What gives protest signs their power? Readers discuss a political art book

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much is it worth if the picture comes with words of dissent?

At the latest FYI Book Club discussion, readers considered what makes some protest images endure and in several cases become enduring works of art.

The Kansas City Museum at the Historic Garment District served as the meeting place, using its recently closed exhibit “My Tee and Me: Statement and Identity in Kansas City” as a jumping off point to talk about Bonnie Siegler’s art book, “Signs of Protest: A Visual History of Protest in America.” Later in the conversation Siegler paid a visit via Skype to take questions from readers.

The museum’s executive director, Anna Marie Tutera, and recreation director, Paul Gutierrez, gave a tour of the many T-shirts touting Kansas City citizens’ willingness to speak up in protest through comfortable sportswear.

COVER. Signs of Resistance

Certain images in the book came as a surprise for a couple of readers.

“The sign women put in the windows of their home stating a woman voter lives here stayed with me,” said Virginia Brackett of Kansas City. “I didn’t think of that as a protest image. It took a lot of courage to put that sign in the window. It’s not like standing in a crowd surrounded by others for support. You are really labeling yourself.”

Andy Dandino of Kansas City was struck by the story behind the photograph of Emmett Till’s mother standing over his casket.

“Here’s an image that wasn’t designed to be an image of protest. It became a call to action because Emmett’s mother didn’t want his death to be in vain. She was savvy in a time of great grief and recognized the power of images. It wasn’t created as an image of protest, but it was designed in another sense of the term. She took a terrible situation and turned it into a protest.”

A large spread in the book about the “Make America Great Again” red trucker cap fueled discussion of parody and commercialism of protest images.

“It’s rather complicated,” Brackett said. “On the surface it appears positive and you wonder why anyone would be offended by this phrase. It should be positive, but that depends on the group who identifies or doesn’t identify with the message. The takeoffs pictured in the book show we can take any idea and adapt it and subvert it.”

Camille Kulig of Kansas City said, “I’ve been fascinated by how my response to the cap has changed over time. When I first saw it I wondered what specific time is this message in reference to? Then I realized this image isn’t trying to communicate with me. I’m not the core audience. I appreciate the levity the book brings to it and the question of if this image will be relevant five or 10 years from now. Will the red cap still have the potency that the Uncle Sam poster has?”

Readers compared homemade signs of protest to commercially created signs.

“I had a friend who used to snub her nose at anything that wasn’t manufactured,” said Jon King of Lake Tapawingo. “But for me it’s more potent if a person is going to take pen to hand because it’s a more personal statement.”

Kulig agreed: “It appears there’s more truth to a handwritten sign. It’s more seductive and can persuade a viewer into believing the message is more authentic than something that was commercially printed.”

King added, “If you created the sign yourself then you had to put energy into it besides just showing up at a protest and someone handing you a poster. There’s a little more commitment on the demonstrator’s part, and they appear more committed to the cause.”

Brackett noted, “If the sign is printed and formal I can think of it more like art than I might a hand printed sign.”

Readers asked how a protest sign can become a work of art.

“Does cost have something to do with it?” Brackett wondered aloud. “How much is invested in a visual work of protest? I think all art has the potential to be political in some way since so much is done in reaction to what is going on in the world.”

Dandino pointed out, “Impressionism started as protest art. We think of it now as landscapes and people, not challenging the status quo, but it did. Time adds to our interpretation of art and works of protest.”

Readers wanted to talk about the line between political or cultural awareness and crass commercialism. Can artists be credited with doing their job if the art generates conversation and a profit?

“If the art gains more visibility and becomes more accessible, it means people are talking about it and they should be talking about it,” Kulig said. “Even if the end goals may not have been as pure as we wanted them to be or we didn’t share in the value system. The conversation is being continued.”

Attendees immediately started talking about the Nike ad with former NFL player Colin Kaepernick. “We can assume there will be a certain amount of people who will make money because they are in favor of politically charged action,” Brackett said. “Is that protest or just commercialism?”

Dandino asked, “Are our protests becoming commodified? People do vote with their dollars. We support our values through the things we buy.”

AUTHOR PHOTO. Bonnie Siegler_credit Ryan Christopher Jones.jpg
Author Bonnie Siegler File photo

When Siegler, an author and graphic designer, joined the conversation, the first question readers asked was why the book contained no protest images from the conservative right.

Siegler laughed. “Most protest art has a liberal or left-leaning bent and we don’t see much protest works from conservatives. Those not in power are the ones who tend to be protesting — the artists, writers, musicians. To be an artist and creative you have to have an open mind, built-in empathy. There seems to be a little less of that on the right.”

Readers asked Siegler about images that didn’t make it into the book. “My biggest regret is leaving out gay rights and Occupy Wall Street,” she said. “There were more whole categories that I had to leave out and some images I couldn’t get the rights to, so they couldn’t be included.”

Asked if there was a single image that stood out to her, Siegler pointed to the NAACP flag that hung over its Fifth Avenue headquarters in New York City throughout the 1930s. White uppercase letters on a dark background say: “A man was lynched yesterday.”

“This was a new image for many people in the North,” Siegler said. “It wasn’t a new image in the South, but it was in the North. And all the NAACP did was create a flag with a plain statement of fact.”

The most surprising discovery to Siegler while doing research in the National Archives was the number of protest posters against every ethnicity in America.

“At one time or another, one group was always being protested. EVERYBODY was the bad guy at some point in America’s history —Irish, Italians, Germans, Russians, blacks,” she said.

Siegler concluded the evening stating, “We all need to be on the same page. Let’s make the art together.”

Join the club

The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library present a book-of-the-moment selection every few weeks and invite the community to read along. To participate in a book discussion led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email Look in the Arts+Culture section Sept. 30 for the introduction to the next selection, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum. The discussion will be held at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 9 at the Kansas City Ballet’s Bolender Center.

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