Exhibitions are always political

The bracketing of the Hope To Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008–2018 exhibition at London’s Design Museum is interesting for many reasons. Starting with Shepard Fairey’s Hope campaign for Obama’s 2008 election, and (almost) finishing with Trump’s Make America Great Again baseball cap, these two items showcase how effective vacuous phraseology can be in winning over people’s emotions when asking them to vote on big decisions. Both speak to the human condition of wanting ‘better’, without actually defining what that ‘better’ might be. They leave it for the reader to appropriate the slogans and adapt them to their own set of desires.


It has to be said the application of such sloganeering adds weight to the message—the words alone didn’t win their respective elections for each candidate. Fairey’s message appealed to the youth vote as much because they were street posters and were run counter (and unendorsed) to the official Democrat campaign; while baseball caps are everyday headgear worn by the everyman and everywoman of America. Each message is targetted precisely, whether strategically intentioned or not. What both tell us though is that logos do not win elections, neither for Obama in 2008 nor Clinton in 2016. As graphic communication devices, logos tend to be overly associated with corporate structures, despite both Obama’s and Clinton’s being applauded by design critics for their aesthetics, symbolism and ‘cleverness’. In thinking that these could help win around floating voters, it strikes me that the audience was ultimately forgotten, unlike with the street posters and baseball caps.

These are just a few of the thoughts I came away with after visiting Hope to Nope with a group of graphic design students the week it opened in April.


The fact that the layout funnels you from a wide exhibition space, where Fairey’s posters are flyposted on pillars alongside Michael Beirut’s Hillary logo sketches, to a narrow point with a satirical Trump automaton dishing out advice positioned at its apex, emphasises the show’s title. This metaphorical end-point is depressing for bleeding heart liberals like myself, suggesting there is nowhere else to go.


The show doesn’t hold any punches elsewhere though. If the video of the Grenfell Tower silent march doesn’t make you well-up with emotion and/or rage, then you are probably, well, Theresa May. It is also good to see so much ‘untutored’ design on display, demonstrating, (no pun intended), the power of immediacy in a direct communication scrawled with passion on a bit of card. The wall of protest placards against a huge photo of the anti-Trump Women’s March is daunting and powerful, giving life to an unfolding situation the majority could only watch on television. It takes you there, makes you feel part of the community of protesters, and all without a single Socialist Workers’ placard in sight.


Some under-the-radar, more radical messages hang around the edges of the exhibition, as protest, forever a part of politics, demonstrates that some people are more prepared than others to put their freedom on the line in order to fight for freedom. The table of newspapers, flyers and other agitational literature in the middle room of the show testifies to this.


Inevitably, the exhibition is decidedly left-leaning and liberal in its overall tone. Being both myself didn’t bother me personally. But I was disappointed that there wasn’t more rightwing-leaning material on display; for protest and politics aren’t the preserve of the left. As hideous as the UKIP Breaking Point poster was, it was an effective piece of design communication. Likewise, a few front pages of The Sun could have added to a wider discourse, as could some of those crude Britain First Facebook memes. That they pretended the group cared about animal rights only showcases how easily even the most liberal minded can be fooled into liking and sharing on social media, as happened a few years ago. All these should be up for discussion and part of the critique if we are to learn anything. Even the now famous ‘£350 million pound’ Vote Leave bus was only featured because of a Greenpeace agitprop rebrand, as opposed to proving that with power and wealth, politics can be bought when delivered through graphic design. These omissions, from my point of view, make the exhibition ever-so-slightly safe, despite the edginess of much of what was on display.


It has taken me a good few weeks to write this post after my visit to the show. In doing so my timing coincides with the 50thanniversary of the May 1968 Paris uprisings in which graphic design also played a key role. I can’t help thinking that Atelier Populaire, who occupied the print room of the École Des Beaux Arts to churn out effective graphic flyposters to help further the unfolding situation 50 years ago, would have been dismissive of Hope to Nope. They stated in 1969: “The posters produced … are weapons in the service of the struggle and are an inseparable part of it. Their rightful place is in the centres of conflict, that is to say in the streets and on the walls of factories.” (Kugelberg and Vermés, 2011, p1) They went on to declare: “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.” They lobby the argument that: “Even to keep them as historical evidence of a certain stage in the struggle is a betrayal, for the struggle itself is of such primary importance that the position of an ‘outside’ observer is a fiction which inevitably plays into the hands of the ruling class.” The rebels of Paris in 1968 must be aghast that some of these posters are now being sold for upwards of £2000, and that ‘bourgeois places of culture’ such as the Design Museum exhibits the by-product of protest for ‘outside observers’ to gawp at. It is fitting then that Mike Monteiro’s quote “Design Is Always Political” is in the opening section of the exhibition. The French Situationists could have elegantly graffitied over the top of it that “Exhibitions Are Always Political”, which would be a fair point.


For my mind though, Hope to Nope, for all its flaws, feels like an important and timely exhibition. To get political discourse going within graphic design circles is vital to do in my opinion. It doesn’t happen that often, at least not effectively. There was a peak of political ‘artist’ retrospectives in 2016 that I visited, with Ai Weiwei’s show at The Royal Academy, Peter Kennard’s Unofficial War Artist at the Imperial War Museum, and Gee Vaucher’s Introspective at Colchester’s Firstsite; but the last graphic design politically focussed show I can recall sits just outside Hope to Nope’s bookending with Jonathan Barnbrook’s retrospective in 2007, (again at the Design Museum).

While all of these shows were prime examples of how to present a critical political exhibition, what sets Hope to Nope apart is the breadth of the work, the breadth of the causes covered, and the fact that often untutored design is as good as, if not better and more effective, than that produced by professional graphic designers.

Personally, the show was timely for another reason, as it opened a few weeks after the annual agitprop lecture I give to first year graphic design students. The curators of Hope to Nope, Margaret Cubbage and GraphicDesign&, should consider running the show every decade as a measure of how graphic design adapts and responds to political contexts in these rapidly changing and turbulent times.


Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008–2018 continues at London’s Design Museum until 12 August 2018.

Kugelberg, J and Vermés, P.  (2011)  Beauty Is In The Street: A Visual Record of The May ’68 Paris Uprising.  London: Four Corner Books

Published by Nigel Ball

Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design

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