Trump’s MAGA, Obama’s ‘Hope’ and the power of political and protest art

It’s no secret. America is mad — or much of it seems to be — roiled by political and cultural division, indifference to decorum and a sense that, surely, things have never been this bad.

Bonnie Siegler felt it, and she did something about it.

An accomplished graphic artist from Westport, Conn., with a strong liberal bent, Siegler was shaken by the outcome of the 2016 presidential election and what she thought it portended. She looked for precedent and how others in history had dealt with their anger and frustration — in truth, she says, she was looking for some kind of solace — and found something that resonated both personally and professionally: more than 250 years of political and protest art.

Think Benjamin Franklin’s famous “Join, or Die” sectioned snake, urging the early colonies to unite. Think Uncle Sam and Rosie the Riveter, “I Am a Man” and “Drop Acid Not Bombs.” More recently, think Barack Obama’s “Hope” poster and “Make America Great Again.”

Siegler collects 240 of those images in her book “Signs of Resistance: A Visual History of Protest in America,” the latest FYI Book Club selection by The Star and the Kansas City Public Library. Many of the messages are familiar. Some are handmade, scrawled and crude but no less effective. Most are simple. All project passion.

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Benjamin Franklin’s poster urged the colonies to unite.

“The artists who made those things did them out of their own rage and frustration and anger and not knowing what else to do but put it into imagery, put it into a sign, express themselves,” Siegler says. “That’s what our country allows us to do … and I wanted to celebrate that.”

Siegler, who founded and heads an award-winning design studio, Eight and a Half, has done work for NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” and “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” cable’s HBO and an array of other television clients, as well as home video’s Criterion Collection and Newsweek magazine. She created the main title sequence for “Will & Grace,” among other things.

AUTHOR PHOTO. Bonnie Siegler_credit Ryan Christopher Jones
Bonnie Siegler

While always left-leaning — “my parents were liberal, and I understood” — she wasn’t politically active until being hired just before the 2004 election to do identity design and ad work for the newly launched left-wing Air America Radio. (Its first hosts: Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo, Marc Maron and Rachel Maddow). Four years later, Siegler and some friends put together a fundraiser for Obama and, four years after that, they did another. Siegler put in with Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“Signs of Resistance” spotlights an array of movements and historical touchstones, from women’s suffrage and civil rights to the Vietnam War and Black Lives Matter. It ends with the Trump era, and there Siegler makes no attempt to play it down the political middle.

Donald Trump’s political ascension spawned the book, after all.

“A few people have said, ‘Why aren’t you including images from the other side?’ ” Siegler says. “The truth is that artists, writers, poets, musicians — the creative community — all tend to be liberal. So the other side doesn’t have so much artwork.”

COVER. Signs of Resistance

Siegler, 55, recently discussed “Signs of Resistance” and how, as she puts it, artists “became the alarm system for society.” Excerpts are edited for length.

Q: You’re not simply out to provide a little nostalgia with this book, are you. What do you hope people take away from it?

A: I went into it as a way to deal with my own rage and confusion and frustration about what was happening. I started thinking, “What was it like in 1968? What did people do to deal with what was happening and with their frustrations? And what was it like during the suffrage movement, when women had been marching for over 70 years trying to get the vote? How did they go on? What did they do?”

I started doing research, and it was really powerful. It showed me that we’ve been doing this since the beginning, since the Revolutionary War, since before we were a country. People have been getting together and speaking their mind and saying what they believed should happen, and it’s the people who have made changes over time.

It made me feel a little better, and I hope it gives other people hope to keep fighting, to keep pushing back.

Q: You point to the 1960s, and the wealth of subject matter with civil rights and Vietnam, as a turning point for protest art. Are we at a similar juncture today?

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“I Am a Man” signs were carried by African-American workers during the 1968 sanitation strike in Memphis.

A: I think protest art actually has been democratized more because of the internet. It used to be that somebody would make a sign and go to a print shop, and it would be posted around town until it got taken down. Now, you can make one and post it on Instagram, and a lot of people can see it and it can be tweeted and retweeted and reposted. Everybody has the potential for an equal voice.

Q: There’ve been a lot of important issues and causes over the country’s history. Any that you hated leaving out of the book?

A: So much. Occupy Wall Street. The gay rights movement. There’s a lot that’s not in there, obviously.

And I had to group things together. The civil rights movement spans 200 years, from slavery and abolitionism to Emory Douglas and the Black Panthers. I would rather have had a chapter for each of those periods, but … I had to cut.

Q: What makes a good, effective political or protest image?

A: The ones that have endured through time tend to be the simplest ones. I could say to you something like “the Benjamin Franklin image,” the “Join, or Die” image, and most people would say, “Yeah, I’ve seen that.” It’s from 1754. That’s pretty powerful; I can’t think of too many other images that have that kind of resonance.

Uncle Sam and Rosie the Riveter, which are American icons, are so familiar that they can be manipulated in all these different ways and you still understand the reference. Both have very few words and one strong image. “I Am a Man” is another one that’s incredibly powerful in its simplicity.

Make America Great Again_SIGNS OF RESISTANCE
Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” red hat is a powerful symbol.
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Shepard Fairey Obama hope poster

Q: Do you have a particular favorite?

A: The “Hope” poster is iconic. It’s so powerful. Like Uncle Sam and Rosie the Riveter, it’s now the political image. I also think the red (Make America Great Again) hat was pretty powerful.

Q: You mention the practice of repurposing Uncle Sam, Rosie the Riveter and other famous images, often perverting the original meaning. You could throw in the MAGA hat. Why is that OK?

A: It’s not like plagiarism. What’s being said is, “I’m going to use the power of the original message to further my own message.”

In the case of Sarah Palin or the (supremacist) White Consciousness campaign using Rosie the Riveter, they’re hoping to get the good will imbued in the image. Or maybe Sarah Palin wanted some feminist credentials, and it was kind of shorthand for her to get it by using that poster.

Q: What’s the role of political cartoons and cartoonists today, given the decline of newspapers?

A: That used to be the way political commentary was made, for the most part. Cartoonists were the spokespeople. It was really in the last century that their power lessened — as you say, with the decline of newspapers. Graphic designers, with more vivid imagery that can be read immediately in a format like Instagram or Facebook, have risen.

Q: You include a couple of your own images in the book, both targeting Trump. Are your political forays more enjoyable than your other design work?

A: I might be more passionate about the political work, but I love what I do. I have lots of clients in lots of different areas. I did the identity for the Brooklyn Public Library; that was one of my favorite projects. … Political work is just different. I’m working for free. I’m choosing to do it.

Q: OK, you have space on your wall for three pieces of art. What do you choose, and why?

A: A Warhol. An ‘I Am a Man’ poster; I would love to have an original one. And my husband is an experimental filmmaker and a painter, so I would have to say one of his.

Q: What is it about Andy Warhol?

A: He introduced me to this whole thing. I was a fan when I was young, probably 14 or 15. I didn’t know why; it wasn’t like I knew anything about art. I just loved that he really made me think about what I was looking at everywhere in a whole new way. Even in a grocery store, he made me look at it differently. And then I went to the college, I went to (Carnegie Mellon) because he went there.

Q: Have you gotten any feedback on “Signs of Resistance,” positive or negative?

A: The only place it has been negative was in USA Today. They did a piece, and the comments section was really nasty. People started trolling my Instagram feed — “Hillary should be in jail” and those kinds of things. I’m part of that whole world now, I guess.

Q: Given today’s climate, is a sequel inevitable?

A: I would love to do a sequel. But my favorite thing would be if we no longer needed to remind ourselves that we have to keep fighting and we have to keep speaking out. I’m less interested in making another book and more interested in making things right.

Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library.

Join the discussion

The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along. Kaite Mediatore Stover, the library’s director of readers’ services, will lead a discussion of “Signs of Resistance: A Visual History of Protest in America” by Bonnie Siegler at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 6 at the Kansas City Museum at the Historic Garment District, 800 Broadway.

An exhibit at the museum, “My Tee & Me: Statement & Identity in Kansas City,” looks at the communicative power of T-shirts throughout the city’s history, including their use in social activism. It is on display through Sept. 8.