“City of Lights, City of Fonts” is a blog and visual diary created by ArtSlant’s Georgia Fee Artist-in-Residence, Ali Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald will explore France’s evolving visual relationship to propaganda, looking deeply at aesthetics of nationalism and politicized otherness. With sketches, writing, and graphic vignettes, she will document fonts, signage, and France's history of drawing as activism.
In his book, A Little Guide to the 15th Arrondissement for the Use of Phantoms, Roger Caillois examines the sleepy district in Paris where he grew up, the same district where I’m staying now.
I bought the book imagining a witchy, postmodern guide to my new home, but actually, Caillois’ “phantom beings” are symbols. They are stand-ins for immigrants and asylum-seekers, étrangers who were driven from their homes in the 15th Arrondissement as the Seine’s waterfront was being developed. The book itself is a bizarrely fascinating take on psychic architecture and the impact of space on our memory. He’s especially fond of narrow buildings, which are seemingly incapable of housing anything truly fleshy.
Caillois describes a childhood in Paris in the 20s and 30s which was covered in gigantic, painted advertisements and posters.
With the prominence and ease of poster-making in the 20th century, France’s former glories could suddenly be used not only to recruit people for war efforts, but also to sell products.
The link between national icons, patriotism, propaganda, and advertising is a relatively strong one. But it brings up a foggier question: is advertising always a form of propaganda?
Even if there were a metric to measure (dis)honesty in advertising, visuals are slippery and not beholden to the same rules as written text. It’s pretty clear that advertising and political propaganda frequently exchange the same visual strategies: seductive women, burly men, and awakened national sentiment.
In How Propaganda Works, Jason Stanley argues that advertising is especially propagandistic when it aims to sell us products that are harmful or irrelevant. This is depressingly clear in the omnipresent promise of beautiful women in ads, or the bizarre appropriation of a Martin Luther King speech in a Dodge Ram commercial.
Both advertising and propaganda seek to simplify: to make things black and white, good versus evil. In advertising, the perfect life awaits you at the bottom of a bottle of Pernot. In political propaganda, viewers are threatened with the loss of the old world order to something or someone “evil.”
Next time, I’ll go into this (over)simplification a bit more. In the meantime, please enjoy this belated Valentine-slash-World-War-I-propaganda-poster of the Kaiser kissing the devil.
Tags: #GeorgiaFeeResidency artist-in-residence comics Ali Fitzgerald Paris, drawing, figurative, realism