Michael Bierut | Essays

Catharsis, Salesmanship, and the Limits of Empire

Left, Nozone #9, Knickerbocker, 2004.
Right, Poster for Air America Radio, Number Seventeen, 2004

About a year ago, I got a note from Nicholas Blechman, the talented designer who runs the New York City firm Knickerbocker, inviting me to contribute to the next issue of his magazine Nozone. With the United States beginning its invasion of Iraq, Blechman had decided to create a special issue with the theme "Empire." As I prepared my contribution, a reproduction of a proclamation by British troops on the occasion of their own invasion of Iraq 86 years ago (not "as conquerors or enemies," they took pains to point out in 1917, "but as liberators") I remember worrying that the ironies would no longer be relevant by the time the book was published.

Sadly, I needn't have worried. The occupation was still in full swing by the time Nozone #9 made its debut, with America and its nominal coalition under increasing attack with no light at the end of the tunnel. And "Empire" turned out to be great, filled with passionate expressions of alarm by artists and designers as various as Stefan Sagmeister, Luba Lukova, Christoph Niemann, Robbie Conal, Ward Sutton, Seymour Chwast and Edward Sorel. All this and a promising distribution plan: Princeton Architectural Press was supporting a first printing of 10,000. "The result," wrote Dan Nadel in Eye, "besides solid, often cathartic, political criticism and satire, is a glance at what today's designers and illustrators can do outside the bounds of commercial gigs."

Yet, as satisfying as catharsis can be, the project felt a little bittersweet to me. I was reminded once again how irresistible it is for sincerely committed designers to preach to the choir. What effect would those 10,000 copies of left-wing artistry have on the world at large, those millions of otherwise normal people who don't make a habit of buying left-leaning 'zines at Barnes and Noble?

I was astonished, and then heartened, one morning about a month later to find the main subway station at New York's Grand Central Terminal transformed into a veritable hotbed of anti-Bush propaganda. Surrounding us sleepy commuters on all sides were large - and well designed - posters sporting much the same messages as could be found in "Empire:" the words "Because he doesn't read" plastered over the face of George W. Bush; "Fighting the axis of Enron" over Cheney; "The war on error" over Rumsfeld; and the Homeric "What if one man owned all the media. 'D'oh!'" over Rupert Murdoch. But this was no abstract exercise in graphics-as-political-engagement by the students of the School of Visual Arts or the members of the AIGA. Instead, in the old-fashioned capitalist way, these posters were selling us something. They were, in fact, tune-in ads for a new left-leaning radio network, Air America. The posters were created by the New York studio Number Seventeen, and they would seen by about 10,000 people every day, if not every hour. In short, we were witnessing the results of nothing more and nothing less than a "commercial gig."

This is not to diminish the considerable accomplishment represented by "Empire." It's a historic document and everyone should buy one. But I wonder whether the best way to affect public opinion in a free-market economy is not to disavow the market, but to embrace it. In the days after 9/11, marketers in New York were hesitant to stoop to anything so crass as advertising. So billboards in Times Square were filled with images of billowing flags and empty, eerily unattributed exhortations: "United We Stand!" The effect was Orwelllian, and I found myself yearning for some Calvin Klein underwear ads: at least with those you know where you stood.

So why can't we sell the anti-imperialist agenda like a pair of jockey shorts? Recent history has some lessons here. Anti-AIDS activists like Gran Fury understood the power of the market: their most effective messages took the form of commercial communication. The "Silence = Death" logo was deployed with the consistency of a corporate brand; the best Act Up ads looked exactly like the corporate p.r. that they viciously critiqued. Gran Fury's Marlene McCarty, a classically-trained graphic designer, put it well. She talked about "the authority of the media," and explained, "Our idea was to use that authority to sell a different agenda."

There will always be room - no, a necessity - for impassioned individual voices like those represented in "Empire." But what we need right now is salesmanship. Those posters in Grand Central for Air America represented the intrusion of another voice in the public conversation in the arena that people assimilate best: the public marketplace. The more of us that can wade right into to its murky depths, the better.

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design, Media, Politics

Comments [14]

I recently saw the "Empire" and picked it up at and looked at it. It was amazing. I would recommend that every designer/artist/illustrator look at this book and see how powerful art can be.
shannan coghill

Living in San Francisco, where even a liberal-leaning person like myself can feel downright Republican relative to some of the radicals here, it is very heartening to see Air America using the tools of mass media to bring attention to its new radio offerings. But more importantly, the Numbert 17-designed campaign also legitimizes AA's cause by doing so.

We liberals and/or designers talk endlessly about how we are now suspect of mass media and the way it worms itself into our lives. But we need to remember that a vast majority of our citizens find credibility, if not comfort, in companies and products, which comes partly from well-executed campaigns to promote them. What is frustrating about much of the left (here in the Bay Area at least) is that they view using these same methods as beneath them, as if fighting fire with fire somehow cheapens the cause, or even makes it moot.

I questioned the impact of personal political posters in an earlier post by William Drenttel because their focus rarely went beyond the statement in the poster itself. What is interesting about the Air America posters is that they make a statement as posters alone, but also help "sell a product" that furthers the discussion and personal awareness if we choose to "buy it". I won't pretend that design is above the transfer of goods and services, as I naïvely once believed. But we certainly could expand our notion what we might "sell," rather than making commercial and political design statements mutually exclusive. That's what is so refreshing about the Air America campaign.

In regard to Empire, this is a wonderful piece. Kudos to all involved and it's nice to finally see Nozone on this part of the country's bookshelves and not only in the design annuals. Certainly, Michael, I understand "preaching to the choir" reservations, but rather than simply let the book try to sell itself on the shelves of liberal metropolitan bookstores, why shouldn't at least all the Empire contributors try to personally distribute 10 copies to people who normally wouldn't read it? Don't we all have a conservative or ill-informed relative or friend that could benefit from reading it? Are we so cynical that we strive to create these powerful pieces of communication, yet don't try to get them in the hands of the people who most need it? Are we so afraid to participate in the discussions Empire might create. I'm in the process of sending copies to my conservative Midwestern in-laws in the hope that they at least might want to discuss the content, if not change their views.
Eric Heiman

Michael: No doubt, the buyers of Empire are likely to come from the left-leaning choir, but the reason we (full disclosure: I'm an editor at PAPress) can print 10,000 copies is because it's going to be picked up and sold in bookstores all over the country, where it's likely to sit next to political books by authors from both sides of the aisle. The proposition that the venues where the book is going to be sold are inherently more left-leaning than Grand Central, I would think, is a fallacy. (We all know what Dubya thinks of NY.) Conservative readers may walk past Empire when they come across it at B&N, but they're not going to tune into Al Franken after looking at those Air America posters either. So basically I would argue that the editors/publishers of Empire are embracing the market, it's just that we're doing so at the rather small scale of which we're capable. (Okay: maybe that's your point.)

What I find appealing is that a whole subculture of lefty protest is bubbling to the surface across the spectrum of media. The right wing has always exploited its crackpots, and we've seen their creepy ideas filter into mainstream discussion. Now, the left-wing crackpots are finally having their moments in the sun. Whether their messages are delivered in zines or posters or radio stations, it's all good.
Mark Lamster

Obviously, having Princeton Architectural Press pick up Empire is great, and so is seeing it featured prominently on the "New Paperbacks" table at Barnes & Noble. This will go a long way to helping it find its audience.

But I still sense that much of what we do as designers in support of political causes somehow reinforces a view that dissent is exotic and willfully self-marginalized in some way. (Perhaps that's a natural extension of our tendency to willfully marginalize our exotic selves.)

What I like about happening upon the Air America campaign in a subway station is simply that it makes dissent seem like a normal part of everyday life.
Michael Bierut

I take Michael's point about "willfully marginalizing ourselves," but its not exactly accurate and the evidence proves it.

While there is a lot of esoteric "protest" graphic art/design, it is only one part of agit-prop story. Advertising people have long used public service annoucements (PSA) as a means of making messages public on gun control, urban poverty, drug abuse, etc. The classic was the Urban League campaign of the Sixties, and it was on every bus, TV station, and train platform. Oh yeah, let's not forget the more political of George Lois's Esquire covers (which have been discussed before on DO).

The most memorable of all overground "protest" icons was Tony Schwartz' 1964 "Daisy" commercial. It was a short spot for LBJ's election bid, but it also served as the most acerbic anti-Nuke protest of the era, even if it only aired on network TV one time. (For an interview with Schwartz about it check out: http://home.nyc.rr.com/tonyschwartz/JamiesonInterview.html) .

Even before 1964 members of the anti-nuke group SANE (http://www.peace-action.org/abt/history.html), including Ben Shahn, Ivan Chermayeff, Seymour Chwast, and more, produced poster images that SOLD the notion of nuclear disarmament using the language of mainstream advertising.

More recently, Benetton has used mass advertising to address controversial issues in sharply and movingly critical terms. These (and the a few Kenneth Cole ads as well) were not fence sitting superficial displays but declarations of conscience.

"Empire" may not sell as well in the Red Zone as the Blue Zone, and it may not make it onto the desks of policy wonks, but it builds upon a tradition of alternative comics gone mainstream that includes Jules Feiffer, Garry Trudeau, Aaron McGruder, and Art Spiegelman. Illustrator/artist commentators like Sue Coe, Ed Sorel, Mark Alan Stamaty, David Levine, and others are decidedly expressing strong partisan commentary in mainstream "markets" as well. Even the over a decade-old political comics magazine World War III has increased its audience share somewhat, and its artists (Peter Kuper, Seth Tobacman, Eric Drooker, etc.) have been making strident commentary for mainstream presses.

These days it takes much less time to go from marginal to visible. PAP has increased NOZONE's potential bandwidth. It may not reach as many people as the smart AirAmerican campaign, but in its current incarnation it will have an impact on more than before. And it will influence someone who might not otherwise be influence. Hey, every vote counts.
Steven Heller

Empire sounds great and I'll check it out, but reading the above I did feel a sense of deja vu. This is exactly what Adbusters, in their use of design, advertising and media methods, have been trying to do for several years now. Yes, of course, the key battle is to find a way of disseminating politically and socially critical messages through mass media to the broadest possible audience. Adbusters' most provocative attempts to reach the "non-converted" have centred on their campaigns to get TV stations to accept their "uncommercials", for which they are prepared to pay the same rate as any commercial advertiser. Needless to say these attempts are usually rebuffed, with one excuse after another, making it crystal clear how these organisations operate to perpetuate their own way of looking at the world and their own self-interest. One dreams of a day, and perhaps it is only a dream, when enough people get sufficiently angry about this to lobby relentlessly and force a change in the way media is owned and used. In the meantime, in the US (and for all of us) some new faces in the Whitehouse would be a start.
Rick Poynor

P.S. We haven't even begun to talk about the scores of websites dedicated to the opposition. In addition to MoveOn!, which produced its own Daisy commercial. There is Billanires for Bush (http://billionairesforbush.com/index.php) and a slew of other links. Then there is Ben Cohen's efforts with graphics by Stefan Sagmeister, which extends the "pageant" tradition of oppositional demonstrations (which is similar to the Bread and Puppet Theater, etc.).

And, as the election rolls around I find that my snail mailbox is stuffed with "junk mail" for dissenting causes. The reason I even call them junk is because they are designed using the design language of direct mail solicitation. Some are actually witty. But the one's that grab my eye have a simple slogan: "Dump Bush."

As long as all the media of communications are used to promote dissent, I don't see it as being marginalized by exotic or esoteric design.
steven Heller

Truth be told, America is a strange and mysterious place to most of us on the "left." The key to change lies in the hearts and minds of the millions of people outside of the more liberal urban centers. One glance at the election results from the 2000 presidential race is enough to send shudders up my spine. http://www.rmfc.org/images/ElectoralMap2000.gif There is a vast landscape that will never see the likes of Empire or the Air America campaign, nor do I think they would welcome it. How I'd love to see those posters plastered all over Missouri!
Paul Montie

True, any kid can throw together a poltical 'zine and distribute it to indie record stores, and perhaps as Bierut implies, it's time to grow up. So let's hypothesize that Bierut is correct: what then is the best way for a designer (or cartoonist) to express dissent in the context of, say, the G.O.P. convention this Summer?
Nicholas Blechman

Anyone interested in seeing more AirAmerica posters or Nozone images may wanna visit feluxe.com.

Of all the Nozone issues this one really packs the biggest punch. Then again, the messages are timely. On a visit to Untitled in SoHo I witnessed 3 copies being purchased (I snagged the last). Its extemely hard to find but yets seems to be selling crazily. Hallelueyah.
(St Marks Bookstore and Amazon carry plenty)

I also recently passed by the Grand Central AirAmerica tunnel and am hoping they use their website as an opportunity to sell and distribute that message. I'd frame one in the living room.
felix sockwell

Truth be told, America is a strange and mysterious place to most of us on the "left."

Maybe your truth. Give me a break. I wasn't aware that design and "left" were synonomous. I'm hardly right-leaning, but usually think of many comments made here quite inspiring and intelligent. Now, it's mostly political drivel. Talk amongst yourselves and I'll be sure to not venture this way again. You should rename your site to "Liberal Observer".

I asked for this at my local comics shop (Midtown Comics near Port Authority) but they weren't carrying and the staffperson hadn't heard of it. It's fantastic to hear of the book selling in "regular" (or "serious", ha ha) bookstores, but getting this alongside superhero-dominated venues again could be a small, but significant step in broadening the audience.

I first came across Nozone at a comics shop in college. It was the tall one with the Joost Swarte cover (at the time I was still embarrassingly obsessed with Batman, Tank Girl, etc. and considerably less engaged with political / social issues). Nozone comics unexpectedly illuminated and added urgency to issues a hungover college kid might ordinarily dismiss.

THIS is a good example of succesfully overcoming the "preaching-to-the-eggheaded-choir" problem. Anyway the point of this story quickly going nowhere is: don't sell the geeks short! Get this hoity-toity (just kidding) Princeton tome into comic shops next to your Marvels, Dark Hoss' and what have you

"And anyone who tries to stand in the way of it (Seattle, anyone?) gets crushed"

the seattle protests were a major contribution to the collapse of the millenium round of WTO talks, they were the flashpoint for a new anti-capitalist movement, and created a crisis of legitimacy for the ruling classes in the West which could only be shaken off (and only partially and temporarily) by something as severe as the attacks on September 11th. to take the fact that hundreds were tear-gassed and arrested as evidence of something having been "crushed" seems a bit naive.

and certainly, using propaganda tactics that actually work would be a great shot in the arm for the "left," but only up to the point that it, in the long run, encourages people to stop relying on other people (politicians, corporations, smart-ass designers, the "left," whoever) to tell them what to do and how to live. to use the current system without at all critiquing the current system, but rather just changing its flavour (and its leaders) leads to things like the soviet union. to be effective the "left" must be able to envision a world where it is obsolete, and to be doing anything worthy of real respect, designers have to contribute, with their art, to a world where there would be no special important smarty-pants Designers anymore.

[Disclaimer: not intended as self-promotion]

Review of Empire plus Q&A with Nicholas Blechman by Jason A. Tselentis on Speak Up.

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