If we are meant to be remembering Soweto, we are somewhere in the late 1970s, nearing the end of the handmade political poster: one could also be remembering Vietnam, remembering Nixon, remembering so many things that brought people out onto the streets in their hundreds of thousands: vigils in front of the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square that continued for decades, Greenham Common, a massive 1980s women's encampment protesting the placing of Cruise missiles in the UK by the USA. Far from being some sort of golden, simpler era where men were men and women were cross and the Cold War was frozen in an impasse, the 1960-80s era, ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the impending release of Mandela, was hot and full of social movement and where those who are considered the elites now, the educated, the left-leaning, the experts and the professionals, had a serious voice.
But that's a long time ago now; one looks at the political posters of Paul Peter Piech to measure just how emasculated the alleged elites are now. This is why we look at the past, not through rose-tinted John Lennon glasses, but to measure where we are today and how we got here. One thing we no longer have is the political poster: we have political tweets — 140 characters with all the economy of the linocut and two colours of ink. Both can be devastatingly direct and inciting. The poster is not a long form essay; rather it puts out visual memes coded with references: above, identity and stigmata, violence and gun barrels held by hands, pointed at other hands, letters laboriously carved out of linoleum by hand, run off a press by hand, hands bleeding. The hand as synecdoche for a long form message.
Piech was an American posted to England during the war, married there and stayed. Some of his work was recently shown at the Peoples History Museum in Manchester. The exhibition was called Dedicated to all Defenders of Human Freedoms: The Art of Paul Peter Piech. I feel as if I am in a time warp: evidently this sort of thing still goes on, this valorisation of the alternative voice, not here, but at least somewhere, such as Manchester.
Piech's work is, by the by, quite beautiful. He was working up to his death in 1996. The 1995 poster below, The History of Jazz, still uses his laboriously-carved hand lettering. The sheer amount of time it takes to cut a letter, to fit the word to the space, to make a capital C hold a smaller letter – the process itself allows time to think. At the same time, to do a portrait as face and hands, the way that Sargent did a century before, cuts to the chase. The processes might be slow, but the message is quick and focussed. If there was ever a time that we needed fewer words dashed off hot-headedly on a phone by people who don't write particularly well, it is now. In the incoherent and very confusing cloud of words that surround us, perhaps the processes by which alternative voices will emerge will be like the political poster of the 1970s: deliberate and slow.