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The Art of Dissent

When it comes to swaying public opinion, a provocative image can be a powerful tool

By Veronica Majerol

Click here for bonus images related to the article.

Whether you're selling a product or promoting an idea, a picture really can be worth a thousand words.

The American colonists understood this well. To whip up revolutionary sentiment against the British in 1775, they emblazoned one of their early flags with a ready-to-strike coiled rattlesnake and the catchy "Don't tread on me" slogan.* More recently, during the First and Second World Wars, the U.S. government used the now iconic image of Uncle Sam ("I Want You") to muster public support for the wars and recruit young Americans to enlist.

But just as art has often served to rally people around a cause, it's also been an effective tool for critiquing the people and institutions that wield power. Starting in the 1960s, with the Vietnam War raging abroad and the fight for civil rights gaining momentum at home, a vibrant movement in protest art began to take shape in the U.S.

That tradition is more alive today than ever, with the Web and Photoshop giving people everywhere the tools to create—and instantly share with millions of people—their works of protest and dissent.

The images on these pages comment on a range of topics, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the role advertising plays in American life; from Third World sweatshops to animal rights and the genetic modification of food. Some of the images were on display last month in a Los Angeles exhibit called "Subvertisements," presented by the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG, politicalgraphics.org), which has an archive of 75,000 political posters from around the world.

Look closely and you'll see that the artists use a variety of techniques to convey their messages. Some try to grab your attention by playing on familiar ads and logos; others use provocative images to force you to confront an issue head on.

For example, the artist known as Emek created "R.I.b.P." after last spring's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He describes his piece this way: "First you see the biggest image—a dead fish with a gas mask—then you see the symbol of BP, then you connect it with the wordplay." He says the dead fish is meant to symbolize the oil spill's disastrous effects on both the environment and on the livelihoods of Gulf fishermen.

Emek adds that he hopes people who see his poster will "remember that our world is fragile and connected."

Don't be surprised if many of the pieces here blatantly criticize big corporations or American policies or politicians; the people and institutions that hold the greatest power have traditionally been the prime targets of criticism. And while you may agree with some artists' views, others may upset or even offend you.

For Carol Wells, director of CSPG, the purpose of these images is to provoke a reaction.

"The point of the posters is to make you laugh, make you cry, or make you angry," she says. "But basically, it's to get you to start thinking about things more critically."

*The tea party—a national political movement that's pushing for a smaller government—has informally adopted both the symbol and the slogan.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, May 9, 2011)