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Lincoln Cushing:

On the Past, Present & Future of the Political Poster

Interview by Romana Cohen

Throughout history, posters have served many ends—acts of compassion, calls for justice, calls to arms. Many of these ephemeral objects melt into the streets, undocumented, soggy, and torn.

Lincoln Cushing has spent the better part of his career making and preserving these historic posters. Formerly a librarian at U.C. Berkeley's Bancroft Library and the Institute of Industrial Relations, Cushing has published three books about poster art; Revolucion! Cuban Poster Art, Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and Visions of Peace and Justice: Thirty years of political posters from the archives of Inkworks Press, and has more on the way. Much of his renowned archival work was done with a collection of Cuban political posters from the 1960s to the 1980s.

An embargo and an ocean separate the US and Cuba. Yet there is a shared and universal language embedded in these unique images. What is the role of the poster in our shared history and future?

You were born in Havana. Like these posters, you also have Cuban provenance. How old were you when you moved to the US? What role does this personal history play in your professional career?


As the child of a U.S. government employee, my birth connection with Cuba is both accidental and fundamental. I left when I was four, two years before the revolution, but the fact that I was born there always lurked in the back of my mind as I developed artistically and politically. It was always an amusing entrée in my interactions with Cubans. In 1989 I visited my birth home in Havana, which is now a child care center, and left them a pile of posters.

There are some controversial implications to your work. After your article in AIGA this year, readers left critical remarks. One reader dismissed both you and AIGA as communists. Another reader brought up your father's career at Voice for America. You were involved in a lawsuit against the government. You've traveled to Cuba many times. Have there been moments of fear? Of crossing boundaries and needing to retreat?


First, let me say without equivocation that of all the countries I’ve lived in and visited south of the border, I felt “safest” in Cuba. Chile in 1985 under Pinochet? That was fear. That’s not to say bad things can’t happen in Cuba – I saw my share – but compared to the enormous background of class antagonism and poverty underlying the rest of Latin America it is a very different experience. Second, I was prepared to be attacked on this subject. The only poster-making nations I can think of that are more problematic are China and Palestine. I tried hard to be “neutral” in describing Cuban politics, and one of the positive reviews that I found most endearing came from someone who’s politically conservative. My daunting travel boundaries are based on language barriers.


Is there a Cuban graphic artist, past or present, whose work speaks most strongly to you? Why?


My personal hero of the Cuban art scene was René Mederos. He was good artist, always expanding his craft and skill level, but he was much more than that. He did not at all fit the typical North American stereotype of a “propaganda artist for the Cuban communist party.” He believed in the revolution, yes, and was proud of the accomplishments of his country. But he also acknowledged internal problems and errors. He worked very hard at visually representing the spirit of revolution, the love, the solidarity, and the dedication to building a better future. He had little interest in material wealth, and was extremely generous with his time.


Under a heavy embargo, it seems that art has still made its way between Cuba and America. In 1991, you joined Dan Walsh of Liberation Graphics in a lawsuit against the U.S. Treasury Department to allow travel to Cuba for "business" related to the importation of First-Amendment materials. Also in 1991, New York’s Center for Cuban Studies spearheaded a successful lawsuit against the U.S. Treasury Department, which made the importation and sale of original art from Cuba legal. Do you feel like significant doors for cross-cultural exchange have been opened? How has that affected the younger generation of Cuban designers?

For the record, the groundbreaking lawsuit against the Treasury Department was initiated by my ex-partner in this work, Dan Walsh. It was a bold challenge to the byzantine and counterproductive laws our country has dumped on Cuba since even before we hijacked their revolution against Spain in 1898. Anyone who does Cuba solidarity work knows that for every door that’s opened, another (or more) closes. The knee-jerk anticommunist policies of the powerful Cuban exile community are slowly softening, but not fast enough. The enormous diaspora of Cubans to the U.S., fueled by our unique immigration policy allowing them automatic citizenship, has deeply warped the Cuban social fabric. Cuban designers are communing with the rest of the world and doing fine, thank you, but we can’t bring dance troupes, or painters, or art scholars here. It’s U.S. citizens that are missing out because of the embargo.


From the Acknowledgments page in Revolucion, I gather that you've gotten to sip rum and/or coffee with many of these senior Cuban poster artists. What an honor, as it seems that the creators of the posters are just as ephemeral as the posters themselves. A third have died, a third have fled, and a third remain in Cuba. After making art during a Revolution, have these designers given any advice that applies to the young graphic activist?


The overwhelming reflection I got from the senior artists in Cuba was nostalgia for the early days after the revolution, when everyone was equally poor in money and rich in egalitarianism. They would tell me, almost with tears of joy in their eyes, of being able to show up to work and actually get paid for designing posters on subjects that mattered to them. I know that feeling well – I worked at a community political print shop for almost 20 years, and I loved the professional mix of art and politics. So, perhaps the advice is to become engaged in matters that deeply move you, and the career will follow.


You started out as an artist and became more of an archivist/collector. Do you still produce art? Is it political in nature?


I do make some art, though not nearly as much as I used to. And what I do make is political. Maybe it’s that I’m getting older, but I look at this whole swath of poster art, much of it done during my lifetime, that’s getting very little substantive recognition in this country. There are really just a handful of people in the U.S. who are contributing to scholarship in this genre, among them Carol Wells and Michael Rossman. I feel like I have to devote my energy to documentation and scholarship before it’s too late. The creators are dying off, and the facts are harder to come by. I’m trying to distill the intellectual fuel for the next generation of propaganda artists. It’s a passing on of the squeegee, if you will, rather than cranking out my own work.

It seems that you have been busy with research into Chinese political posters from the GPCR, and the survey of the archives of Inkworks Press, the worker-owned cooperative press in Berkeley. Are there any other historical poster movements that you've become interested in lately?


I’m interested in ALL of them lately, especially the connections between them and the gaps in scholarship. The sad fact is that we really know so little about these poster movements. Few people are aware of the numerous poster workshops that sprang up in the U.S. right after the 1970 National Guard murders at Kent State and Jackson State. Even “iconic” poster history is barely scratched – who knows that the art students who made the Paris 1968 posters were, in fact, screenprinting for the first time? They hadn’t been taught this technique in school, but it was the right medium for the moment. I didn’t know this until a colleague, Gene Marie Tempest, conducted some interviews with participants in 2007.


For the 2003 Exhibition at the Berkeley Art Center, you said that "creative appropriation is the lingua franca of activists, and there is no shame in artful reinterpretation of powerful imagery." In the US we are taught that copyright infringement and plagiarism are both illegal and disrespectful. In the activist graphic world, however, would you say that the rules are different? Are you actively encouraging other people to infringe on copyrights if they can justify their act via social activism?


Subvertisement and parody are politically vital, but we are talking about a different animal here. This is one of the unspoken issues in the art world, and a recent Web article by Mark Vallen about popular artist Shepard Fairey has raised some very interesting dialogue within the profession. In the article I describe the unauthorized “recycling” of a René Mederos print. In the political art world there is an unwritten understanding that IF it’s noncommercial, and IF one isn’t claiming personal credit, and IF it’s helping a progressive cause, it’s pretty much OK to grab other art and use it. This was more dominant during the “long 1960s” than it is now, but it’s still a valid working model. Current formulations such as CopyLeft and Creative Commons have a similar approach. The above guidelines are just the beginning, however. I’m particularly concerned with the erosion of our own art history with the mashing and appropriation of artwork without credit.

In a discussion of Chinese political posters from the Revolution, illiteracy, lack of technology and a significant rural population as reasons for the poster as the primary visual dissemination tool. These days, the global youth use youTube and the internet to see and share non-commercial visual and political sources. What is the role of the poster in the digital age?

Ah, the plight of the illiterate Chinese peasant. Oddly enough, I fear for the so-called “literacy” of our modern industrialized citizens and global youth. Sure, they may know how to post a photo to MySpace, but they don’t know where Iraq is on a map or why it’s disingenuous to contrast “communism” and “democracy.” Posters – big sheets of paper with a message – still have a place in this world, although the historical evidence is that their popularity rises and falls over time. A cool YouTube snip will have its moment, but that poster you put up in the window about the U.S. troops getting out of [insert country of your choice here] will stick around for years.


All images courtesy of Docs Populi, used by permission.
For more information visit the Docs Populi site.
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