Autumn 2001

Designing demons

Steven Heller
History [EXTRACT]

The rhetoric of hate provides ‘a new kind of meaning’

A dirty secret about graphic design is that it can promote hatred. The graphic language of loathing is every bit as pervasive as the International Style. While the aesthetic of enmity may not be rooted in any one particular typeface or composition, the rhetoric is consistent: verbal and visual hyperbole, caricature and stereotype, threat and agitation, all given concrete graphic form by designers and illustrators. Derogatory messages are not only the product of extremist and fringe groups: the vast majority of hate propaganda is government sanctioned and professionally produced.

Propaganda precedes technology as a means to soften otherwise rational minds into malleable clay. Hot and cold wars on a battlefield or in hearts and minds cannot be fought without the collaboration of people of conscience. Therefore, the process of demonic manufacture, wherein the object of abhorrence must be thoroughly stripped of its human characteristics is essential in securing mass hostility towards one group or another. ‘In the beginning we create the enemy,’ writes Sam Keen in Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination (Harper and Row, 1986), about the art and psychology of state coercion. ‘We think others to death and then invent the battle-axe or ballistic missiles with which to kill them.’

‘The war of icons, or the eroding of the collective countenance of one’s rivals,’ noted Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media in 1964, ‘has long been under way. Ink and photo are supplanting soldiery and tanks. The pen daily becomes mightier than the sword.’

Since the sixteenth century when Martin Luther, the father of propaganda, was portrayed as the devil in church-sanctioned cautionary prints, the archetypes of visual terror have progressed unabated. Summoning the Prince of Darkness may now seem outdated, particularly since devil worship is accepted as pop style, yet Satan, say its adversaries, appears in numerous guises. Vilification is often accomplished in the twentieth century by references both banal and nefarious. Through the visual lexicon of hate artists and designers employ the devil as the main or sub-text in allegories, transforming individuals and groups into beasts, criminals, torturers, rapists, defilers, and even death itself. The clichéd predictability of these unnerving symbols is what gives them sustained power. Even those who believe that Lucifer is little more than superstitious mumbo-jumbo are somehow conditioned to revile deadly sins and sinners, in part, because they represent our repressed personal transgressions. As Walt Kelly’s Pogo once said: ‘We have seen the enemy, and he is us.’

Fear triggers hatred and inflames ignorance, which the skilled propagandist converts into manifestations of terror. Whether in picture or word, the spectre of unspeakable harm cannot help but wreak havoc on the psyche. When wed to a particularly repellent depiction of a foe it is impossible for the susceptible to avoid being dragged into a state of antipathy, much in the way that well crafted villainous literary or film characters evoke intense animosity. Repetition becomes the artist’s primary tool in this process. The more an image or epithet (or visual epithet) is repeated the more indelible it becomes. The big lie is synthetic truth.

Of course, real truth is necessary to bolster extreme exaggeration. Wicked political leaders are expedient and justifiable prototypes, and violent organisations beg to be exposed as such. But purveyors of hate imagery routinely latch on to the lowest denominator and over-generalise a particular people or nation on the basis of a characteristic or trait already lurking in the minds of the audience. In us propaganda of the 1950s, Joseph Stalin, a genuine scoundrel, represented all Soviets – not merely the regime over which he lorded – because the US was engaged in a cold war against the entire Soviet system and by extension its citizenry. Not surprisingly, in Soviet propaganda Americans were portrayed as corrupt, corpulent money-grabbers often given the composite features of ‘typical’ capitalists. In the litany of hate everyone is tarred with the same brush. When seen as a mass of faceless types the enemy becomes more terrifying. In the design of hate condemning the guilty demands slandering the innocent.

At the outset of World War II, US propagandists, including designers and illustrators from the advertising industry, were drafted into the paper war against Axis Germany, Japan, and Italy to create and propagate odious stereotypes that subverted tenets of peacetime civility. The Office of War Information in Washington DC helped define the parameters of the depictions being fed to civilians at home and soldiers overseas. The methods were similar but the goals were different. Civilians had to be reminded of the ruthlessness of the enemy, while soldiers had to be encouraged to kill them without remorse. This was only accomplished through relentless dehumanisation. Yet the harshness of caricature was insidiously different between German / Italian and Japanese representations.

While both approaches were justifiably harsh, the propaganda showing white Europeans was less vicious than that for yellow Asians who were depicted as having exaggerated sinister, racial features. The Nazis and fascists were alternately illustrated as buffoonish (Hitler and Mussolini as clowns) or menacing (sabre-rattling warriors), but the Japanese, whether presented as buffoon or menace, invariably appeared more sub-human. In war, racist depictions are more endemic to the rhetoric of hate than any other form – the more stomach-turning the better.

A postcard issued in 1942 by the US Forest Service cautioning campers against accidentally igniting forest fires was typical of how the racist approach was introduced in all manner of public media. In this textbook study of visual enmity, Smokey the Bear is replaced by the quintessential Japanese demon: he was a buck-toothed, four-eyed (as though thick lens glasses somehow indicated inferiority), low-browed and pointy-eared soldier threateningly holding a lighted match. When placed in a number of other cautionary scenarios this archetype underscored the duplicity and savagery ascribed to the ‘yellow’ race. The marriage of the grotesque to the immoral in this portrayal was as powerful as a planeload of bombs and left similar scars. The ‘Japs’ could not be made to look any more preternatural. But since war is hatred run amok it gives licence for pent-up atavistic animosities that surge like a shot of adrenaline through the body politic. Extreme caricatures of the Japanese plumbed the depths of fear.

Designers and artists who perpetrated these stereotypes were themselves caught up in mass hysteria and their work reflected prejudices born of indoctrination. Some were opportunists while others were patriots. Some worked to fight evil, some perpetuated it. When Arthur Szyk, a Polish-born illustrator working in the US, produced various horrifying caricatures of Japanese emperor Hirohito and war minister Tojo during World War ii for mass-market magazines such as Collier’s, he believed that he was justly attacking the principal scourges of war through ridicule and derision, for which racism was a tool. When Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, ordered his German Propaganda Studio to twist vulgar anti-Semitic stereotypes into sub-human [Untermensch] depictions his motive was to incite callous treatment and justify extermination.

A now infamous poster for the pseudo-documentary film Der Ewige Jude, [The Eternal Jew], directed by the Nazi’s ‘anti-Jewish expert,’ Dr Eberhard Taubert, portrays a heinous caricature of a generic Chasidic Jew in long coat and skull-cap (the garments that for centuries distinguished this devout sect from more assimilated Jews), presented as an avaricious, cowardly fiend poised to devour the world. When pitted against high German culture the obvious message was that the Jew was a defiler, and therefore the target of permissible malice. Hitler expounded, ‘The Jew has destroyed hundreds of cultures, but built none of his own.’ Goebbels’ (1) propagandists derived certain Jewish stereotypes from myths such as The Golem taken from Jewish lore, in the same way as many derogatory racial stereotypes were inspired by venerable and indigenous tales and stories elsewhere. The Jew was portrayed as barbarous and perverted in the most infamous of all Nazi hate propaganda: an SS booklet called The Subhuman, a manual of hatred and loathing that viewed its victims as vermin.

‘Civilisation is a constant struggle to hold back the forces of barbarism,’ writes Sam Keen. ‘… The barbarian, the giant running amok, the uncivilised enemy, symbolise power divorced from intelligence …’ So the graphic lexicon of hate abounds with metaphor and allegory in which the barbarism of any opponent is made concrete through images of vicious anthropomorphic beasts – polemical werewolves – the embodiment of bloodthirsty wickedness. Never mind that in wars, each side resorts to barbarism. Never mind that the vocabulary of hate invariably uses barbarism to ‘fight’ barbarism. In the propaganda war the victor is the nation that claims God is on its side and invents the most mnemonic and horrific image of its enemy. In World War I the US artists and designers under the watchful art direction of Charles Dana Gibson at the Committee on Public Information invented images (bolstered by rumours of German savagery against civilians) that depicted German troops as even more venal than those later in World War ii. The ‘Hun’, an ape-like beast with blood soaked canines clutching young female hostages (implying that rape was an instrument of policy), was the veritable poster child of hate. This model existed until the 1960s when, ironically, superhero cartoons such as X-Men turned similarly frightening creatures into sympathetic anti-heroes.

War is not the sole rationale for institutional, graphic hatred. In fact, there is no greater motivator than apprehension of ‘otherness’, and no more effective imagery, once again, than ethnic and racial stereotypes that exacerbate the suspicions of insecure people. Absurd racial stereotypes have historically been (and still are) used as benign commercial symbols in comics, advertisements and packages, even logos, but when similar caricatures are tweaked with just a hint of menace, such as a lustful gaze or dramatic shadow, they switch from benign comedy into vengeful attack. It takes very little effort on the part of designers to open the Pandora’s box of offensive graphics. In recent years, given oil crises and terrorist bombings, Arabs have been caricatured in the US in a manner recalling anti-Semitic cartoons of earlier times. Such images have doubtless influenced a common view of these people as a whole. The single derogatory picture often negates a thousand positive words.

‘Hate-driven imagery cannot, by definition, be produced by groups open to debate or transparency,’ says Dan Walsh, director of The Justice Project, which uses graphics to teach freedom and tolerance. Yet not all images designed to elicit hatred are lies or exaggerations. Though always odious, in certain paradoxical instances hate messages can expose reality in order to elicit protest against evil. Depending on where one stood along the ideological divide in the late 1960s for or against the Vietnam War, the graphics that offered evidence of US atrocities toward civilians provoked enmity towards American leaders (and sometimes even soldiers in the field). The famous news photograph by R. Haeberle of the aftermath of the massacre of 21 women and children in the remote hamlet of My Lai, vividly showing lifeless bodies lying in a ditch after troops led by Lt William Calley cut them down, was produced as an anti-war poster with the headline, ‘Q: And babies? A: And babies.’ Because it so totally contradicted the civilised image that Americans held of themselves, the poster became a call to pity the victims and hate the perpetrators of the war. Similarly, photographs coming from Vietnam and published in underground periodicals showing soldiers holding severed Viet Cong heads as trophies were intended to foster as the same rage as did the pictorial evidence of World War II atrocities. These visuals of demonic acts did not have to be designed or manipulated in any way – supposedly the camera did not lie. Yet designers had to intervene with the material so that there would be no ambiguity in the message.

‘Hate / rage / revolt imagery is often the most graphically charged because there is no operational code of conduct in place between the combatants – no taboos are recognised,’ argues Dan Walsh. Nor is there any mystery, allusion, or subtlety in this form of address. The language of hate leaves no room for interpretation. It is good or bad, black or white. It is never neutral. ‘Propaganda allows us to exteriorise the battle,’ writes Sam Keen, ‘project the struggle within the psyche into the realm of politics.’ The design of demonic representations is a battle rooted in obsession, and perhaps more insidious than what Marshall McLuhan had called ‘the old hot wars of industrial hardware.’

Steven Heller, design writer, New York

First published in Eye no. 41 vol. 11, 2001

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