Political campaign posters have been long neglected as an artform and generally ignored by historians despite their effectiveness in conveying powerful messages to millions of voters. Luckily, history professor Hal Elliott Wert has rescued many of these valuable artifacts from obscurity. His extensive personal collection of political art includes examples dating back to the turn of the 20th century and focuses on the elections and social movements of the past 50 years.
In his new book, “George McGovern & the Democratic Insurgents: The Best Campaign and Political Posters of the Last Fifty Years,” Wert focuses on the posters of South Dakota Sen. McGovern’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1972. His failed campaign attracted widespread grassroots support from citizens who desired major political change and sparked a “poster explosion,” according to Wert, with the help of an array of supportive artists, including renowned painters and printmakers such as Andy Warhol, Alexander Calder, Larry Rivers, Sam Francis, Thomas W. Benton, Sister Corita and Paul Davis.
In addition to the posters from the McGovern-Nixon race, Wert’s book provides historical context with posters from the civil rights and antiwar movements, the psychedelic West Coast scene of the ’60s, and the troubled 1968 presidential campaign with heartfelt art in support of peace candidate Sen. Eugene McCarthy as well as posters for Sen. Hubert Humphrey, for and against former Vice President Richard Nixon, and even examples from lesser known candidates including segregationist George Wallace and Peace and Freedom Party standard-bearer Eldridge Cleaver. And, in an epilogue, Wert brings the evolution of the political poster up to date, from a decline after 1972 and then to a resurgence of this vivid art form with the 2008 campaign of then Sen. Barack Obama.
As well as presenting the compelling images of these posters, many from his personal collection, Wert provides historical commentary on the background of the people and issues portrayed in this political art and also insights on the art and its creators from these momentous years.
Wert teaches history and literature at the Kansas City Art Institute. His other books include “Hope: A Collection of Obama Posters and Prints.” He also writes about history for academic and popular publications. His vast personal collection of political campaign posters and other art is an invaluable resource for historians, students and others.
Wert generously responded to an array of questions on his new book and his background in history.
What sparked your interest in the underappreciated history of political posters and graphic design? Did you study the history of art and social commentary?
Since I was a teenager I have always been interested in poster art and in graphic art more generally and its importance as a component of any political campaign. I was especially enthralled by the turn-of-the-century posters that were a part of the “color lithographic revolution.” The 1896 and 1900 William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan campaigns produced outstanding posters. Of course, the circus, advertising, penny postcards and Wild West posters of that same period achieved prominence and were stunning. But, over the years, it became obvious to me that political posters were distant cousins, little recognized and underappreciated by the public and historians alike and difficult to find. I thought they deserved to be collected, catalogued, photographed and explained to a wider audience that would clearly see their merits.
I understand that you have a personal collection of historical posters and images. What is the range of your collection?
My collection is quite strong from 1940 on, and I have a few posters from earlier elections. I greatly admire the earlier posters, but I thought it expedient to build collections that focused on the campaigns of Eugene McCarthy ’68, George McGovern in ’72 and on Obama’s run for the presidency in 2008. These three campaigns produced the most aesthetically exciting posters since the color revolution of the 1890s.
Did your new book on the McGovern era grow out of your earlier book on a wide range of Obama posters, “Hope”?
Yes, when I wrote “Hope: A Collection of Obama Posters and Prints,” I included an epilogue that began with an outstanding Currier and Ives hand-colored print from the 1848 campaign of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore and ended with Tony Puryear’s fine 2008 Hillary poster.
I was determined to put the Obama posters in a historical context and in the process I thought, you know, no one has put together a book of the great posters from the ’68 and ’72 campaigns.
Several weeks after “Hope” was released I plunged into the McCarthy/McGovern project. I was also working with Daniel Joseph Watkins (D.J.) who was maniacally collecting the totally neglected prints and posters of Thomas W. Benton in Aspen, Colorado. D.J. photographed some Benton McGovern posters from my collection and asked me to write the introduction to “Thomas W. Benton: Artists/Activist”, which I was pleased to do. Working with D.J. and with my research assistant Robert Heishman, who had photographed the posters for “Hope,” made the search for ’60s prints and posters an exciting one.
What was your research process and what surprised you as you researched the book?
I had a fairly substantial collection of McCarthy and McGovern posters but I wanted to be as thorough as possible and to find posters that had not been seen before. I have a tendency to wish to be thorough that needs to be restricted by aesthetics.
I knew from day one that aside from the collection of posters and prints at the McGovern Library that there were no large collections anywhere else. In California there are some small but very good collections.
Political posters are often not taken seriously and hugely undervalued for their importance in a campaign and their importance as a part of our country’s history of graphic art. I knew the search would be difficult but also a real challenge and real fun.
The images came from museums, libraries, universities, private collections, auction houses, antique stores and from daily searches on the internet. Over a period of six years, I rounded up much new material and in a significant quantity. Three or four times a year, I’d get together with Robert and we’d photograph, edit and catalog the new material. Some collectors mailed me what they had and we photographed it.
Permissions for some images could be difficult and expensive. The most frustrating aspect was when I found images of fine posters that were too low in resolution to print. I am sure that there are dynamite political posters and prints out there to still be discovered. Since the book came out, I’ve turned up a dozen posters that merited inclusion.
In your book, you take pains to set the stage for the art of the 1972 race. You present vivid examples of civil rights, antiwar and psychedelic posters from the ’60s. How did the perfect storm of activism in the ’60s influence the art of posters?
Tremendously, as in the ’60s, the various and numerous activists turned to the poster as a means of getting out their message. Offset and mimeographed posters, handbills, leaflets, brochures and pamphlets were cheap to produce in large quantities. The poster styles were influenced by what had gone before but they were often innovative and an exploration in numerous styles in an eclectic fashion. The eye-popping posters of the Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern campaigns were an exciting grab bag of styles that would not have been possible without the civil rights, psychedelic and antiwar posters that flooded the nation between 1964 and 1968.
Weren’t the protest images of the civil rights and antiwar movements often a throwback to earlier art such as handbills and cartoons of the revolutions in America and France and even earlier? And weren’t artists using styles influenced by expressionism, social realism and other approaches?
Well, yes they were. Cartoons did show up on occasion on political posters but more frequently on handbills and leaflets. The influence came largely from the underground comix of the period — artists like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton — but ’60s counterculture artists were well aware of the 19th century cartoons of Thomas Nast and the caricature drawing from the American and French revolutions as well as those by propagandists like Honoré Daumier and Francisco Goya.
Edward Sorel of Push Pin used cartoon drawings of Humphrey, Nixon and Kissinger in his 1971 antiwar poster “Stop Them.” Emory Douglas, minister of propaganda for the Black Panthers drew dozens of posters in a cartoon-like style. Psychedelic artists were heavily influenced by the Bauhaus and especially by art nouveau artists like Alphonse Mucha and by artists of the Vienna Secession — Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Alfred Roller. Also from the Bauhaus came the frequent use of the collage or photo montage.
Poster images were influenced as well by art deco, American social realism, pop art, abstract expressionism and neo-realism. Many poster makers of the ’60s were art pirates who treated the past as a toy chest, an “image bank” or “graphic flea market” in which to rummage for cool images.
Appropriation was a kind of revolutionary act that ruled the day and all was fair game.
How did parody play a role in the posters from the time?
Well, one could argue that nearly all of the psychedelic posters were a parody on style and a parody of the establishment that the counterculture saw as a joke — a burlesque, a kind of historical revisionist critique that infused new meaning dependent upon irony, parody and lampoon. The crazy, absurd juxtaposing of retro images, while fun and visually exciting, was at the same time a serious political statement and, of course, this use of parody and satire spilled over into ’60s political posters too.
We know how the McGovern campaign turned out. He won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia — yet memorable art remains. What was the political value of those McGovern posters and the images?
Even though McGovern lost badly, the posters and prints enthused and solidified his base. However, the deluge of graphic art was like preaching to the choir and did little to change the mind of the average American voter who was fed up with the ’60; the riots, killings, assassinations, violent demonstrations, war, the counterculture and drugs. Many of the posters and prints, to the contrary, were of artistic merit and not only have persisted but influenced poster making in the years that followed. Of course they are important historically as they capture the tenor of the times.
You mention the dearth of memorable political posters after 1972 — at least until the campaign of 2008 when Barack Obama attracted a new breed of artists to his campaign. What happened after 1972 that led to a decline in poster art?
Large numbers of creative political posters have emerged in the modern period only when the candidate is on the Left.
A candidate must excite the art community as well as outside artists. An outpouring of posters only surfaced for the McCarthy campaign in ’68, the McGovern campaign in ’72 and for the Obama campaign in 2008. This doesn’t mean that smaller numbers of exciting posters weren’t produced in the campaigns after 1972 — posters for both Democrats and Republicans. In the epilogue of the book I try to fill in those years. Gary Hart’s run for the Democratic nomination in 1984 produced a number of signed limited editions by well-known artists but then, Hart had been one of McGovern’s campaign managers.
Artists were generally not excited by the Democrats long run of centrist candidates — Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore and Kerry. Clinton stirred some excitement but it did not result in an avalanche of posters. Democratic centrists and Republican candidates have tended to go with big advertising agencies that crank out color and slogan themes that match and are so generic as not to even excite the dead.
I’ve always said that when I die I want to be buried in Kansas City or Chicago so I can continue to be active in politics, but some visual stimulation would be appreciated. Obama in 2008 electrified the art community and they responded with a deluge of fine prints and posters. My book “Hope: A Collection of Obama Posters and Prints” attempts to capture the flood of posters and prints that helped propel Obama into the White House.
You have a campaign this year with Bernie Sanders, a candidate attracting youthful energy, and Donald Trump, a loud billionaire, attracting political outsiders, among others. Are you seeing any interest in art this year? How would you advice campaigns on powerful posters?
Well, according to my hypothesis, Sanders’ supporters should be cranking out the posters, but surprisingly so far there are only a few. Emek and Shepard Fairey have both released limited-edition screen prints and there are perhaps a dozen other quality entries. An earlier Hillary Clinton poster from a Democratic gathering in Memphis, Tennessee, is top-notch, though she has never been strong on posters. Her logo is flat, as is Bernie’s, and uninspiring, as are the logos of all 16 Republican candidates. 2016 is the year of the dull yard-sign. Things could change; we’ll see what Bernie supporters conjure up in the coming primaries and especially in California.
Robert and I have designed what we think are some powerful posters and we will be releasing them sometime this summer. I would advise campaigns to use simple, direct, colorful posters that convey the candidates’ message through visual language. Go for the knockout.
Is there still a role for the political poster in an era of the internet and instant communication?
I think yes and the idea of the poster as a means of communication has been adapted to electronic media. Beginning in 2008, poster makers often did not print their designs but offered them as free download files that could be printed in a variety of sizes. Others did screen print runs in limited editions and then offered the image files free as internet downloads. The ubiquitous yard-sign has unrealized potential. Campaigns have missed a real opportunity for effective, eye-popping graphics.