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Transcript: ArtCurious Episode #24

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If I was to choose the single most recognizable figure from World War Two for an average American to identify, you might laugh at me, but I probably wouldn’t say Adolf Hitler. I wouldn’t even choose FDR, or Joseph Stalin, or any of the other key individuals who featured prominently in the war. Nope. I think the person I’d actually choose is actually more of a symbol than an actual living and breathing historical figure, though this symbol itself was probably based on a real individual. Chances are good that once I start describing this person’s appearance, you’ll picture her--yes, her!-- in your mind’s eye immediately. So imagine this-- a brunette with an arched eyebrow,  her hair tied up neatly in a red-and-white polka-dot kerchief, flexing her right arm, baring her bicep, and fiercely making eye contact with the viewer-- with no smile seen on her lips. She means business, and the words “We can do it!” blare in a dark blue word bubble over her head to confirm this determination. Against a plain yellow background, she’s bright and primary, the perfect invitation for thousands of women across the country to join the workforce for the good of the men overseas and the country abroad. Yep. You know her. You love her. She’s colloquially referred to as “Rosie the Riveter,” though the name is actually a misnomer here. Her image was created by illustrator J. Howard Miller in 1943 for the Westinghouse Electric corporation as a design to boost morale internally. Today, it is one of the most widely recognizable and widely disseminated images of the 20th century, reproduced on everything from t-shirts to tattoos, hats and stickers. In fact, the Washington post once called the poster the most overexposed souvenir in all of Washington, D.C. Parodies abound, featuring anyone and everyone from Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Marge Simpson, Princess Leia, Wonder Woman, Katniss Everdeen-- whew. And let’s not forget that art history nut, Beyonce. That lady loves her art history.

The funny thing about the “We Can Do It” poster is that its current ubiquity is in contrast with its actual usage back in the 1940s. It was only one of the posters printed for Westinghouse Electric’s morale-boosting campaign, each poster-- about 40 in all-- were only on display in the Westinghouse factories in Pittsburgh and in midwestern Cities for two weeks. Two weeks- that’s not a very long time to have a motivational poster up on display. This makes it almost an oddity, compared to other propaganda posters in the United States during the Second World War. And that’s not all-- it’s also one of the calmer and more positive, both in terms of message and in gender politics, than most-- because as we’re about to see, others were more graphic, more manipulative...and sometimes, far more terrifying.

Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those can be paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. And today, it’s all about American World War Two propaganda posters… what they were, who created them, and how America was fighting the war via words and pictures, as well as manpower. Welcome to the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History. I'm Jennifer Dasal.

World War Two was brutally fought on battlefields across the world-- that much is an absolute given. But the war was fought just as fiercely in the civilian arena-- and in every medium available, including telecommunications, but especially in print-- and not just newspapers and informational leaflets. In particular, it was the realm of the propaganda poster-- official designs produced via governmental commission to influence a population towards a specific effect or in regard to a particular idea. That idea generally boiled down to this: Help the Allies Win. As Archibald MacLeish,  the Director of the Office of Facts and Figures or what would eventually become known as the the Office of War Administration, said, quote: “The principal battleground of the war is not the South Pacific. It is not the Middle East. It is not England, or Norway, or the Russian Steppes. It is American opinion.”

Why the poster? Why not some other method of production or advertisement? Well, there are actually several really good reasons. First and foremost, the efficiency and cost of manufacturing a poster couldn’t be beat. It was the easiest way to guarantee that a vast number of people could absorb a particular message in the cheapest way possible. Remember, there weren’t a predominance of TV sets in homes around the world yet, even though the medium had been invented in the late 1920s. And of course there was no internet. But posters-- regardless of the country or political machine backing them-- people had access to printing posters. And you could make a ton of them quickly. They were endlessly versatile, too-- they could be plastered by the dozens to brick walls and wooden fences, or placed in windows of shops, restaurants, or private homes. They could even reach places where other media perhaps couldn’t-- like schools, or factories-- things beyond the reach of traditional paid advertising. They could be distributed by hand to passers-by and shared between friends. So In order to maintain morale and sentiment, and to get the whole family involved in the war effort, there was no way to beat the power of the printed poster.  

But of course the government knew that the ease of use of a propaganda poster wasn’t the only way to ensure its success. It also needed to be visually appealing in order to get one’s attention-- maintain that attention-- and sear its message into the viewer’s brain, if possible. And this is where the propaganda poster really comes into its own as an art form. Through a combination of insightful text and emotionally compelling images-- or even a minimalistic lack thereof-- a poster could really hit home on any number of fronts (pardon the pun): during World War Two, it could encourage the rationing of certain materials, or the purchase of war bonds. It could warn of potential threats or inspire relief efforts-- or even just to inspire hatred in the enemy or enemies. And thousands upon thousands of these exact types of posters were created all over the world for each regime-- creating a veritable wartime industry entirely separate from the actual fighting itself. But all industries need some sort of leader to guide message, branding, and craft. And this is where the Office of War Information in the United States comes into play.

In 1942, a new agency called the Office of War Information was created specifically to hone and refine all propaganda, its production, and its goals. Signed into effect by President Franklin Roosevelt, the OWI, as it became known, was seen as the most convenient way to bridge the gap between civilian and soldier-- to make it known that even when separated by thousands of miles, each and every individual had a responsibility to bring victory home to American shores. On the surface, such a strategy seems straightforward. But in effect, it was anything but.  At the beginning of America’s involvement in the War, information-- about the war in general, why we were fighting it, and what was really going on-- was a huge question mark for the general public. As historian Sydney Weinberg enumerates in an article for the Journal of American History, quote, “It all seemed to boil down to three bitter complaints…first, that there was too much information; second, that there wasn’t enough of it; and third, that in any event it was confusing and inconsistent.” All combined, these three problems not only perplexed the general public, but also angered them. They wanted to know the gist of things--no more, no less. And so, the OWI stepped in and propaganda- with clear messages and unified intentions--began cropping up in the national landscape.  Problem solved, right? Well, sadly, no. Due equally to current events and recent history, both the government and the American public were wary about the distribution of propaganda in particular. First of all, there was the question about centrality. If directives about the war were only coming from one sanctioned source-- even if that source was your own government, who was to say whether or not it was accurate? Were people just being fed information that couldn’t be verified elsewhere? Similarly, it seemed, to some viewers, to be something that was done primarily in more fascist realms-- a propaganda machine might fit in well in Nazi Germany, but in the land of the free and the home of the brave? No, sir. And lastly, propaganda was created during World War I, but from all accounts, the U.S. Committee on Public Information viewed it as an embarrassing failure. The propaganda posters created for the Great War just didn’t do the trick in convincing civilians to back the war effort. (Save, perhaps, one exception-- James Montgomery Flagg's 1917 I Want You poster, featuring a stern and pointing Uncle Sam.) But in the second world war, something needed to be done. The U.S. was in this war, ready or not, and in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, people needed to know what was going on, and that need far outweighed any concerns about aso-called propaganda machine.

The first step that the OWI had to take was twofold-- first, it had to hire the artists and graphic designers to tackle the big job of actually producing the propaganda, and second, it had to really hone in on the themes to be expressed. In the U.S., this was manifested in the management of concepts like victory gardens, working women, war bonds, and the safekeeping of state secrets. Because Allied victory was a hoped-for, but not foregone, conclusion, propaganda had to work hard to persuade all Americans that their patriotic support was 100% necessary to military success. And it turns out that the artists who created the propaganda worked even harder-- at least, at the very beginning of the war effort.

Originally, the propaganda posters for the second World War were not designed or even commissioned by government employees. Instead, the Government requested that artists submit their work to poster competitions for consideration and publication-- and mostly without pay. And this is where it gets really interesting. Remember that during this time period-- and even for a couple of decades after, as we discussed in ArtCurious episode number 9-- that there was a widespread belief among democratic nations that visual art could truly save the world-- and that it was part of an art institution’s duty to further this cause in any way possible. So, the venerable Museum of Modern Art in New York organized a special competition-- the National Defense Poster Competition-- at the end of 1942. MoMA didn’t do all of this alone, though-- it was backed by the Army Air Corp and the Treasury Department, both of whom actively used propaganda posters and who desperately needed a fresh influx of them. This combination of governmental power and artistic prowess meant that a huge number of submissions flooded in-- over 2,200 individual poster designs were submitted to the cause. In total, artists from 43 states submitted works, with more than a quarter of entrants from New York City alone. According to a press release submitted by MoMA in November of 1942-- which you can thankfully still find on MoMa’s website-- those who submitted works represented a wide swath of the country, across all disciplines, ages, and both genders. MoMA’s marketing team noted that while most of the entries were completed by civilians, quote, “Thirty-seven posters came from soldiers, three from sailors, while one man in the Air Force and one in the Coast Guard each submitted a poster. Six Indians sent in entries... there were entries from two nuns. An unusual number of women entered the Competition.” Even children and the elderly produced designs for the National War Posters exhibition.

The vast number of submissions were narrowed down to two hundred posters with the help of eight competition judges, including the prominent American artist Stuart Davis. These jurors helped select not only the 200 or so works to be displayed in MoMA--and later elsewhere, as the exhibition traveled across the country-- but they also had the important job of choosing the nine best works-- one in each sub-grouping. And most of these groupings were pretty non-dramatic and straightforward, like “War Bonds” and “Production,” while other category names just go right for it, with names like “Deliver Us from Evil” and “Slave World… or Free World?” The winning entries had the honor of being reproduced in large quantities by the Office of Civilian Defense, the Treasury Department, the OWI, and the War Production Board, but businesses also had the option to purchase the rights to these posters and print and distribute them as well-- so between this public and private partnership, the propaganda machine in the U.S. was on the go. And the artists, by the way? Their reward was $300 in war bonds, naturally.

Coming up after the break, a deep dive into some of the most fascinating American propaganda posters of the Second World War. Stay with us.

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Welcome back to the ArtCurious Podcast.

Propaganda poster artists-- in both the MoMA show and in other commissions and competitions, essentially took one of two emotional directions-- either positive or negative, though of course the themes naturally dictated the responses. This direct emotional appeal was the result of a government-commissioned study that noted these types of posters that would have the broadest effect, as opposed to ones that relied heavily on symbolism or humor-- though examples of both also appear to have been fairly successful at the time. In the positive sector, sentiments like pride, familial connection, and patriotism were the standards. And often, a poster could combine these concepts into one solid “ask.” For example, a 1946 image called Back Your Future with U.S. Savings Bonds, provides a glance at the ideal American family-- a mother and father, each with their arms draped over their children--one boy, and one girl. All are suitably dressed, very clean, and smiling with the kind of white teeth that could only have existed in advertisements in the 1940s. The kids, as obvious symbols of the future, are each holding emblems of education and vocation-- and possibly offer clues to what the future might hold for them, even: a model airplane for the boy, and a book for the girl. But that couldn’t be nearly enough symbols for the artist, a man by the last name of Englert who worked for the U.S. Government Publishing Office. No-- billowing across the top of the frame is the red and white stripes of the American Flag. In the top right, a disembodied arm-- most likely supposed to be that of Uncle Sam’s, draped in a starry blue jacket-- pulls back a corner of the flag to reveal the all-American scene below. Patriotic pride, hope for the future, and family ties, all combined into one squeaky-clean request for purchasing savings bonds.

With the stern eye of hindsight and the responsibility of political correctness on our shoulders, it’s imperative to note the homogenous appearance of this quote unquote “all american family” and that, for the most part, almost all of the individuals presented in American propaganda during WWII were white. This is pre-Civil Rights-era that we’re talking about, so racial discrimination was still at its height at this time, and that came through in visuals as much as it did in real-life experience. But that isn’t to say that there weren’t special campaigns that were directed at African-Americans. There were. The truth of the matter is that the government needed all Americans--regardless of their outward appearance-- to fully support the war effort. But if a community can’t see itself-- literally--in the faces of the people chosen to represent them in propaganda, how can they get behind what’s being requested of them? In addition, segregation was as intense and widespread in the U.S. Military during WWII as it was in the Deep South at the time-- so, really, why participate, if you were meant to feel so separate and other? The OWI definitely had a problem. And so propaganda came to the rescue again, via a campaign that later became known as the Double V campaign. Double V stood for double victory-- victory abroad for all Americans and the Allies in the war itself, but also victory against slavery, racism, and tyranny-- both at home and abroad. One of the most famous posters featured the image of a real person instead of an amalgam, as most were. Above and Beyond the Call of Duty presents the heroic, upturned  face of Doris Miller, known as “Dorie,” a Navy steward tasked with serving food and cleaning up in the mess room of the ship. Dorie was present for duty when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941-- and even though he wasn’t trained to do so, he manned a nearby machine gun and damaged Japanese aircraft. In addition, he ferried several people out of harm’s way, effectively saving their lives. In all senses, he was an American hero-- and indeed ended up becoming the first African American to be awarded the prestigious Navy Cross. As a icon for service, this propaganda is nearly perfect. You certainly couldn’t get more valiant than Dorie Miller.  Whether or not it improved African-American enlistment in the Navy? Well, who knows-- but I certainly am curious.

Speaking of the Navy-- another notable image of the time presents us with an additional intriguing  motivational factor : sex.  One recruitment poster from the era shows a man decked out in a sailor suit, his hat pushed back on his forehead, and his eyebrow cocked slightly as he glances down at a brunette who embraces him and gently tinkers with the pin on his lapel. “He Volunteered for Submarine Service,” the text reads beneath. In all its closed-eyed, ga-ga suggestion, it’s all but screaming, “You too could get a hot date with red lips and Joan Crawford eyebrows if you just enlist.”

Thankfully, women in propaganda posters weren’t simply just pretty faces. There were a whole slough of posters that were aimed specifically at inspiring women to enter the workforce. Though the vast majority of these posters didn’t have the same kind of fierce grit of J. Howard Miller’s We Can Do It image, women were still presented as being vital to the war effort. Some feature illustrations of fashionable women decked out in khaki, acting as topographical cartographers, parachute riggers, and radio assistants, but there seem to be so many more that reiterate women’s secondary position in society. One image presents an older, pearl-bedecked woman gently embracing a proud and determined redhead-- presumably her daughter, while a quote surrounds them: “He’ll be home sooner, now you’ve joined the Waves.” (Waves, by the way, was an acronym for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, and was essentially the Navy’s women’s reserve.) The gist is this: the woman in question is joining the military in order to bring home her husband, brother, father, friend, whoever-- and that her role is still defined as supplementary to that of a man. So even though the war led to more possibilities for women in terms of employment and civic participation, the propaganda that targeted them still emphasized traditional gender roles and stereotypes.

There are myriad examples of these kinds of recruitment posters, especially aimed at producing warm, fuzzy feelings in women-- especially around the domestic sphere. But not all of them used such positive emotions or reactions as a motivational linchpin. And in fact, it looks like some of the more successful ads were actually very dark, aimed more at saddenning or terrifying the observer, because negative responses seemed to have received the fastest and most committed response. Come on, happiness is great-- but fear? That really sticks with you. Some of the most frightening were intended to target parents where it really hit hard-- their children.  Okay, I’m breaking my previously imposed criterion of limiting today’s episode solely to American propaganda, simply because as a mom, I found a Canadian example to be one of the absolute creepiest. In a work titled Keep These Hands Off, designer Gordon K. Odell, a man from Quebec, presents us with a woman with waved blond hair and a movie star-like disposition, cradling a rosy-cheeked babe in a pink blanket trimmed with a satin bow. Invading this cosy domestic scene, though, are two monstrous shadowy hands-- one bearing a swastika, and the other with the “rising sun” insignia of the Empire of Japan. They are encroaching ever-so-closely on the two figures, centimeters away from the baby’s arm and the mother’s head. A metaphoric danger has been made, suddenly, to feel very real, especially in relation to the most innocent of individuals. As if to drive this home even more-- both the mother and the baby are both wearing white, contrasting ever-so-perfectly with the ghostly, dark hands.

Not that women are always so angelic and innocent. Though a large amount of propaganda from the United States at this time focused on women as victims, or simply secondary to their male counterparts, as we have already seen, there is a category in which women are conflated with the enemy-- especially if they were claimed to be acting in a manner that went against expected social constructs. In a virtual exhibition at Oberlin College, called The United States and World War Two: Historical Debates about America at War, history students and staff noted that, quote, “In contrast to posters of women as the weak, vulnerable victims of sexual desires, an entire campaign designed to fight venereal diseases recast women’s sexuality as a threat to soldiers, the nuclear family, and, thus, the nation.” Compare, for example, Gordon Odell’s blonde mother with the dark haired, overly rouged, and sultry woman in a red jacket and beret, barely able to gaze back at the viewer through her nearly-closed, thick-lashed eyes in a work called She May Be a Bag of Trouble. This is a poster specifically aimed at reducing syphilis and gonorrhea during the war, and really, it can’t be more different from the expected domestic visions of 1940s women. But it also can’t get more cliched. Between the dark hair- because brunettes always symbolized dark intent, instead of those with lighter hair-- and the red clothing and accessories-- the assumed color of passion-- it's almost like the artist isn't even trying to create something new here. And that’s fine. The point wasn't newness, necessarily. It was efficacy. And the most efficient way to curb STDs was to reduce women, here, to being the sole culprits of disease via quote-unquote loose morals, and present these sexualized images to an assumed male audience. Such fear-based propaganda made the war personal-- really, really personal--for those who assumed that the war itself was being fought only on battlefields abroad, and not in North America in bedrooms across the country.

Propaganda posters, then, were the quickest and oftentimes most effective ways at getting the American public to act, and act quickly, in support of the U.S. government’s actions during the war.  That’s a big job-- and so hundreds of artists, as we’ve heard today-- had to be involved in these campaigns. And to make American propaganda, both in print and other media, even more successful, some big names got in on the action too-- and that's coming up next time, on the ArtCurious Podcast.

Thank you for listening to this episode of the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal. Research assistance is provided by the wonderful Stephanie Pryor. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki Creative. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at

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Transcript: ArtCurious Episode #25

Transcript: ArtCurious Episode #23