The art of speech

By Hayley Robb, F/G Scholar

From a shout or cry in a crowd to the lyrics in a song, every citizen in the United States has the right to free speech, a freedom granted by the First Amendment. In theory, the freedom is to allow for a free trade of ideas between individuals and to encourage diverse perspectives. However, this freedom is oftentimes not spoken at all.

Art and design are mediums that have long been used as a platform to share ideas, address grievances and criticize the government. Art as a form of speech is ambiguous and ever-changing as time persists. Art as protest dates all the way back to the French Revolution and is still being utilized in the current era of President Trump. Every time period in American history holds different characteristics in how art has criticized, instructed and inspired so many of America’s people. And each time period carries themes that thread these works of art together. From the humor, colors and repetitive symbols used to the empathy evoked, these themes are what make art such an instantaneous entity. These recurring elements reveal how art has served as speech and are what these three art experts drew from when commenting on the design throughout American history.

Beginning and spark of caricature

Art and politics have always been a powerful combination. Art protest transposes country borders and perhaps one of the first signs of dissent in American history was Benjamin Franklin’s political cartoon in 1754 featured in the Pennsylvania Gazette, according to Bonnie Siegler in her book ‘Signs of Resistance: A Visual History of Protest in America.’ Franklin designed the political cartoon to persuade colonists to unite during the French and Indian War before being used again for the Revolution.

Image 1: “Join, or Die.” in Pennsylvania Gazette (1754) Benjamin Franklin. Photo credit:

With such few words, the use of the comma adds command and voice to Franklin’s design. And by pairing such few words with an even stronger snake symbol, Franklin made his message emotionally charged, Siegler said. 

Political dissent, however, was perhaps sparked by caricature in France during the 1830s around the time of the French Revolution. Les Poires by Honore Daumier is one example of a lithograph that was featured in French newspapers in 1831. Daumier poked fun at Emperor Louis-Phillipe in his monumental caricature by depicting the King as a pear shaped “gargantuan,” which brought upon a type of political critique that was unheard of at the time, according to Roberta Smith in a New York Times article.

Image 2: “Les Poires” (1831) Honore Daumier. Photo credit: © 1994-2018 Lambiek

Guy Jordan is an art historian and art history professor at Western Kentucky University who is familiar with the spark that Daumier’s caricature brought upon the world. Jordan said Daumier was the first artist who really went after a public political figure and he said this notion was inconceivable before the French Revolution. 

Jordan earned his doctorate in art history from the University of Maryland before moving to Bowling Green, Kentucky, and teaching at WKU. 

“The idea that art is a way to critique a power structure – that’s really recent,” he said. “If somebody had tried that in the 1600s, they’d have been killed. They’d have been kicked out of the palace.”

Jordan said even when thinking about well-known pieces of art from the Early Renaissance like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, the art was often made by the artist in consultation with political and religious authorities.

“Now, once you get to the 19th century, the 20th century, a lot more of the art world is made up of what we imagine artists to be in the 21st century,” Jordan said. “Geniuses in their basement brewing coffee expressing their innermost feelings, making work that makes them happy. But that’s a relatively recent development.”

Jordan said that a lot of the art featured in museums across the U.S. are not displaying forms of free speech at all. Most of the great works of art were commissioned by wealthy people who had the ultimate say in what the subject matter of the art should be.

Image 3: The Know-Nothing Party’s political cartoon against immigrants in 1853 proved anti-immigration is not a new sentiment of the American people. Photo credit: Huffington Post

Another early form of art protest surrounds anti-immigration, a sentiment that is being revived with the current President of the United States. In 1853, the Know-Nothing Party responded to an influx of three million immigrants, most of which were Catholic, with graphics, according to Siegler’s ‘Signs of Resistance.’ Similar to the administration today, the Know-Nothings believed people had to have certain credentials to receive full rights in America. In the graphic above, Siegler explains the Know-Nothings, ironically, referred to themselves as “Native Americans” and used a tattered version of the American flag as their symbol to unite people. What the Know-Nothings were actually trying to communicate was that they were the ones “native” to America, but instead, used a word with a much different denotation today.

The American flag remains a uniting element for the American people, especially entering the 20th century with the impending First World War.

20th Century wartime

Art differs from audible speech in that it is interpretative and can provoke frustrations and trigger emotions through symbols and themes rather than words and sounds. Edward J. Eberle, a research professor of law at Roger Williams University, explains in his journal article, “Art as Speech,” that the main issue with art expression under the First Amendment free speech guarantee is the Supreme Court has not concretely defined “art speech.”

“Art speech is often not valued for the uniqueness and worth it possesses,” Eberle said.

“Art speech is often not valued for the uniqueness and worth it possesses,” 

– Edward Eberle, “Art as Speech”

“Speech is special, first and foremost, because it encompasses the integrity of the thought process that is critical to deliberation and formation of a person’s identity and his or her acting within society,” Eberle said.

At the forefront of the 20thcentury in the U.S., art speech differed from what was going on around the rest of the world.

The iconic symbol, Uncle Sam, emerged in the beginning of the 20th century, which will later serve as a link for the American people in other time periods of history, as well. James Montgomery Flagg developed the first concept of Uncle Sam using colors deeply tied to the U.S. – red, white and blue. Flagg worked for many well-known publications including the Ladies’ Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post, according to the Smithsonian’s article, “Price of Freedom: Americans at War.” 

Image 4: Uncle Sam posters were first developed by James Montgomery Flagg. His design was originally created for the First World War but then adapted to recruit soldiers for the Second World War. Photo credit:

Flagg was one of the most well-known illustrators of the time. He was born in New York but traveled to London and France for work. During World War I, his designs were being commissioned by the government in efforts to gain support for the war. They still were not necessarily his thoughts or his feelings.

After the war, the Russian Revolution developed a great fear of communism in Americans and thus, protest art articulated this fear. Below, Siegler explains Billy Ireland’s “We Can’t Digest the Scum” cartoon, which displays Uncle Sam leaning over a melting pot in fear that the communist influences will harm the American people or what Siegler describes as the “homegrown revolutionaries.”

Image 5: In Billy Ireland’s “We Can’t Digest the Scum” political cartoon, Uncle Sam leans over the “World’s Melting Pot” in fear of the communist influences in America. “We Can’t Digest the Scum,” (1919) Billy Ireland. Photo credit: The Ohio State University History Teaching Institute

As World War II emerged, the U.S., again, began fostering war propaganda but with more cohesive, supportive attitudes. This forced other places in the world to bring attention to the more important events going on such as the horrors of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, according to Steven Heller, a design critic featured in Magenta.’s article, “History’s Most Powerful Protest Art.”

Jordan gave the example of artists not only explicitly protesting these horrors, but people illustrating their daily lives at the time.

One effort was made by a Viennese Jewish woman, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who stuffed her suitcase with art supplies before being sent to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp not far from Prague.

Dicker-Brandeis spent her time in the concentration camp teaching children how to draw.

“Making work at all during a time of oppression is a form of protest,” Jordan said. “It’s not allowing an oppressor to dehumanize you. And the work that these children made was at times obviously haunting and sometimes defiantly joyous and I think that’s something that art can do. It allows you to kind of resist the desire of totalitarian regimes to oppress you.”

Jordan said politics, sociocultural identification and aesthetics of art and design have held an interesting alignment for many years.

“If you think of someone like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, these are two guys who could not be more different,” Jordan said. “Both of them dictators. Both of them totalitarians, horrible people, but what’s really weird is when you look at the art that they preferred – their aesthetic preference – they couldn’t be more similar.”

Both Hitler and Stalin prefer this crisp, sort of realism that was unambiguous, Jordan said.

“Both communists and fascists really hated abstraction because abstraction was a sandbox where people could think fluidly and openly about form and content in a way that wasn’t circumscribed,” Jordan said.

That same free flow of thought is what begins to emerge in the U.S. during the 1960s “Summer of Love” and eventually into the onset of the Vietnam War.

1950s and 60s: Summer of love

The early 1960s was a transitional period introducing the counter-culture to the United States. During the spring and summer of 1967, the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco was the site for a new wave of art and design, music and young people. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, held a 50th year anniversary “Summer of Love: Photography and Graphic Design” exhibition to honor this historical event.

MFA, Boston showcased the psychedelic rock posters with startling characteristics that began popping up to advertise the weekly concerts at venues like the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom commissioned by bands such as Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. Overly saturated colors, near illegible lettering and experimental design mirrored the youthful culture that was infesting the West.

Image 6: 1967 Victor Moscoso, Blue Cheer, Lee Michaels, Clifton Chenier; Avalon Ballroom Concert Poster. Photo credit: Collection SFMOMA Gift of Jim Chanin 

The art reflected the mindsets of the youth who were beginning to resist tradition and what older generations had believed.

“The whole scene had to do with a breakdown of traditional values,” journalist William Hedgepeth, who lived in the Haight-Ashbury district for three weeks during 1967, said in an interview with the Guardian.

“It was a total inspiration of openness, a new orientation of people toward one another,” Hedgepeth said. “It wasn’t about rejecting society; it was about trying to build a new society.”

Hedgepeth said the same spirits of the summer of 1967 continues to shape the way people see the world today. 

“That’s what makes the Summer of Love so special,” Hedgepeth said.

60s and 70s: Height of it all

Although, the summer of 1967 was a time of good feelings for young people, it did not come with good times for all. The black fist became a unifying symbol for civil rights groups during 1969 and has been used in the past by people throughout history and all over the world, such as artists during the Mexican Revolution, French students during the Paris Rebellion and the Black Panther Party, according to graphic designer Deva Pardue.

Image 7: A black silkscreen print of a clenched fist, a symbol of militant resistance during the Civil Rights Movement. Photo credit: San José State University Library

The clenched fist has surpassed cultural divides and has held a timeless and all encompassing meaning no matter the society. The interpretative nature has not lessened the potency of this call to action because it has been shared by so many.

“Protest art itself doesn’t create change, but it aims to embolden and galvanize enough people across socioeconomic backgrounds to mobilize for a cause,” Pardue said in an interview with Magenta.

“In order to do so successfully a call to arms should be immediate, brazen, and most importantly, have soul. It should also be something that can be re-created and shared. That’s why I think the image of a clenched fist in the air is such a successful theme in protest art.”

The clenched fist has become a symbol, which Jordan also mentioned is important in design. He said an image allows someone to communicate a message in a single receptive dose that is instantaneous.

“(An) 1,000-word essay obviously might have a lot of eloquence to it,” Jordan said. “You have a lot more of an opportunity to lay out a logical argument for your cause to make your point, but human beings often are governed by emotion and intuition. And I think images sort of play into that ludic unconscious that we all have.”

Along with the clenched fist, the 1970s brought another recurring theme that eventually evolved into today’s America. In 1970, silkscreens were printed expressing their disapproval of the draft lottery, in which males over the age of 18 were sent to war. Art called to attention that Vietnam could effect anyone and everyone and is eventually what brought the war home to people.

Art also challenged family culture and tradition. Below, is one of May Stevens’ paintings to a series titled “Big Daddy.” As a civil rights and feminist activist, Stevens’ images are a representation of her racist father and the militaristic patriarchy of America during the Vietnam War, according to Tiernan Morgan in his Hyperallergic article.

Image 8: “Big Daddy Paper Doll” (1968) May Stevens. Photo credit: Hyperallergic

The culture from the Summer of Love had carried over with fervor as art began to challenge the U.S. government and question the intentions of the war. The youth used art as a platform to communicate with other students, college campuses and anti-war activists. It was a link across the country.

College campuses, in particular, exploded with dissent and activism, one being Kent State University.

Vietnam protest art was often simply drawn, but took a morbid tone reflecting displeasure with the Nixon administration, longing for peace and gratitude to the martyrs of other movements going on at the same time.

The University of California, Berkeley held political poster workshops on campus for students and set up exhibitions to showcase these posters not only from their school, but universities across the country.

Alan Canfora, a Kent State University alum and survivor of the shooting at Kent State on May 4th, said in a speech that the art and posters of the time served as outlets for students to get creative with their cause. He also admitted that Kent State students saw what the big schools like Berkeley were doing and wanted Kent State to be better.

They wanted to be “heavier” than the other schools when the time came.

“And we did it,” Canfora said.

Image 9: “Amerika is Devouring its Children,” (1970) Jay Belloli Photo Credit: San Jose State University’s Art of Protest Exhibition

Jay Belloli is another artist of the Vietnam War era who attended the University of California, Berkeley in the 1970s to pursue 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.

Belloli designed the “Amerika is Devouring Its Children” silkscreen print and said he really didn’t know what he was doing with the poster at the time. The poster is modeled after Francisco Goya’s famous painting, “Saturn Devouring His Son.” It is now on display in multiple exhibitions including San Jose State University’s Art of Protest exhibition.  

“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 and since the war was televised, the war footage ran in the back of the gallery amongst the posters, making a statement its own. Belloli 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. He said it was less about becoming curators and more about expressing political dissent.

Below, political dissent is illustrated in the silkscreen to the right asking “Your Son Next?” In 2013, two young boys hold a similar poster this time in regards to police brutality and racial profiling asking the same question, “Am I Next?” This sign was held in a march supporting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida in February 2012.

The recurring themes in design offer a sense of familiarity to people. The human element of the stencil letters welcomes the viewer to empathize with them. The phrases being locked in history further its potency and add context to the cause, only deepening the meaning and implications of the 2013 civil rights marches.

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

The 1980s and beyond

The Guerilla Girls were one feminist group that started in the 1980s and made an effort to engage a larger public through design. Their identities still remain unknown due to the gorilla masks they wear in public but their mission is clear – they are either trying to educate, advocate or change perceptions with their graphics, Natalie Tyree, a graphic designer and graphic design professor at WKU, said.

One message the Guerilla Girls try to get across is that women should not have to be naked in paintings and sculptures to be showcased in art museums. The group uses statistics on some of the most well-known art museums in America such as “the Met.” or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. 

Image 10: Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?, (2005) Photo credit: Guerilla Girls

The Guerilla Girls notably use humor in their graphic design, which is another recurring theme that dates back to Daumier during the French Revolution. The bright, contrasting colors distract the viewer from the seriousness of the message.

The oversaturated colors also put the viewer in a vulnerable state, aiding the activists in their mission of changing a mindset without speaking a single word. The Guerilla Girls try to bring gender injustices to society’s attention to allow for more women to be permitted into the art industry, which Tyree and feminist artist Amy Cannestra support with their own independent work.

“They use data,” Cannestra said. “If we can’t change from the data that’s put in front of us, my God what is wrong with us?” 

Cannestra currently lives in Stevens Point Wisconsin and is one-third of the SPOOKY BOOBS collective, which is a trio of feminists using art, language, and design to halt the perpetuation of sexism in society today. They formed in 2014 and have since then created art installations, held performances, launched social media campaigns and initiated community involvement focused on eliminating the misogynist language that continues to foster resentment and disrespect toward women in society.

“If we can’t change from the data that’s put in front of us, my God, what is wrong with us?” 

– Amy Cannestra, feminist artist and SPOOKY BOOBS collective member

One series from the SPOOKY BOOBS collective is their conceptual wallpaper, which manipulates common words used to diminish women within the graphics to mimic how the hurtful phrases go unnoticed in society.

Cannestra said wallpaper is something that is always there, but if it’s done right, it goes unnoticed. She said it is similar to language that puts down and shames women or uses women’s bodies to shame others. The language goes unnoticed.

“That’s what we think about as the wallpaper,” Cannestra said. “It’s there. It’s beautiful. It’s OK to have in your house, but it can go unnoticed if no one is paying attention.”

However, the SPOOKY BOOBS collective does not necessarily think of themselves as graphic designers, Cannestra said.

“We have a tendency to use graphic design because it’s a communication tool that is easier to digest in the sense that sometimes fine arts feels like we, as viewers, don’t always allow ourselves to be a part of it,” Cannestra said. “Graphic design is something we are all experiencing all the time, and in a lot of our messages we talk about how we experience sexism all the time.”

Cannestra said she thinks the biggest thing the Guerilla Girls are doing is giving courage to people just like her fighting for equality.

“I think that’s what we all need is somebody to say, ‘it’s OK to have these feelings,'” Cannestra said. “It’s OK to want to make this art and it’s necessary. The fact (the Guerilla Girls) exist gives us the strength and power in numbers. And it gives us hope.”

In the 1990s, many artists were termed ‘interventionists, according to Nato Thompson, the curator for the “The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere” exhibition in the Mass MOCA museum. He said while intervention “specifically means to stand between things, or to bridge a situation, in the case of the arts, it points to practices that use the strategies of art to engage a larger public.”

Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds acts as an interventionist just being an artist of Cheyenne and Arapaho descent. He communicates messages regarding yet another marginalized community in the U.S. – Native Americans. In his art, he uses language to communicate the violent histories between Native American and American people, according to a press release by the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Image 11: Edgar Heap of Birds, “Telling Many Magpies, Telling Black Wolf, Telling Hachivi,” (1989) screen print. Photo credit: Hyperallergic 

In his screen print “Telling many Magpies, Telling Black Wolf, Telling Hachivi,” his deliberate use of language spelling “natural” backwards and ending the short writing with the words “Living People” makes a strong, emotional statement. Hyperallergic writer, Sheila Regan, points out that the artist uses words to critique the stereotypes of Native Americans and to comment on the commercialized primitivism that exists in contemporary society. 

In the 1990s, activists for gay rights also began speaking out about using platforms much bigger than a mere placard in a crowd or a silkscreen on a college campus. This billboard was published by the Public Art Fund of New York City and created by Felix Gonzalez-Torres for the 20th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion.

The billboard was installed close to the site of the rebellions and the design was minimalistic relying solely on text to convey a message.

Gonzalez-Torres has two lines of white text juxtaposing a vast blank, black space. His text does not follow a linear narrative, but rather jumps back and forth in time, implying that the gay rights movement has been marked by numerous advances and setbacks, according to the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The artist also chooses a public forum for a topic of discussion that had previously been kept quiet and was to be discussed personally.

Gonzalez-Torres’ lover had died of an AIDS-related disease and he, too, fell victim to one of the diseases. He, however, did admit the blank, black space was meant as “a space for imaginary projection” and the viewer’s individual interpretation of his work of art.

Today: Era of Trump

“‘Political art’ becomes popular under circumstances of pressure, when it’s absolutely necessary, even unavoidable, to recognize the inherently political nature of culture,” Gregg Bordowitz, an activist and artist, said on the Critical Art Ensemble, a collective of five media practitioners that aim to apply critical activism to art.

“There is no work that is more or less political than any other,” Bordowitz said. “Rather, movements within history necessitate the framing of all cultural production as politically consequential.”

With the 2016 election of Donald Trump, political activism has changed its public sphere. From art and design that used to captivate audiences through delicate leaflets to now relying on a simple retweet, the art world has changed.

Image 12: Edel Rodriguez’s Trump Wall in London’s Design Museum (2018). Photo by: Hayley Robb

The distinctive work of Cuban-born illustrator Edel Rodriguez was featured in the Design Museum’s “Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008-2018” exhibit in London, England.

Rodriguez arrived in the U.S. as a child and has crafted a wall collage of numerous manipulated images of President Trump, including his cover commissions for TIME, The New Yorker and Der Spiegel, Lindsay Baker said in the BBC’s article, “The powerful political graphics sparking change.”

Donald Trump has become one of the most publicly recognized faces in graphic design through a technique we see being relied on time and time again – humor. Trump has also had the aid of social media on his side.

Jordan said he believes humor is telling more than just the stories of Trump but is the main means at which people consume their news today because “comedians have license to say things that other people don’t.”

“They often get in trouble for pushing those boundaries but isn’t that what comedy is supposed to do?”

Everybody has the tools to have their own low budget graphic design studio on their computer, Jordan said. With the rise of social media, there’s a lot less things that are hand drawn and a lot more things that are mass produced and that’s not necessarily a good thing, he said.

“People are making signs with a view towards going viral, like what’s going to get shared, what’s going to get liked and there’s sort of a formula for that and it’s often humor,” Jordan said.

“They often get in trouble for pushing those boundaries but isn’t that what comedy is supposed to do?” 

– Guy Jordan, art historian

Tyree, who practices graphic design centered around pop culture, said humor is often in the form of memes, Photoshop manipulations or alterations of iconic symbols in today’s culture.

“You don’t have to have a forum,” Tyree said in regards to today’s protests. “You don’t have to be standing outside a courthouse, you can just stay in your pajamas and create or share content that supports your cause.”

Tyree said her current work is trying to convince people that millennials aren’t just “lazy bums” and she is working to reverse the skewed representation millennials have in society. She is actually using social media in her work by pulling tweets to then make into letterpress posters. Tyree is making an artistic statement of her own.

“They become typographic posters where you focus on the words, but you can kind of compare and contrast to find out what contemporary culture and the millennial reality is,” Tyree said. “So not exactly protest, but I do use words to help carry over narratives.”

Tyree said with her experience, creating art has not changed. It has just evolved.

“I think we just have more ways to do it now,” she said. “I think it obviously depends on the country, in some countries if you create art or disseminate images that are antigovernment you can get arrested, but I think that’s one thing about our amendment rights, is that we can do these things and we’re protected to freedom of speech, to say our mind and feel the way we feel.”

Image 13: Shepard Fairey, “WE THE PEOPLE – Defend Dignity” (2017) depicting Xicana activist Maribel Valdez Gonzalez. Photo credit: Obey Giant

Jordan recognizes that there have always been protests but said he feels like there is a sense of urgency with protests today and a sense that our country is changing.

He said in order for art and creativity to impact the social, economic, political and racial dissent in this country, art is going to have to “get out of the galleries.”

“How do you get a single mom working in a soup factory to care about a cause?”

– Guy Jordan, art historian

“It needs to be something practiced by everyday people,” Jordan said. “If it is exhibited in a beautiful gallery, you’re often preaching to the choir. The challenge is how do you get the message out to everyday people and engage with the lives of everyday people? How do you get a single mom working in a soup factory to care about a cause?”

Jordan said that’s not a question for him to answer, but a question for the young people after him.

“I’d like to see more (art) out in the world rather than locked up in a white cube,” Jordan said.

Art as speech has served as comedy to critique a government administration and it has served as a lens and reminder of the horrors of the past.

However, the approaches have remained the same. The message is the change.

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