Assessing the art of the Occupy movement

December 5, 2011

The Occupy movement is largely an impromptu one, and its camps in McPherson Square and nationwide are dotted with handmade signs, bearing information both political and practical. But this is the age of computer design, when slick images are easily produced and generally accepted. As the online gallery at occuprint.org reveals, the Occupy movement has more than a few skilled graphic designers in its informal ranks.

The Occupiers don’t have a single agenda, so there’s no way any of the posters can be off message. The images advocate for the homeless, Medicare recipients and college graduates with large student-loan debts. One seemingly bold sign endorses the repeal of the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision, but in smaller print adds, “We don’t make demands, so this is just a suggestion.”

Many of the images are stronger than a suggestion, however. Occupy’s fundamental, if unofficial, target is wealth and its power, most often embodied by the “Charging Bull” statue that stands near Wall Street. Occupy’s artists depict the beast being lassoed, castrated, exploded, eviscerated by a bear and — more than once — being segmented as in a butcher-shop chart of steaks, chops and roasts. It’s an easily recognizable image, although one that may not amuse vegetarian Occupiers.

The bull clearly represents Wall Street, even for protesters who are camped far from Manhattan. The muscular bronze animal also bespeaks arrogance, which makes it ideal for Occupy’s purposes. One witty Occuprint poster depicts greed as a statue of the Monopoly game’s iconic plutocrat, which is being toppled by a crowd the way monuments to Stalin and Saddam Hussein came down in recent memory. Disney’s attorneys aside, Scrooge McDuck would also work. But the bull is better, and not just because it’s not a cartoon character. The 11-foot-high Wall Street beast is hard-edged, outsized and heedless, just like certain investment firms.

Youth uprisings, even ones without demands, tend to look to their predecessors for imagery. So the Occupy posters include many clenched fists, an emblem identified with the late ’60s and early ’70s New Left. (Its use actually dates at least as far back as the Industrial Workers of the World in the early 20th century.) One of the most striking placards, which warns that “when you’re in riot gear, everything looks like a riot,” employs blotchy black type on a bright yellow backdrop, evoking the visual style of late ’70s punk. A few signs, including one with the cosmic tagline “Occupy Our Lives,” draw on another perennial influence: the oh-wow look of ’60s psychedelia.

Aside from the bull and the word “occupy,” the dominant motif is the 99 percent “us” vs. the 1 percent “them.” “We are the 99 percent,” insist several of the signs; “Time’s up for the 1 percent,” advises one. That math may be roughly correct, and these posters do show a global appeal; there’s even one from Occupy Jakarta. But the placards’ confrontational graphics is a minority taste. It’s meant for people who dream of being on the barricades, not for the ones who’d rather watch on TV when the tyrant’s statue topples.

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

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