In Defense of Democracy


Curated by Maiza Hixson and Lucy Holtsnider

An exhibition of political posters inspired by American historian Timothy Snyder’s list of twenty ways to defend democracy. Exhibition on view through May 31. For more information or to schedule a visit to view the exhibition, email maizahixson@gmail.com.  

Posters free with suggested donation of $5 to be donated to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Opening at SBCAST Thursday, May 4, 2017, 5-9 pm, STUDIO E

Artists include: Eleanor Anderson, Eleanor Annand, Aaron Cohick, Cathy Ellis, Katy Ann Fox, Teal Francis, Walt Gerard, Maiza Hixson, Lucy Holtsnider, Jody Joyner, Zoe Klosterboer, Angelina Lapointe, Rebecca Levi, Elysia Mann, Madi Manson, Alex McClay, Nikki McClure, Claudio Orso, Sage Perrot, Beth Schaible

Link to Event Page

Reversing Trump’s Propaganda

Curatorial Essay by Maiza Hixson

In Defense of Democracy features twenty artists who employ the poster as a political medium, to agitate and create resistance against the reactionary forces threatening American civil rights. Approaching art from an activist standpoint, my fellow co-curator and artist Lucy Holtsnider invited select participants to illustrate one of acclaimed historian Timothy Snyder’s Twenty Ways to Defend Democracy. A scholar who has studied the foundations of Nazi Germany, Snyder’s recent book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the 20th Century is a cautionary rubric for thwarting fascism in America and the impetus behind this exhibition.

Throughout the past century, visual artists have designed iconic popular imagery for economic, racial and social justice movements. In the 1930s, Hungarian-American muralist Hugo Gellert designed lithographs for the Communist party and covers for the Daily Worker magazine, which championed labor rights for all, from the coalmines to the factory floor. Taking visual cues from modernist Russian Constructivist art and the photomontages of the Bauhaus, another leftist paper entitled Labor Defender also galvanized progressive groups around equality.

The most well known artist of the Black Panther movement, Emory Douglas, designed posters that borrowed styles and techniques from German artists like John Heartfield and George Grosz as well as Mexican artists like Jose Guadalupe Posada and Elizabeth Catlett.[1]

Canonical feminist groups such as the Guerilla Girls and Riot Grrrls have designed posters, flyers and zines that indict and critique male-dominated culture and confining gender roles for women. Kathleen Hanna, synonymous with feminist punk bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, was a punk zine writer and pioneer of the Riot Grrrls. In response to the movement as primarily white and middle class, women of color like Mimi Thi Nguyen designed zines that critiqued white supremacy within punk music culture.[2]  

With President Donald J. Trump’s proposed budgetary cuts to the National Institute of Health, Environmental Protection Agency and National Endowment for the Arts, artists, activists and people of all backgrounds across the United States have taken up pen and paintbrush to create protest signage. Famously, on the night before the D.C. Women’s March of January 21, 2017, stores such as Office Depot, Staples and Target were completely sold out of poster board, forcing some protestors to make signs out of moving boxes and other materials.[3]    

Making political protest signage provides a productive channel and release valve for frustrated citizens to voice their dissent. As an exhibition, In Defense of Democracy seeks to employ anti-fascist posters as an educational tool to motivate viewers to counteract oppression by understanding the specious language, branding and manipulation promulgated by Trump’s ministers of culture and propaganda. Underlying the political dissent implicit in each of the artists’ works on view in the exhibition is the concept that In Defense of Democracy serves to decry the ascendance of authoritarian regimes, both at home and abroad.

Read Snyder’s lessons from his latest book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century:

  1. Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.
  2. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.
  3. Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.
  4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.
  5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.
  6. Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps “The Power of the Powerless” by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.
  7. Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.
  8. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.
  9. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.
  10. Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.
  11. Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.
  12. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.
  13. Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.
  14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.
  15. Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.
  16. Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.
  17. Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.
  18. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)
  19. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.
  20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.

[1] Martha Schwendener, The New York Times, Seeing the Power of Political Posters, July 30, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/31/arts/design/seeing-the-power-of-political-posters.html

[2] Olivia Laing, The Guardian, The Art and Politics of Riot Grrrl in Pictures, June 29, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/music/gallery/2013/jun/30/punk-music

[3] Madison Park, CNN News, Looking for poster boards? DC shelves empty as women’s march nears, January 20, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/20/politics/womens-march-supplies-trnd/


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