Art and Electioneering: A Short History of Campaign Posters

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In the United States, art and politics have long been uneasy bedfellows. This has largely been true since  the onset of the Cold War, which effectively silenced many artists who had been weaned on the radical, leftist ideologies that had prevailed among the American avant-garde during the Twenties and Thirties.

Today, the trend has reversed itself somewhat.  On the whole, however, art remains more an instrument of personal expression (or simply “art for art’s sake”) than a means for making big political statements.

But even if artists try to stay away from politics, politics is by no means devoid of art. One can see this every election year, when Americans are inundated with paraphernalia from various political campaigns: posters, flyers, buttons bumper stickers, etc. Among these, posters tend to be the most interesting and the most likely to yield iconic cultural images.

So, in honor of election day 2014, let’s take look back at the history of the too-often neglected art of the campaign poster.

The first American president to use campaign posters to great effect was John Quincy Adams, who won the hotly contested election of 1824. They began to take on more interesting forms, however, during the presidential election of 1840, which saw the coming out party of Whig Party candidate and Indian Wars veteran William Henry Harrison.

Running under the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”, Harrison styled himself as a bona fide frontier hero (despite the fact that he was actually the scion of a well-to-do Virginian family).  The approach proved remarkably effective, and he coasted to a comfortable victory over his opponent,  Martin van Buren.

Harrison’s reign would be remarkably short-lived; he contracted pneumonia during his inaugural speech, and eventually died after only 32 days in office.  However, his campaign was a watershed in American politics, proving that image was more powerful than substance when it came to courting voters. In other words,Harrison made politics itself an art form; winning the election under a false identity was his magnum opus.

The advent of advertising and mass culture in the Twenties gave the campaign posters of Calvin Coolidge an entirely new and unprecedented flavor. As the president most associated with the great economic boom of the Roaring Twenties,  Coolidge targeted the bulging pocket books of the American body politic.

This 1924 reelection poster features both Coolidge’s most indelible slogan–”Keep Cool With Coolidge”–and a mechanical fan–one of several consumer luxuries made widely available for the first time due to the industrial advances of the era.

Coolidge once famously said that, “the business of America is business.” Such an attitude is reflected in the poster, which , above all, promises stability, prosperity and a steady paycheck. It seems safe to say that these things, however necessary and important, are not really what motivates most artists–perhaps another reason why you haven’t seen Jeff Koons or Carl Grupp out stumping for candidates this year.

Nevertheless, there are some cases when a politician, generally because of a perceived social and/or historical significance, captures the attention of the avant-garde and mobilizes even the most apolitical artists. Current President Barack Obama is one such politician, and his “Hope” poster is perhaps the most memorable image to emerge from the campaign trail in recent memory.

Conceived by street artist Shepard Fairey, the “Hope” poster represents a fruitful cross-pollination of graffiti, or “outsider”, art and mainstream politicking–a rare combination in this day and age.  What’s more,  when first unveiled ,it also conveyed a sense of promise, unity–and yes, “hope”–that most politicians can only dream about.

Herein lies an important lesson for artists: you can and should “vote” with your art.  But make sure you vote wisely, because, make no mistake, it can have an impact. []

Matt Housiaux, an intern at JAM Art & Supplies and a junior at Augustana College majoring in Journalism.

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