Dictatorship, Democracy, and Design

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The Simon Wiesenthal Center has deplored comparisons of President Obama's health care plan logo with Third Reich insignia:
"It is preposterous to try and make a connection between the President's health care logo and the Nazi Party symbol, the Reichsadler," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

"Americans have every right to be critical of the President's health care plan but we demean ourselves and everything that America stands for when we compare either Democrats or Republicans to the Nazi Third Reich. Some of us may be too liberal and others too conservative, but none of us are Nazis," Rabbi Hier concluded.

Thumbnail image for NRA.JPGAgreed. But behind the cynical distortion, there's the disturbing fact that strong political graphics are more closely associated with dictatorial regimes than with democracy. That doesn't mean that America has cloned European totalitarian design directly; it does suggest that both New Deal and fascist symbols drew on a common Western modernist heritage. The National Recovery Administration (NRA), with its corporatist controls on American life, was criticized by the Left as well as by many business interests. Its logo does not seem to have been influenced by the Nazis. Its designer was no activist hothead but a respected advertising man, George Coiner of N. W. Ayer & Son, celebrated even now for introducing great artists and photographers into American commercial publicity. He even designed the font.
credit: Wikimedia Commons

Still, this poster, with its grasping statist talons and message of subordination to a national goal, has disturbing overtones to the post-World War Two mind, and the NRA was soon declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and it is even now a prime target of the New Deal's conservative and libertarian critics.

I asked my friend Steven Heller, author of a recent book on art and dictatorship, Iron Fists, about the New Deal. He replied in an e-mail that it was

...certainly rooted in similar aesthetics to the fascists and nazis - strong logos,  initials, posters galore. But it was our fascism, which means it was democracy at work.

Architecturally the U.S. built its early identity on Greece and on Roman monumentalism. Well, that was not dissimilar from the neo-classicism of the Fascists.

No place reflects this better than the main chamber of the Supreme Court itself. Cass Gilbert, the architect, considered Mussolini a great man. The historian Michael G. Kammen has described their mutual admiration society. Gilbert met personally with the Duce to assure the finest possible columns for the main chamber, according to an article in the 1976 Supreme Court Historical Society Yearbook:

As for the marble in the Courtroom itself, Gilbert felt that only the ivory buff and golden
marble from the Montarrenti quarries near Siena, Italy, would be beautiful enough for this room. So intent was he upon procuring the best quality marble that in May 1933, he met with Premier Mussolini in Rome to ask his assistance in guaranteeing that the Siena quarries sent nothing inferior to the official sample marble that he had selected and specified for use in the Supreme Courtroom.

Returning to the Obama health plan logo, the problem isn't authoritarian classicism. It's the adaptation of campaign brand identity to a program intended to cross lines of party and ideology. The dictatorships--communist as well as fascist--did have the habit of sharing symbols among agencies. The Nazis published color illustrated books of  official logos as guidelines. The party secretary Achille Starace wrote a Vademecum of Fascist Style. In the Soviet Union, the hammer and sickle collectively was such a versatile and ubiquitous theme that the Russian airline Aeroflot is still using it.

This heritage might be affecting, subliminally, the reception of the Obama health care logo. And there's another issue that has nothing to do with twentieth century tyrants. It's the staff with two coiled snakes. These (as Louis N. Magner wrote in A History of Medicine) represent not the one-serpent, wingless staff of Asclepius, the healer, but "the magic wand of Mercury, the messenger of the gods and patron of thieves and merchants."

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Asclepius, credit: Nina Aldin Thune, via Wikipedia Commons; Merury,  credit: Wikimedia Commons

So why not remove the disputed logo from the medical plan and recycle it for the financial ER of the Troubled Asset Relief Program?

StevenHeller interviewed the designer of the original Obama logo immediately after the election, and his blog recently reviewed some 1970s predecessors of the design, not remotely fascist but as reassuringly all-American as Ohio housing developments and California cheese. For more on design, ethics, and public life, see my conversation with Steven Heller in Print Magaine.

Top Photo Credit: Simon Wiesenthal Center release