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May 23 2011

Beauty Is in the Street: the power of protest posters

A new book reminds us of powerful, unifying posters designed by students during the May 1968 Paris uprising. But where are the design campaigns from the youth of today?

Three years ago the media marked the 40th anniversary of the May 1968 Paris uprising with a wave of nostalgic reminiscence. There may have been a nice round number to celebrate, but that was about all there was connecting us to the spirit of '68. Three years later, following a banking-triggered recession and the election of a right-wing government, that spirit seems to have been exhumed. We've seen students occupy universities across the UK, and hundreds of thousands march against government spending cuts. In many ways this is a more propitious moment to release a beautiful volume of the posters created by the Atelier Populaire, and Four Corners Books has done just that.

While their fellow students engaged in pitched battles with the police and millions of workers went on general strike, students at the École des Beaux Arts in 1968 occupied the printing studios and converted them into the uprising's very own propaganda machine. Many of the resulting posters have become icons of political design. The riot policeman bearing down on the viewer with his truncheon aloft, his head helmeted and goggled in a ghoulish mask, has become synonymous with oppression.

By contrast, the long-haired student hurling a cobblestone, which appears to be floating harmlessly in the air, aestheticises resistance as a liberating act. The poster's slogan translates as "Beauty Is in the Street". The book takes that as its title, with these two images as its front and back covers.

The Atelier Populaire may have been a group of art students but – high on the fumes of Marxism – they decried the privileged, bourgeois art world. Out in the real world, they had a job to do. They set up a silk-screen printing press (much faster than the lithography presses in the studios they'd occupied) and worked around the clock in shifts. That way, they could produce thousands of posters at a time, to be slapped up around the city. They were not art, but tools, weapons even. In the frontispiece to a 1969 book of the posters reproduced here, the Atelier Populaire wrote: "To use them for decorative purposes, to display them in bourgeois places of culture or to consider them as objects of aesthetic interest is to impair both their function and their effect." Well, it's too late for that – they are nothing now if not objects of aesthetic interest.

The posters display different styles but the individual designers were never credited (too bourgeois) – they were the work of the collective. What they had in common was an economy of expression: single colours printed on newssheet gifted by the striking newspapers, bold forms and provocative slogans. What stands out today is an extremely concise iconography.

The factory, with its saw-toothed roof and chimney, symbolises the worker's productive role in society, and the spanner his honest labour. The fist is the students' symbol of solidarity and resistance. The real success of May '68 – and arguably its only achievement – was the alliance of these unlikely groups. And so in one poster the chimney becomes the fist. In another, the worker and student stand arm in arm. Often the figures are silhouettes, not just because they are more graphic but also to condense the many into one unified body. Perhaps the strongest poster of all is a six-headed silhouette that reads "We are the power".

The iconography for the forces of oppression, conservatism and capitalism are equally straightforward. There are chains and truncheons and rats and, of course, the long-nosed profile of President De Gaulle. What were the students opposing? What started with a complaint about the old-fashioned regulations at Nanterre University became a battle cry against establishment values and consumer culture – or what the Situationists called "the spectacle". Georges Perec had parodied that culture in his 1965 novel Things, and one example of graffiti here (to its credit the book includes many photographs of the graffiti as well as the posters of this time) reads "L'homme fait l'amour avec la Chose": "Man makes love to the Thing."

Today, the Marxist fervour may have died down but flare-ups against capitalist forces persist. The question is, where is the political design? There was the odd hand-drawn poster at the UCL occupation in December but no organised design campaign to compare with '68. Perhaps graphics were a device that the students didn't need. With Twitter and Facebook and mobile phones to hand, the poster is a less exponential way of mobilising support. Which also suggests that protest today relies more on the telegraphic soundbite than the graphic image – an ironic conclusion given that ours is an age in thrall to pictures.

There remains a counter-cultural graphics, but when it is political it is rarely ideologically so. Banksy's street art adopts a vaguely anti-establishment stance but it is individualistic rather than collective. Similarly, Shepard Fairey's famous "Obey" posters warn against the power of advertising, and yet his explicitly political works give the impression that they are merely endorsements of personality politics. The "Hope" election poster for Obama and his images of other figures such as Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi pursue the Che T-shirt model of iconisation. And this leaves aside the fact that both Banksy and Fairey are commercial artists, whereas the Atelier Populaire refused to allow its posters to be sold and thus commodified.

The UK's political graphics tend to be more stealthy and insidious. Take that odd phenomenon, the "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster that has been ubiquitous since the credit crunch. In its appeal to the plucky stoicism of the blitz years, it seems designed to dampen down any unrest aimed at the political-financial establishment. Or think back to the Conservative election campaign. Remember those posters featuring David Cameron's heavily Photoshopped face with the slogan "We can't go on like this"? The dewy ruddiness of Cameron's cheeks, the vagueness of that "this", such is the true nature of political image-making in our time: no bold graphics or progressive rhetoric, just the subtle massaging of the truth into a digestible advert. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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