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Up against the wall.

I remember how the renaissance of the political poster began. The early New Left had been nearly barren of art: in Berkeley we went through the 1964 Free Speech Movement without a single poster. Suddenly the following spring, as the antiwar movement and the rock-dance/hippie scene sprouted together, posters began appearing to announce them, proclaiming a renaissance of political art.

The impulse spread quickly in the participatory clime, encouraged by new access to cheap offset printing and the revival of silkscreening, and propelled by the need to spread information in low-income communities with little access to major media. Some of our needs were dramatic--responding to the war, campus struggles, police mayhem. Others were quieter and novel. The boundaries of traditional politics had shattered to admit the concerns of peoples of color, women, homosexuals, the handicapped, the whales, and redwoods. As waste disposal, psychedelic exploration, and energy technology became politicized, each branch of ramifying activism developed symbols to illustrate its concerns, using posters as much for this as to organize activities. The function of the political poster evolved as it came to be used and then designed for interior display politicizing the private surround, eroding the distinction between political and fine arts.

Since 1965 the poster renaissance has produced an estimated two hundred thousand designs that form a collective work of social art with few precedents, exuberant in its democracy in some of the great chapters of political poster history--Russian, Spanish, Cuban, Chinese, World War-patriotic--art served the State. In the new era, posters rise from the people to map their pressures on the State, to describe the textures of political culture. They issue from nations of radical diversity, with no central organs of popular action, in eras of mutant concern--rising in graphic sweat from each surface of our engagement, to evaporate in history's breeze.

Condensed as dew, what a substance! With a handful of posters from any cause one can decorate a meeting or an article; with five hundred one can begin to disclose its deep stories, encoded in charged conjunctions of image and text. But hardly anyone has had the chance, and not just because they're so hard to gather. Much of this work is still anonymous and invisible, for domestic activists turn a blind eye to the role of art in social metabolism and treat their artists shabbily. To political historians the posters weren't print and to art historians they weren't art; they just slipped through a categorical crack. The few specialists who gathered some causes' works could hardly grasp the whole.

But how could anyone grasp it? I had no idea in 1977. I was surprised to find that my two hundred posters, gathering dust since my campus travels, might be the most significant collection in the Bay Area. I thought I'd call up my old movement buddies, put a proper batch together in a public place; figured it might take three months. No one had saved enough to matter. Wondering why no institution had either, I set about tracking down more posters, by twos and fives in yard sales, behind files in activist offices, engaging in a slow, picaresque adventure.

By the fifteen hundred mark I began to grasp the nature of what I was saving, how it could be so obvious everywhere yet invisible in the whole. For the posters flow by in every stream as fleeting cues, peripheral save for their resonance in the heart. Even at an activist crossroads, you see only what flows in a few of the streams, the little that passes your local perch. As you grow older you cross fewer streams, remember vivid images, and may think poster activism has faded. But its diverse renaissance continues, extending a rich history

Just as the counterculture fertilized the New Left, the poster renaissance took independent root in the emerging farmworkers' movement, where Luis Valdez's workshop made serigraphy an agent of La Raza consciousness. By 1967, when the Black Panthers organized, posters were essential for urban outreach, and new distribution systems were developing to spread their dramatic images across the land. As campus struggles over affirmative action grew intense, small poster workshops formed to support them, and moved on into the community.

Such beginnings prepared the explosion of posters that followed the Cambodian bombing and Kent State killings in May 1970, as public workshops flourished on dozens of campuses. Their outpouring established a wide awareness of "poster power," and marked the transition of the renaissance from a spontaneous tendency into a somewhat systematic movement of social art. Soon the Chicago Women's Graphics Collective was producing the work that illuminated women's centers for a decade, as Akwesasne Notes did for the Native American movement. Though important workshops developed in Boston, Portland, Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere, the movement's richest evolution has been in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Here the first self-supporting silkscreen workshop, La Raza Silkscreen Center, organized in 1971. it was joined around that time by two workshops in the Asian-American community and a series led in the East Bay by Malaquias Montoya. Surviving on a pittance of funding, they grew competent as production shops, producing thousands of designs, teaching thousands the elements of poster making, grounding the art in local culture. When these workshops faded, a new generation of artists nurtured in them was prepared to start a second wave of workshops around the bay As these emerged in the late 1970s, the San Francisco Poster Brigade's exhibits worked to unify the poster-making community.

This evolution has continued for more than twenty years, through a history involving forty workshops, many notable artists, and all the era's issues. Bay Area poster making is now knit together by a tradition of cooperation and mutual support among artists and printers of different races, ethnicities, genders, preferences, and political persuasions, expressing the democracy their effort supports. It has generated a vast body of work remarkable in variety and craft, one that stands at the heart of the domestic renaissance and will in time be celebrated as a triumph of social art. Meanwhile it remains almost invisible even in its locale, just as the broader renaissance remains uncelebrated. The small bouquet of designs I offer here is plucked from the heart of this work, too keyed to its history to more than suggest how it goes on.

The eight thousand posters now in the archive I tend are a scanty sampling--just enough to suggest the rich depths of a national treasure and to support work with other scholars. In Los Angeles, executive director Carol Wells has amassed a comparable collection at the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, and has done wonderful work in circulating exhibitions. No other archive I've located holds even half this many pieces. Any work sent c/o Mother Jones will be gratefully put to use, with all duplicates going to the CSPG.
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Title Annotation:political posters
Author:Rossman, Michael
Publication:Mother Jones
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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