Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Media & May 1968: Posters as an Instrument for Representation

By Jeff Jackson

The French student movement of May 1968 was brought about by a desire for social change and political reformation. The French society was bored under the conservative authority of Charles de Gualle, and hoped to experience some kind of social progression. The University of Paris established a campus at Nanterre, in hopes of being a site of academic and social modernity, yet these efforts for progress failed. The school continued to be stuck in the autocracy of the previous generation. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, and his followers known at Les Enragés, formed a group to demonstrate against the failed progression of France. The demonstrations, which eventually included crowds of ten million, were greatly influenced by the media, particularly the television media of the United States. The students at Nanterre looked at the students at UC Berkeley who were protesting the war in Vietnam as inspiration for the effectiveness of free speech and demonstration.

As the demonstrations grew, both sides of the movement—the French government and the students—used the media to disseminate their viewpoints. The French used their control over the media (television and radio) to emphasize the violence of the movement. This created a false representation of the movement’s message. In order to counterbalance this misrepresentation, the student movement produced pamphlets, papers, and posters. These posters, created by the students at the École des Beaux Arts, were used to provoke awareness and action. The artists of such posters stayed completely anonymous, in order to keep the focus on the movement as a collective, instead of the individual. Through seemingly simple graphics, the artist were able to “demand the impossible”. As an example, three posters (Une Jenuesse Que L’avenir inquiete trop souvent, Nous Sommes Tous Indesirables, and Le patron a besoin de toi; tu n’as pas besoin de lui) use words and graphics to serve as a meta language for the movement as a whole.

The posters from the movement were so successful in attracting participation that movents of the 1970s and 1980s mimicked this propaganda in hopes of having the same results. The posters have also been given a great amount of artistic publicity, and have been featured in countless exhibitions and galleries around the world. The posters, something which freely expressed the message of the movement, have been turned into a cultural commodity. The legacy at Nanterre as a site of political action remains strong to this day, and the legacy of May 1968 as a precedent for social reformation through poster art is equally as visible.

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