With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

The Political Graphics from a Turbulent Time

Political campaign posters have long been neglected as an art form and generally ignored by historians despite their effectiveness in conveying powerful messages to millions of voters. Luckily, history professor Hal Elliot Wert has rescued many of these valuable artifacts from obscurity. His extensive personal collection of political art includes examples back to the early nineteenth century and focuses on the elections and social movements of the past 50 years.

In his new book, George McGovern & the Democratic Insurgents: The Best Campaign and Political Posters of the Last Fifty Years (University of Nebraska Press), Professor Wert focuses on the posters of South Dakota Senator McGovern’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1972. His failed campaign attracted widespread grassroots support from citizens who desired major political change and sparked a “poster explosion,” according to Professor Wert, with the help of an array of supportive artists, including renowned painters and printmakers such as Andy Warhol, Alexander Calder, Larry Rivers, Sam Francis, Thomas W. Benton, Sister Corita, and Paul Davis.

In addition to the posters from the McGovern-Nixon race, Professor Wert’s book provides historical context with posters from the civil rights and antiwar movements, the psychedelic West Coast scene of the sixties, and the troubled 1968 presidential campaign with heartfelt art in support of peace candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy as well as posters for Senator Hubert Humphrey, for and against former Vice President Richard Nixon, and even examples from lesser known candidates including segregationist George Wallace and Peace and Freedom Party standard-bearer Eldridge Cleaver. And, in an epilogue, Professor Wert brings the evolution of the political poster up to date, from a decline after 1972 and then to a resurgence of this this vivid art form with the 2008 campaign of then Senator Barack Obama.

In addition to presenting the compelling images of these posters, many from his personal collection, Professor Wert provides historical commentary on the background of the people and issues portrayed in this political art as well as insights on the art and its creators from these momentous years.

Dr. Wert’s book has been praised for the broad selection of political art he uncovered—much of it never before published or long forgotten—and for his vivid writing, extensive research, and groundbreaking findings. Journalist Peter Doggett wrote: “This expertly curated collection of poster art is a vivid but poignant reminder of the turbulent years when politicians could dare to reflect the ideals of the counter-culture. Evocative and powerful, these rare artifacts bring historic dreams and doomed crusades back to life.” And author/ archivist Lincoln Cushing commented: “Wert has assembled an impressive array of official and unofficial artworks that reveal the rich intersection of electoral, countercultural, and mass-movement posters that sought to reframe American society.”

Professor Wert teaches history and literature at the Kansas City Art Institute. His other books include Hoover, the Fishing President: Portrait of the Private Man and His Life Outdoors,and Hope: A Collection of Obama Posters and Prints, among others. He also writes on history for academic and popular publications. His vast personal collection of political campaign posters and other art is an invaluable resource for historians, students and others. He has earned numerous awards for his teaching and writing, including the Kansas City Art Institute Excellence in Teaching Award, the Missouri Governor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, and the Kansas City Art Institute’s award for Outstanding Achievement. 

Professor Wert generously responded to an array of questions on his new book and his background in history.

Robin Lindley: What sparked your interest in the “underappreciated” history of political posters and graphic design? Did you study the history of art and social commentary?

Professor Hal Elliott Wert: Since I was a teenager I have always been interested in poster art and in graphic art more generally and its importance as a component of any political campaign. I was especially enthralled by the turn-of-the-century posters that were a part of the “color lithographic revolution.” The 1896 and 1900 William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan campaigns produced outstanding posters. Of course, the circus, advertising, penny postcards and Wild West posters of that same period achieved prominence and were stunning. But, over the years, it became obvious to me that political posters were distant cousins, little recognized and underappreciated, by the public and historians alike. I thought they deserved to be collected, catalogued, photographed and explained to a wider audience that would clearly see their merits.

Aside from George McGovern and the Democratic Insurgents I have curated a show for ExhibitsUSA titled Sign of the Times: The Great American Political Poster 1844-2012. The exhibition opened at the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas and will travel the country for the next five years. Your readers can see many of the turn-of-the-century posters in color in the online version of my recent article Hanging Around Us in Plain Sight: The Great American Political Campaign Poster, 1855-2012 in PS: Political Science and Politics, January 2016, Vol. 49, No. 1, 59-70.

Yes, I did study the history of political art and propaganda in a wider context and I am currently writing Aiming at the Heart of America: The Relief Posters of World War II. ExhibitsUSA is marketing an exhibition of the posters called Work, Fight, Give. Relief Agency posters have been as neglected as political posters.

Robin Lindley: I understand that you have a collection of historical posters and images. What is the range of your collection?

Professor Hal Elliott Wert: My collection is quite strong from 1940 on, and I have a few posters from earlier elections. I greatly admire the earlier posters, but I thought it expedient to build collections that focused on the campaigns of Eugene McCarthy ’68, George McGovern in ’72 and on Obama’s run for the presidency in 2008. These three campaigns produced the most aesthetically exciting posters since the color revolution of the 1890s.

Robin Lindley: Did your new book on the McGovern era grow out of your earlier book on a wide range of Obama posters, Hope?

Professor Hal Elliott Wert: Yes, when I wrote Hope: A Collection of Obama Posters and Prints, I included an Epilogue that began with an outstanding Currier and Ives hand-colored print from the 1848 campaign of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore and ended with Tony Puryear’s fine 2008 Hillary poster.

I was determined to put the Obama posters in a historical context and in the process I thought, you know, no one has put together a book of the great posters from the ’68 and ’72 campaigns.

Several weeks after Hope was released I plunged into the McCarthy/McGovern project. I was also working with Daniel Joseph Watkins (D.J.) who was maniacally collecting the totally neglected prints and posters of Thomas W. Benton in Aspen, Colorado. D.J. photographed some Benton McGovern posters from my collection and asked me to write the introduction to Thomas W. Benton: Artists/Activist which I was pleased to do. Working with D.J. and with my research assistant Robert Heishman, who had photographed the posters for Hope, made the search for ‘60s prints and posters an exciting one.

Robin Lindley: You met with Senator McGovern at the onset of your project. I admired him and voted for him. What would you like readers to know about the senator and his race for the presidency in 1972?

Professor Hal Elliott Wert: In 2011, Robert and I travelled to Mitchell, South Dakota, to photograph posters in the McGovern Library and had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with the senator. He was in an ebullient mood and pleased to learn that Robert had recently finished an MFA at his alma mater Northwestern University. Sitting at the kitchen table he looked over the disc that had all of the campaign posters we had so far collected. I asked him if he would write a foreword for the book and he agreed.

We got to talking about his time in the Senate and I asked him which of his fellow two senators had been elected as a Democrat, a Republican and as an Independent. He immediately said Wayne Morris of Oregon and then offered that Morris was the brightest senator he had ever known. “After speaking on the floor we all ran to the office of the Congressional Record to make corrections—Wayne Morris never did.” He paused on guessing the second senator to accomplish such a feat and I said, Strom Thurmond. He smiled telling us that obviously he and Senator Thurmond did not agree on much but that when he went to the Senate cafeteria for lunch Thurmond would often be sitting with constituents from South Carolina. Without fail, McGovern commented, he would stand up, shake my hand and introduce me to all at the table saying, “I’d like you to meet my good friend Senator McGovern from South Dakota.”

He talked as well about his admiration for Adlai Stevenson and how Stevenson was a role model. Back on the topic of campaign ’72, I asked if it were true that he kicked Hunter S. Thompson off the campaign plane. With a warm smile he said: “No, but I should have.”

The walls of his home were covered with art work and a few posters, one I particular remember was a signed Peter Max convention piece. He encouraged us to take down anything we wished to photograph. Robert and I set up our photo equipment and as he told us stories of how he had acquired each painting or poster. About mid-afternoon he needed to run an errand. Back at the kitchen table, he pushed a copy across of an article he had just written for The Atlantic and said I might enjoy it. Also on the table were two books he was reading, one on eschatology and the other a collection of the writings of Jonathan Edwards--evidence of McGovern’s deep commitment to religion.

The senator asked Robert if he’d been to South Dakota before and Robert confessed he had not. He told us both we needed to drive on West through the Badlands and into the Black Hills. Now late afternoon, we packed up, said our thanks and goodbyes and left. Both Robert and I knew we had been privileged to have spent time with the senator and amazed that he so easily let us into his life. It was a remarkable experience. Now, each time Robert and I get together that wonderful afternoon comes up in our conversation.

Robert asked how long it would take us to get to the Black Hills. I said, “Maybe five hours, but the wildlife loop in Custer State Park is open all night long. If we’re lucky we can find the huge buffalo herd even in the dark.” With that, we scrapped our previous plans for me to drive back to Kansas City and Robert to Chicago, instead we turned west on I-90 and headed out across the prairie that the senator loved so much.

Robin Lindley: I appreciate the extensive exploration that produced the fascinating work in your book. What was the research process? What surprised you as you researched the book?

Professor Hal Elliott Wert: I had a fairly substantial collection of McCarthy and McGovern posters but I wanted to be as thorough as possible and to find posters that had not been seen before. I have a tendency to wish to be thorough that needs to be restricted by aesthetics.

I knew from day one that aside from the collection of posters and prints at the McGovern Library that there were no large collections anywhere else. In California there are some small but very good collections.

Political posters are often not taken seriously and hugely undervalued for their importance in a campaign and their importance as a part of our country’s history of graphic art. I knew the search would be difficult but also a real challenge and real fun.

The images came from museums, libraries, universities, private collections, auction houses, antique stores and from daily searches on the internet. Over a period of six years I rounded up much new material and in a significant quantity. Three or four times a year I’d get together with Robert and we’d photograph, edit and catalog the new material. Some collectors mailed me what they had and we photographed it.

Permissions for some images could be difficult and expensive. The most frustrating aspect was when I found images of fine posters that were too low in resolution to print. I am sure that there are dynamite political posters and prints out there to still be discovered. Since the book came out, I’ve turned up a dozen posters that merited inclusion.

Robin Lindley: In your book, you take pains to set the stage for the art of the 1972 race. You present vivid examples of civil rights, antiwar and psychedelic posters from the sixties. How did the perfect storm of activism in the sixties influence the art of posters?

Professor Hal Elliott Wert: Tremendously, as in the ‘60s the various and numerous activists turned to the poster as a means of getting out their message. Offset and mimeographed posters, handbills, leaflets, brochures and pamphlets were cheap to produce in large quantities. The poster styles were influenced by what had gone before but they were often innovative and an exploration in numerous styles in an eclectic fashion. The eye popping posters of the Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern campaigns were an exciting grab bag of styles that would not have been possible without the civil rights, psychedelic and anti-war posters that flooded the nation between 1964 and 1968.

Robin Lindley: Weren’t the protest images of the civil rights and anti-war movements often a throwback to earlier art such as handbills and cartoons of the revolutions in America and France and even earlier? And weren’t artists using styles influenced by expressionism, social realism and other approaches?

Professor Hal Elliott Wert: Well, yes they were. Cartoons did show up on occasion on political posters but more frequently on handbills and leaflets. The influence came largely from the underground comix of the period—artists like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton—but ‘60s counterculture artists were well aware of the 19th century cartoons of Thomas Nast and the caricature drawing from the American and French Revolutions as well as those by propagandists like Honoré Daumier and Francisco Goya.

Edward Sorel of Push Pin used cartoon drawings of Humphrey, Nixon and Kissinger in his 1971 anti-war poster Stop Them (p. 83).Emory Douglas, Minister of Propaganda for the Black Panthers drew dozens of posters in a cartoon-like style (p.70-71). Psychedelic artists were heavily influenced by the Bauhaus and especially by art nouveau artists like Alphonse Mucha and by artists of the Vienna Secession—Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Alfred Roller. Also from the Bauhaus came the frequent use of the collage or photo montage.

Poster images were influenced as well by art deco, American social realism, pop art, abstract expressionism and neo-realism. Many poster makers of the ‘60s were art pirates who treated the past as a toy chest, an “image bank” or “graphic flea market” in which to rummage for cool images. Appropriation was a kind of revolutionary act that ruled the day and all was fair game.

Robin Lindley: How did technology affect the poster movement of the sixties and seventies?

Professor Hal Elliott Wert: The technology that made the majority of ‘60s posters and prints possible was already in existence and by the far the majority of posters from this period were offset prints. The psychedelic poster makers creatively mixed inks, brought together combinations from the opposite ends of the color spectrum and sometimes produced a sense of optical vibration. These printing techniques showed up on occasion in posters for McCarthy and McGovern.

In the first half of the ‘60s, some civil rights, anti-war and gig posters were produced by letterpress in the popular “boxing style poster” format. Offset posters were also printed in this style but these rapidly faded as the decade progressed and the counterculture brought in older styles in radical new ways to produce a distinct but eclectic ‘60s design style. Black light posters became all the rage but few crossed over into the campaign posters. More slowly the limited edition screen print returned and became a funding feature of Democratic political campaigns.

Robin Lindley: You write that effective posters bypass rational thought and touch emotions. What are some examples of posters you believe powerfully touch emotions?

Professor Hal Elliott Wert: In the civil rights section of the book, the SNCC posters that incorporated Daniel Lyons photos (p. 4-6) and the SNCC screen prints of Earl Newman (p. 7) immediately come to mind.

Anti-war posters with emotional appeal are the Lorrain Schneider poster “War is not healthy for children and other living things,” (p. 25) the Socialist Workers Party red and orange poster, “Bring the GIs Home Now,” (p. 27) the McCarthy, “He stood up and something happened,” (p. 38) the Ron Haeberle photo poster (p.76), the Larry Burrows photo poster, “The time to end this war is now,” (p.81) Earl Newman’s “Peace Now!,” (p. 89) the Andy Warhol “Vote McGovern,” (p. 147) the Thomas W. Benton “Bloody Nixon” (p.148) poster, to mention a few. Many posters catch your eye and are visually intriguing but very few hit you hard in the gut.

Robin Lindley: The 1968 antiwar presidential campaign of Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy produced some dramatic imagery. Of course Nixon beat Humphrey that year and Robert F. Kennedy was a casualty of the campaign. What’s some of your favorite work from that dramatic year?

Professor Hal Elliott Wert: One of the finest political posters of all time is the ’68 Ben Shahn, “McCarthy Peace” (p. 58) but I am very fond of the two retro broadside posters that are in the first gatefold in the book and the accompanying handbill for the May 25 event (p.45-47). I’ve already mentioned the “He stood up and something happened” poster but I am also partial to the Samuel N. Antupit poster (p.41). That poster was also done in a limited edition screen print on brown paper that is very sharp but I obtained a copy shortly after my publisher’s cutoff date for inclusion in the book. The Wilfred Sätty print (p. 54) is a clear example of the psychedelic style moving into the political arena. The “March for McCarthy” (p. 50) in blue and white is a fine poster in classic ‘60s style. Mary Corita Kent’s Shirley Chisholm poster (p. 101) is a top poster as is her McGovern poster (p.145).

Robin Lindley: How did parody play a role in the posters from the time?

Professor Hal Elliott Wert: Well, one could argue that nearly all of the psychedelic posters were a parody on style and a parody of the establishment that the counterculture saw as a joke—a burlesque, a kind of historical revisionist’s critique that infused new meaning dependent upon irony, parody and lampoon. The crazy, absurd juxtaposing of retro images, while fun and visually exciting was at the same time a serious political statement and, of course, this use of parody and satire spilled over into ‘60s political posters too. David F. Stern’s “Robin McGovern” (p. 121) is a first-rate example as is the “Benefit for McGovern” poster (p. 131) by Gray.

Robin Lindley: Some posters reproduced photographs such as Ron Haeberle’s photograph of the My Lai massacre that the McGovern campaign used with the caption “Four More Years? Four More Years?” to stress the continuing conflict in Vietnam. Were the news’ photos often used in this way in political posters in campaigns?

Professor Hal Elliott Wert: No, to my knowledge the McGovern “Four More Years” (p. 76) poster is the only example, but remember that unseen posters continue to pop up. Like the “Daisy Petal Count Down” TV ad that LBJ ran in 1964, the Haeberle photo poster was quickly withdrawn by the McGovern campaign. The first version put out by the Artists’ Poster Committee that superimposed in red on the Haeberle photo, “Q: And babies?” and at the bottom of the poster “A: And babies,” released fifty thousand copies.

Photos did turn up in campaign mixed media collages but infrequently. Anti-war artists more often employed shocking photos from the war in their posters and art.


“McGovern for McGovernment” By Alexander Calder

Robin Lindley: The ill-fated McGovern campaign attracted the support of some of the most prominent artists and entertainers of the time. You have artists from Ben Shahn and Andy Warhol to Larry Rivers and Thomas W. Benton making posters on behalf of McGovern. What are some of your favorites from that time?

Professor Hal Elliott Wert: One of my favorites is the Alexander Calder “McGovern for McGovernment” (p. 139) and Andy Warhol’s “Vote McGovern” (p. 147) that portrays Nixon schrecklich-like in a chromatic clash of color. It is a candidate for one the greatest political posters ever. But Ben Shahn’s 1964 “Vote Johnson” (p. 148) is extraordinary and I am convinced that Warhol had seen the Shahn print which gave him the idea for “Vote McGovern.” Another favorite is Billy Morrow Jackson’s “Come Home America, McGovern.(p. 156)” While Peter Max did not do a McGovern campaign poster, he did one for the convention. His poster for John Lindsey for mayor of New York in 1969 (p. 79) is one of the best campaign posters.

Robin Lindley: You also discuss the posters of minor candidates of the era also, with fascinating images from the Peace and Freedom party and others. Are there some artists from these lesser known movements you’d like readers to remember?

Professor Hal Elliott Wert: Black Panther Party artist Emory Douglas (P. 70-71) produced a number of fine posters and his drawings appeared weekly in the Black Panther Party newspaper. The Bindweed Press, run by printer Frank Westlake, did the “Cleaver for President” poster (p.69). Westlake printed a number of the early Family Dog posters and handbills for the Avalon Ballroom as well as psychedelic posters for Winterland.

Robin Lindley: We know how the McGovern campaign turned out. He won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia—yet memorable art remains. What was the political value of those McGovern posters and the images?

Professor Hal Elliott Wert: Even though McGovern lost badly, the posters and prints enthused and solidified his base. However, the deluge of graphic art was like preaching to the choir and did little to change the mind of the average American voter who was fed up with the sixties; the riots, killings, assassinations, violent demonstrations, war, the counterculture and drugs. Many of the posters and prints, to the contrary, were of artistic merit and not only have persisted but influenced poster making in the years that followed. Of course they are important historically as they capture the tenor of the times.

Robin Lindley: You mention the dearth of memorable political posters after 1972—at least until the campaign of 2008 when Barack Obama attracted a new breed of artists to his campaign. What happened after 1972 that led to a decline in poster art?

Professor Hal Elliott Wert: Large numbers of creative political posters have emerged in the modern period only when the candidate is on the Left.

A candidate must excite the art community as well as outside artists. An outpouring of posters only surfaced for the McCarthy campaign in ’68, the McGovern campaign in ’72 and for the Obama campaign in 2008. This doesn’t mean that smaller numbers of exciting posters weren’t produced in the campaigns after 1972—posters for both Democrats and Republicans. In the epilogue of the book I try to fill in those years. Gary Hart’s run for the Democratic nomination in 1984 produced a number of signed limited editions by well-known artists but then, Hart had been one of McGovern’s campaign managers.

Artists were generally not excited by the Democrats long run of centrists’ candidates—Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore and Kerry. Clinton stirred some excitement but it did not result in an avalanche of posters. Democratic centrists and Republican candidates have tended to go with big advertising agencies that crank out color and slogan themes that match and are so generic as not to even excite the dead.

I’ve always said that when I die I want to be buried in Kansas City or Chicago so I can continue to be active in politics but some visual stimulation would be appreciated. Obama in 2008 electrified the art community and they responded with a deluge of fine prints and posters. My book Hope: A Collection of Obama Posters and Prints attempts to capture the flood of posters and prints that helped propel Obama into the White House.

Robin Lindley: You have a campaign this year with Bernie Sanders, a candidate attracting youthful energy, and Donald Trump, a loud billionaire, attracting political outsiders, among others. Are you seeing any interesting art this year? How would you advise campaigns on powerful posters?

Professor Hal Elliott Wert: Well, according to my hypothesis, Sanders’ supporters should be cranking out the posters but surprisingly so far there are only a few. Emek and Shepard Fairey have both released limited addition screen prints and there are perhaps a dozen other quality entries. An earlier Hillary Clinton poster from a Democratic gathering in Memphis, Tennessee is top-notch, though she has never been strong on posters. Her logo is flat, as is Bernie’s, and uninspiring as are the logos of all sixteen Republican candidates. 2016 is the year of the dull yard sign. Things could change; we’ll see what Bernie supporters conjure up in Wisconsin and later in California.

Robert and I have designed what we think are some powerful posters and we will be releasing them sometime this summer. I would advise campaigns to use simple direct colorful posters that convey the candidates’ message through visual language. Go for the knockout.

Robin Lindley: Is there still a role for the political poster in an era of the internet and instant communication?

Professor Hal Elliott Wert: I think yes and the idea of the poster as a means of communication has been adapted to electronic media. Beginning in 2008 poster makers often did not print their designs but offered them as free download files that could be printed in a variety of sizes. Others did screen print runs in limited editions and then offered the image files free as internet downloads. The ubiquitous yard sign has unrealized potential. Campaigns have missed a real opportunity for effective, eye-popping graphics.

Robin Lindley: Is there anything you’d like to add for readers on your book or on the history of art and politics?

Professor Hal Elliott Wert: Yes. Having collected posters for years, in late 2007 I could see that it was likely the Obama campaign would unleash a torrent of exciting posters. I went with the flow and tracked down as many as possible which resulted in Hope. In the process I was surprised to discover that little attention had been paid to the American political poster. Few museums or libraries have extensive collections and historians only occasionally use them to add color rather than seeing the important role the art of visual language has played in the electoral process.

A large number of academics are simply prisoners of the written word—text bound—and, therefore, do not appreciate or ignore visually imagery. They can’t see the huge advantage of developing a simultaneously interactive text and visual narrative that is more fully explanatory.

To begin to correct what I thought of as a glaring oversight of a grand graphic art tradition, I included an epilogue in Hope that featured images of outstanding posters from 1844-2012. Then, I discovered nothing had been done with the marvelous political posters of the ‘60s. Shortly after Hope was published I began George McGovern and the Democratic Insurgents and wished to place these posters in a wider framework of the ‘60s and show their influence on future political posters. I am currently planning another book on earlier American political posters and prints.

Robin Lindley: Thank you Professor Wert for your thoughtfulness and insights.

Professor Hal Elliott Wert: Robin, thank you very much for this opportunity. If your readers have questions you can send them on to me if you like at this email address.