to have a gun, I just feel it,” García said. “The war was about guns and bombs and jets and so why do I need to be redundant?”

I think García’s piece grew in popularity for two reasons. It served as a symbol for a group of people that aren’t mentioned a lot in the Vietnam War era–the Mexican-Americans. And it also reflects a unique perspective García has as a soldier and as a political activist back home. I think García’s unique viewpoint makes him even more credible as an artist and an activist. Being on both sides ensures his audience that he understands all angles of the political issue and is able to craft an argument empathizing with both perspectives.

García closes the interview on the importance of art as speech making the claim that it is a serious matter.

“It’s demanding work,” he said. “It requires your brain and your sense of self and your emotions and an engagement with life.”

1968 – “Big Daddy Paper Doll”

Poster 3: “Big Daddy” (1968) series buy May Stevens

The “Big Daddy” series was created by May Stevens, a civil rights and feminist activist during the time of the Vietnam War (Morgan, 2014). It has been speculated that Stevens was and continues to be a member of the well-known feminist group, the Guerilla Girls (Morgan, 2014). Stevens was highly involved with the civil rights movement and even attended Malcolm X’s funeral to, then, create a drawing of the movement leader (Morgan, 2014).

Probably most well-known of Stevens’ works, however, is the portrait series of her father that also represents the “backward, bigoted, and militaristic patriarchy of America,” (Morgan, 2014, para. 3). The “Big Daddy” character in each of the paintings has a pudgy, white appearance. Big Daddy leaves ambiguity for the viewer. Morgan (2014) asserts he could be “your racist father, a coercive police officer, or the man who voted to deploy your son to Vietnam” (para. 3). This is the unifying enemy during the Vietnam War–the terrible beliefs of people like Stevens’ father. The figure is often accompanied by a bulldog who serves to exemplify the “belligerent qualities” of the man (Morgan, 2014, para. 3).

Stevens’ style mimics the grotesque caricature of George Grosz and the unsteady lines of illustrator Ralph Steadman. Big Daddy is simple but still serves as a symbol of injustice with an injection of the artist’s personal anger (Morgan, 2015). The poster pictured above is titled, “Big Daddy Paper Doll” (1968) and combines the colors of the U.S. flag with the blacks and greens of the military (Morgan, 2014). The figure is naked in the middle of the image with four identity roles surrounding him: an executioner, a soldier, a police officer and a butcher. The two most violent identities strategically placed at the end of the canvas with blood splatters on the butcher to symbolize the killings and terrorizing work of the war (Morgan, 2014). Big Daddy’s “pallid, fleshy” complexion contrasts the dark entities he is surrounded by. He is supposed to symbolize the violation to what they stand for–“justice.” The character’s masculine pride is highlighted by his “penile and bullet shaped head” (Morgan, 2014, para. 5).

Another defining element to the entire series Stevens has crafted is the deliberate two-dimensional appearance depicted in the images, symbolizing the flatness of life, and shallowness of the time (Morgan, 2014).

Stevens’ images come from a place of personal dissent for her father and proves she devoted a lot of emotional coping to create such works. Her series presents intolerance “as something that can be both familial and banal” (Morgan, 2014, para. 8). Big Daddy’s smile is one element Stevens uses to demonstrate the “complacency of bigotry” (Morgan, 2014, para. 8).

I think Stevens on a small scale reminds the viewer that the Vietnam War affected everyone not just in that families and relationships were separated by the draft, but that new opinions were developing within families oftentimes splitting them apart. Young people began to question. They began to be critical of the country they were living in and were discovering what they truly believed in and what may have just been “family tradition.”

WWII Contrast

The first half of the 20th century asked a lot of its people with the Second World War raging on. They asked for everything from savings to sacrifices of men (Resnick, 2011). And according to Ad Council these optimistic, unified efforts worked(Resnick, 2011). Approximately 85 million people purchased war bonds in the 1940s, Ad Council reported (as cited in Resnick, 2011).

I think the difference in the reactions of the 1970s was the tangible effects the war had on its people. Art gave the people it affected a platform, and I think the biggest difference to note is who was creating these posters and propaganda. In the 1940s, the propaganda was coming from the government, whereas the second half of the century marked a time for young people to speak up. The design of each time period reflected the impact the war had on citizens’ lives. Although, women were not drafted at the time, everyone had a brother, a husband and a father that would enable them to feel the effects of the war. WWII had an antithesis. There was a unifying enemy that brought the people together, whereas the 1970s marked a precedent for young people to separate from the older generations–a phenomenon evident today in movements like Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movements.

 1941 – “I Want You for the U.S. Army”

Poster 4: “I Want You for the U.S. Army” (adapted in 1941) by James Montgomery Flagg)

James Montgomery Flagg was one of the U.S.’ leading illustrators during the first half of the 20th century (“‘I Want You’ Poster,” n.d.). He worked for publications ranging from Ladies’ Home Journal to Saturday Evening Post (“‘I Want You’ Poster,” n.d.). His design was originally created for the First World War but then adapted to recruit soldiers for the Second World War (“‘I Want You’ Poster,” n.d.). Posters of all kinds during this time took a positive outlook that contrasted with García’s graphic implying the violence and terrors of the war or the bigotry of Stevens’ series. The war propaganda utilized colorful graphics, specifically red, white and blue, to display a heightened patriotism as seen in the Uncle Sam poster. Like the posters of the Vietnam War, the first half of the century played off of emotions too, but rather took a positive approach taking advantage of the lingering fears and loss of faith during the Second World War (“’I Want You’ Poster,” n.d.). This differed in the actual expression of fear and emotional dissent in the 1970s.

The emotional dissent displayed through art and posters in the second half of the 20th century gave the youth a place in the world. Although the youth were seen as ungrateful and sheltered at times, their voices made activism a reality for generations beyond the baby boomers. Ideas and previous beliefs were being questioned. Artists like Stevens provide an example of family ties being broken not just by the lottery calls on the radio, but by opposing societal attitudes. The world was at a divide because a new trade of ideas was emerging. The world was polarizing, and I think we see much of that same polarization reemerging today, hopefully to be preserved in even more contemporary protest art.

References

Center for the Study of Political Graphics CSPG. (2012, February 13). Decade of Dissent – Jay Belloli. Retrieved October 26, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QMWp7a4D-I

Center for the Study of Political Graphics CSPG. (2012, March 24). Decade of Dissent – Rupert Garcia. Retrieved October 26, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQNAfKmAUF8

The Chicano Moratorium. (2018, August 28). Retrieved October 26, 2018, from https://www.kcet.org/shows/departures/the-chicano-moratorium

Hensley, T. R., & Lewis, J. M. (2010). Kent State and May 4th: A social science perspective. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press.

“I Want You” Poster. (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2018, from https://amhistory.si.edu/militaryhistory/collection/object.asp?ID=548

Miles, B. (2016, February 03). Poster power: Revisiting the 1970s US anti-war movement. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/3wSnfCkdswQMvB3KkrHRsRm/poster-power-revisiting-the-1970s-us-anti-war-movement

Morgan, T. (2016, April 18). Painting the Power of Patriarchy. Retrieved October 26, 2018, from https://hyperallergic.com/143392/painting-the-power-of-patriarchy/

Resnick, B. (2015, June 05). Protest Posters From the Vietnam Era. Retrieved October 26, 2018, from https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/08/protest-posters-from-the-vietnam-era/243029/

Resnick, B. (2011, October 03). War Posters of the 20th Century. Retrieved October 26, 2018, from https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/07/war-posters-of-the-20th-century/242665/

Rupert García. (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2018, from https://americanart.si.edu/artist/rupert-garcia-1732

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