Saturday, May 17, 2008

Worth A Thousand Words

“I like America, just as everybody else does. I love America, I gotta say that. But America will be judged.”-Bob Dylan

Everybody has heard the old cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words. But are those words worth more if the picture is on a poster? A poster is much more likely to be seen by the general public than other types of art. A person does not have to go into a museum or gallery to see a poster. Rather, they can be found almost anywhere, including store windows, telephone booths, and school hallways. Most of the time, posters make their messages quite clear. You don’t have to think too hard to understand the meaning of a poster which says “Buy extra war bonds” in large, bold letters. However, do people really consider what poster’s say about our culture and society as a whole? Questions like this are explored in the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibit, Ballyhoo: Posters as Portraiture.

In answer to the above question, my answer would be a simple no. I live in a dorm room, and of course, the white walls would look absolutely horrific if we did not decorate them. So covering our walls are posters of our favorite artistic masterpieces, athletes, musicians, and actors. Yet as far as I know, not many college students take time out of their day to contemplate the significance of what they put on their walls. Nevertheless, in my opinion, a poster tells not only about an individual’s likes and values, but also about the society of which they are part. Posters can tell about society’s standards and ideals, and because posters are so easily produced and distributed, this message is quickly transported around the world. A poster of a celebrity, Johnny Depp, for example, gives the world an insight into the American concept of success and attractiveness. A political poster on the other hand can reveal a state of unrest or a general satisfaction on the part of the people.

The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibit makes this point by displaying a variety of posters from America’s past and present. The oldest images are those of broadsides and theater handbills, the most primitive developments in the evolution of posters. Other posters reveal national pride as Americans rallied behind World War II. In quite the opposite fashion, posters from the 1960s display frustration with the government and world affairs. A well known image of Bob Dylan, for example, has come to be seen as the icon of the era and a representation of the growing counterculture. Still more modern works reflect on current trends and popular figures in American culture. While all these posters tell their own story and have an individual meaning, the entire collection together makes a stronger point. It shows how a type of art which most people take for granted can tell so much about a culture and spread its message to the entire world.

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