Posters are one of the most vivid and important kinds of public “face” that the urban ag movement presents to the public. I’m giving a workshop @ UCLA this weekend, to members of student food collectives from all over California, discussing this very issue–the public face of urban ag, as seen through its posters. I see posters as the visual equivalent of an apostrophe–the poetic device that in love poems, pop songs and here–in propaganda posters–addresses itself to you, and beseeches you to do something, write yourself into a story. Ideally, a story that involves a dialogue with the person who wrote it.
Much of this research is informed by my work excavating kinds of “rhetorical activism” deployed by writers, designers and politicos in modern Japan to make connections between text and world. It also draws on much recent work by Japanese feminists on the role of woman on the home front during wartime.
Here is one of the posters, dating from 1918, that has long been on my mind. Note the imperative, with exclamation, in the address.
The visual style of Liberty combines tropes of Columbia with the look of Lillian Gish.
Other posters of the day use human figures in their compositions, like this familiar fellow.
Sam is not so closely tied to the act of doing as Liberty is. The headline emphasizes his role in exhorting–he “says,” but does not plant.
The first poster is especially interesting to me because of the complex of icons it uses and cites–tons of neo-classical referents (Athena, Ceres), as well as other national symbols (Marianne). The statuesque nature and draped cloth, though, suggest something more along the lines of Columbia. Her image–the personification of America, just as Marianne personifies France–is likely familiar from movie credits.
And here is where things get interesting in terms of historiography, and in the way that the poster conjures as well as eclipses a community of roused, participating, planting citizens.
It turns out that the person who brought the classical rhetoric of poetics into dialogue with the contemporary American scene was none other than Phillis Wheatley–the (eventually) freed slave who was the first published African American poet, and a key neo-classical poet in the genre at large. She invented the trope of the Columbiad in a poem she wrote that was an apostrophe to George Washington, in 1775, when the United States were not yet a bona fide nation.
You can read the full text of the poem, “To His Excellency, General Washington,” here. But for now, here are the first two stanzas, with flourishes of militant Athena fortified by heavenly authority:
Celestial choir! enthron’d in realms of light,
Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.
While freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms,
She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.
See mother earth her offspring’s fate bemoan,
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!
See the bright beams of heaven’s revolving light
Involved in sorrows and the veil of night!
The Goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,
Olive and laurel binds Her golden hair:
Wherever shines this native of the skies,
Unnumber’d charms and recent graces rise.
I would like to think about what this kind of claim on the president–an issue very much on time, given Michelle Obama’s symbolic stand on gardening and nutrition–might imply for the kind of public face we see and respond to in urban ag movements today.