Propaganda Artists Give Uncle Sam a Makeover

Article excerpt

Uncle Sam, the recruiter, glares out like an eagle.

"I Want You" blares from the poster. Printed under his pointed finger and stern-looking face, the message conveys a powerful command - especially to the potential doughboys who stood before James Montgomery Flagg's 1917 poster.

Some 50 years later, the icon looks battered and bandaged, telling Vietnam-era Americans, "I Want Out."

Today, in a contemporary poster by artist Micah Wright, Sam flexes his muscles, bares his teeth, and clenches a wrench over a caption that reads, "Ashcroft, you're next! Break Our Constitution, I Break Your Face."

The influence of such icons is on display in the exhibit, "American Propaganda Posters," at the Chisholm Gallery in downtown Manhattan. It celebrates a tradition of wartime propaganda in a provocative collection of posters that spans nearly a century.

From World War I to Operation Iraqi Freedom, Uncle Sam remains a powerful symbol for artists as part of a wartime tradition - propaganda. Sometimes words aren't even needed.

For decades, America's famous uncle has cajoled, enraged, and inspired. But instead of seeing poster propaganda in post offices and on government buildings, today it's primarily on the Internet and college campuses. Antiwar artists are reusing old images and stamping them with modern phrases like "No Blood for Oil."

Largely abandoned by the government after World War II, this classic medium is getting a second wind, thanks to modern technology. Hundreds of websites offer free downloads of contemporary propaganda and market the colorful images on everything from underwear to mugs.

The Chisholm exhibit makes one thing clear - poster propaganda has never been more cutting edge. "This one just makes my heart stop," says gallery owner Gail Chisholm, gazing at "I Want Out." "These posters are glimpses into social history." Chisholm says the power of this "seven-second medium" lies in its immediacy.

Drawing on tradition

Though originally used by the government as a method of rallying the public and publicizing messages, poster propaganda was abandoned in favor of radio and television after World War II, only to be picked up by antiwar groups during Vietnam.

Today, the most recognized symbol used by the US military is the yellow ribbon.

"[The poster] was no longer an effective means of mass communication for the American government," explains Fredric Smoler, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, who spoke at the exhibition's opening March 26.

"But it works for protesters. They can draw on the tradition of these images." Mr. Wright, who designed most of the contemporary posters at Chisholm's exhibit, agrees.

Wright uses images from old government-issued posters and adds contemporary slogans in a process called remixing.

"Using old images adds a sense of irony," says the former soldier. …