Back in the late 1980s I was friends with a guy who was the manager of a failing rock band in the Soviet Union. The band he managed was not all that good (I translated one of their songs into English but apparently that wasn’t enough for them to gain international stardom), but this guy was smart, and somehow or other he succeeded in getting permission to travel to the US (that was difficult in the late 1980s). When he did, he did something that was absolutely brilliant.

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Before going to America, this guy bought a whole bunch of Soviet propaganda posters. At the time, those posters cost something like the equivalent of 10 cents each (and no one in the Soviet Union wanted them). He then brought them to NYC and sold them on the street for $10 each (where people were crazy for them). As a result, he made a ton of money, and he then used that money to spend a couple of months traveling all around the USA.

I wish I could remember that guy’s name (I can still see us drinking vodka together in an apartment in Leningrad), because I think he was probably the first person in the world to capitalize on “Communist chic-ness” (and since then he’s probably capitalized on a lot of other things so my guess would be that he is now living on the French Riviera or some place like that – so hey, if you ever read this, my friend, contact me, I’m still poor!!).

In the years that followed, other people figured out how to capitalize on the Communist chic aesthetic. In Hanoi, for instance, there has long been a store that sells Vietnamese propaganda posters (that the people there remake). And now you can buy all this stuff online (oh, life is so boring now).

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However, what the world has yet to discover (ok, maybe there is still some excitement left in life) is American propaganda art. The United States Information Service (USIS) produced a lot of this stuff in the 1950s and 1960s. I’ve recently realized that some of this material has been digitized and is available on the US National Archives web site. The material that is there is amazing, and I will introduce some of it here over the course of the next few days and weeks.

Let’s start with this image:

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“THIS is the policy of the Communist Việt Minh of loving/cherishing their mountain compatriots.”

Ok, I get the point, but this imagery is crazy.

First, the checkered vest on the Communist soldier – that looks kind of cool. Second, the semi-naked mountain woman with her scanty pink clothing and her naked breasts – she looks kind of sexy. And then we have the whip. . .

So rather than presenting a convincing image of “suffering” (the intended message, I hope), something “erotic” is getting conveyed here, and that distracts from the intended message.

And that makes images like this tragic because the people who lived in the mountains of Mainland Southeast Asia suffered at everyone’s hands in the period of the Indochina Wars, and an image like this does not take the suffering of those people seriously.

At the same time, I think this is a beautiful piece of art.

So if you want to make money and end up living with my Russian friend on the French Riviera, then start selling copies of American propaganda art like this. I won’t compete with you. I’m destined to remain poor.