Snapping Us Out of Our Trance

Credit: Klaus Staeck; Left headline: North-South Conference Right Headline: The Rich Must get Richer

Credit: Klaus Staeck; Left headline: North-South Conference Right Headline: The Rich Must get Richer


Originally published in Applied Arts Magazine, 2015



Canada's political attack ads are rather well, Canadian. Where is all of the subversive graphic art?

As election season revs into high gear, Canadians are once again bracing themselves for weeks and weeks of lame TV spots, pathetic attack ads and impossible promises.

Where is the counterpoint to all this propaganda? Where is Klaus Staeck when we need him? Where is our John Heartfield? Our Shepard Fairey?

If you haven’t already Googled him, Staeck is a German lawyer turned graphic designer who, beginning in the ’60s and ’70s, has built a distinctive oeuvre of activist political poster art. Staeck is a passionate social democrat and critic who has always been unafraid to confront the forces of government and business head-on with uncompromising imagery.

Credit: Klaus Staeck

Credit: Klaus Staeck

At his height, he was the Charlie Hebdo of his day, and although he was never in the same mortal danger, his incendiary commentary and stark simplicity got him into many court battles. He is a front-line warrior in the fight against poverty, environmental degradation and political hypocrisy. He’s also a good lawyer: even though he has been sued 41 times, no opponents have ever been able to legally prevent him from continuing his work.

Staeck belongs to a tradition of activist graphic design begun by another German, John Heartfield. Born Helmut Herzfeld, he anglicized his name in 1917 as a form of protest against the anti-English sentiments then prevalent in Germany. He is known for his pioneering work in photomontage, which he used to great effect in his protests against the rise of fascism, and in particular, of Adolf Hitler and his crew of Nazi butchers.

Credit: John Heartfield. Left: “  The Meaning of the Hitler Salute: Little Man Asks for Big Gifts”; right, “Reading the Bourgeois Press Makes you Blind”

Credit: John Heartfield. Left: “The Meaning of the Hitler Salute: Little Man Asks for Big Gifts”; right, “Reading the Bourgeois Press Makes you Blind”

No such tradition exists in English Canada. There were scant examples of this kind of work seen in the last two Quebec referenda, but those can be linked to the graphic activism covering the walls of Paris during the violent street protests of 1968. Nous anglo-Canadiens have never seen this "brand" of incendiary imagery on the streets of Toronto or Vancouver.

And what a shame that is. This federal election is the most important and exciting one we have had in decades. Our country has been reshaped to conform to the Stephen Harper’s narrow and backward-looking conservatism. The institutions upon which democracy depends for its integrity — from Elections Canada to the Supreme court — have all come under attack by a power-mad PMO. The prime minister, who once apparently said, “You won’t recognize Canada when I am through with it,” has lived up to his promise. Never has democracy been so thin on the ground in this country.

Across the border, the state of democracy isn’t much better. Robber barons like the Koch brothers line the pockets of politicians to prevent any policy that might infringe on their right to run a profit. In the case of the Kochs, that profit is all generated by coal and oil, which means that the greed of two very wealthy individuals is all it takes to stand in the way of any action on climate change.

But at least the US has Shepard Fairey, the former street artist-turned-graphic activist who was made famous by his much-imitated "HOPE" poster of Barack Obama.


Fairey, like Heartfield and Staeck, has used his formidable artistic talent to attack the military industrial complex and raise awareness of social justice issues. In a recent New York Times article he explained himself thus: “My mantra has always been ‘question everything.’ I’m not just trying to seduce people with an image, I’m trying to snap them out of a trance.”

I think Klaus Staeck and John Heartfield would agree with that mission. Too bad there’s no one in this country who has that kind of graphic courage. Because we sorely need it. wn

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