Poster credit: Tandem

Posters for the Green New Deal unveiled by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez strongly evoke a famous Depression-era federal art program.

Updated: August 31, 2019

On Friday, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave Twitter users a look at two new posters her office is issuing to promote the Green New Deal, apparently the beginning of a series of GND-themed posters:

The posters were designed by the New York firm Tandem, which was also behind the congresswoman’s election campaign. Scott Starrett, a co-founder of Tandem, created them with artist Gavin Snider. Starrett said that more posters, of local parks in cities other than New York, will follow, but the timing of their release is uncertain.  

If the posters seem at first glance to have a retro vibe, you’re not wrong, as the congresswoman confirmed in a follow-up tweet. The chunky all-caps type, the emphasis on places of natural beauty, and even the color palettes are intended to evoke posters produced nearly a century ago by a singular federal program in American history: the Federal Art Project, an office of the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration. (The program survived the termination of the WPA for a few years within a new agency, the Federal Works Administration.)

Check out the high-speed train coming to Queens. (Tandem)

The Federal Art Project was one of five cultural initiatives, known collectively as Federal One, that employed out-of-work writers, musicians, artists, and actors. Over the eight years of its existence, the project’s thousands of artists produced a staggering amount of public art, including 108,000 paintings, 17,000 sculptures, and 2,500 murals. Some 35,000 poster designs were part of that output.

The posters served manifold purposes, from advertising dramatic productions, agricultural fairs, and community art classes, to issuing public-health warnings about tuberculosis testing and workplace hazards. In the program’s final years, after the United States had entered World War II, artists designed posters with messages urging citizens to be on the alert and to support the war effort.

Ad for theatrical production, artist unknown, 1937. (Library of Congress)
Artist unknown, 1941. (Library of Congress)

Perhaps the best-recognized Federal Art Project posters today, though, are the ones from the 1930s that advertised national parks and monuments. Often rendered in pastel and earth tones, they conveyed the majesty of landscapes like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone in a style that was modern and romantic at once.

Starrett said the WPA parks posters were his inspiration, describing them to CityLab as “extremely well known and revered in design circles, and among enthusiasts of public parks as well. ... Even if people can’t articulate it, they tend to respond to the reference. I think they’ve seeped into our culture.” He added that he felt a connection to artist C. Don Powell, who designed the two posters below, because he was from Kansas, and so is Starrett.

Designed by C. Don Powell, 1938. (Library of Congress)
Designed by C. Don Powell, 1938. (Library of Congress)

The new GND posters more than nod to these forerunners—they even replicate their distinctive “gaspipe” lettering. It’s not hard to see why Ocasio-Cortez and other framers of the Green New Deal wanted to tap into this history. Most obviously, the artistic homage helps position the GND as the successor to the original New Deal, which GND advocates have tried to do rhetorically as well as visually. The posters also remind us that a not-insignificant focus of the New Deal was the protection of natural resources. The Civilian Conservation Corps, for example, enrolled a total of 3 million young men who helped manage forests and carried out projects to control soil erosion and prevent floods, among other tasks. The parallel with the climate-resilience vision of the GND is clear.

Asked how he hopes people will respond to the posters, Starrett said, using the example of the Pelham Bay Park one, “Ideally, they will see it and feel good feelings about it. Then they’ll look a litle deeper, and see there’s light rail and windmills in the back, and there’s an appreciation of nature and of art and of public space. Perhaps they’ll go to that park, and think about the people that made the park possible—and what can they make possible?”

With the GND constantly assailed as radical, the retro posters nudge viewers to recall that big, federal-government-led plans have a long history in the U.S. Of course, like the New Deal as a whole, the Federal Art Project had plenty of detractors in its day (including some government officials), who said it was wasteful and accused its artists of harboring un-American sympathies. (Some WPA-era artistic controversies are still going on, as the recent debate over this mural in San Francisco shows.) When conservative Twitter users shot back at AOC that the posters look like Soviet propaganda, that was history repeating itself, again.

Starrett is bemused by the Soviet comparison: He thought including the Unisphere from the 1964 World’s Fair and the statue on top of the Bronx Victory Memorial, which commemorates servicemen who died in World War I, was a way to highlight American themes. But he thinks the deep familiarity of the WPA posters might be one reason for it. People know they’ve seen the look before, they’re just not sure where. “A lot of people seem to be going out of their way to place it,” he said. “I think there’s something to that. Kind of like an earworm in music.”

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