Monday, January 18, 2010

Complex Simplicity: The Art of the Political Poster

"Stop: Yes to Outlawing Minarets"
(Image from New York Times)

Some readers will recall a couple of recent posts on the Swiss referendum that successfully forbade the construction of additional minarets in Switzerland beyond the four already constructed. In those two posts, I stated that I didn't quite understand the logic (Why ban merely minarets if Islam is the putative danger?), but I also added that the controversy might lead to a discussion of the double standard held by Islamic lands that forbid churches or place various restrictions upon them.

An article in the New York Times by Michael Kimmelman, "When Fear Turns Graphic" (January 14, 2010), doesn't deal with these issues but does provide a fascinating account of just how complex is the process of creating a simple political poster designed to target an audience that is "low income, with little schooling," in the very words of the man who designed the poster in question.

That would be Swiss People's Party member Alexander Segert, whose explanation of the process by which the above poster was created is recounted by Kimmelman:
There were some early all-text trials, he recalled, which looked too wordy. One version showed missiles without the woman, another, the woman in a burqa, without eyes. "That was too impersonal," Mr. Segert said. He and his colleagues, adding eyes, then debated what should be behind them. "Should they look sexy, not sexy?" he said. "To me the look we decided on is less aggressive than helpless."

It can also be read the other way around. Mr. Segert added that, instead of the Swiss flag, the Matterhorn was tried, but the mix of minarets with the woman in a niqab and the mountain created confusion. Without the mountain, he said, the image, "could have been Istanbul or Dubai."

"There was nothing wrong," he continued, "nothing to disturb the view."

But a flag solved that. "Minarets and the Swiss flag sent the message we wanted because they don't fit together. A person looks and thinks, 'This must be changed.'"

A certain person, anyway. The final poster, though heavy-handed, performs a complex task. The image of minarets beside the woman in the niqab stirs up a negative feeling among target voters. "No, I don't want minarets because I will find myself living under Sharia law," the viewer decides. But the referendum to ban minarets required a yes vote. "It's always easier to do a campaign for a no vote," Mr. Segert noted, "because people instinctively want to maintain the status quo. It's what they already know. With a yes vote you need some positive symbol. But we had only this negative one, of minarets and Sharia.

"So we needed some bridge, some transition from no to yes."

The designers experimented with the word "Verbieten," meaning to forbid, but this turned out to look too complicated. The obvious solution, arrived at after a few false starts, was simply, "stop."

The word performs a double role, emphasizing the initial message (stop minarets) then causing a viewer, when arriving at the word, mentally to stop, be free to switch gears and register "yes," written just below "stop." That is, vote yes.

"So there are three steps to the image," Mr. Segert concluded. "Minarets lead to Sharia. No to minarets. Yes to the referendum."

"It looks simple," he said, staring at the finished image.

"But that's the art of it."
Segert is certainly right that the finished image is aesthetically brilliant in its use of simple, even minimalist art to effect a complex mental process in an audience that is "low income, with little schooling," even if the premise, that "Minarets lead to Sharia," is dubious.

What minarets do accomplish is an architectural dominance more noticeable in European than American cities, for the former have fewer highrise buildings, and minarets therefore endow European cities visually with a less European, more Islamic character. Consequently, Europe appears to be moving toward sharia even if minarets do not inevitably lead that way.

I would like to have learned more about Mr. Segert and the Swiss People's Party. Wikipedia gives some information about the latter, noting that it was originally a farmers' party but characterizing it currently as "a populist, national conservative political party in Switzerland . . . . with . . . emphasis on free markets and European identity," as well as offering details of the minaret controversy, but provides nothing on Mr. Segert. Kimmelman's article itself says very little about him:
A 46-year-old German (yes, an immigrant himself in Switzerland), he is the father of two adopted children from North Africa, although he declined to talk about his personal life.
I presume that Mr. Segert is not Muslim, but most North Africans are Muslim, and Islamic law has particular restrictions on adoption anyway, so I am curious about this detail of his life, which must have some influence upon his views about Islam. I suspect that Kimmelman doesn't know enough about Islam to pose such a question, for the query need not be overly personal.

Back in the latter 1980s, I had a very politicized Swiss girlfriend from the left-leaning city of Basel who could probably fill my ears with details about Mr. Segert, but our conversations ended with the the end of our relationship, so in lieu of my old ex-girlfriend Monika, perhaps some of my readers could fill me in about Mr. Segert.

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At 3:49 PM, Anonymous erdal said...

Segert is the grey eminence of the Swiss People's Party, with clear strategic influence, not a hired gun advertsement/PR man . He's also working "on loan" with the FPÖ, the Austrian equivalent of the Swiss SVP.

Segert was clearly pulling the NYT's Mr. Kimmelman's leg: The "[I'd] gladly do for the Green Party or Social Democrats, if they hired [me]" thing is a line he's been using for years on ill-prepared journalists.

He came into the SVP party from his anti-drug/child protection work he'd been doing before in the context of a mildly bizarre, long established, but somewhat sect-like christian outfit that was preoccupied with Alfred Adler's psychological ideas. Thus his anti-immigrant angle: drug pushing is immigrant business exclusively.

Rumour has it that his adopted "north-african" daughters (may be only one, in fact) were/was born in Switzerland to a Swiss women and an Algerian father and were/was orphaned under unclear drug/violence-related circumstances.

Segert is apparently effective, but much disliked even by political allies for being stiff, abrasive and weird in an evil-genius way at odds with both his youthful appearance and traditional swiss ways.

At 5:23 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Erdal. I thought that Kimmelman seemed a bit out of his depth even though the article was interesting.

Slightly off topic, but I have to say that the International Herald Tribune has gotten a quantum jump more interesting ever since it went completely over to being the international edition of the New York Times. I spend far more time reading closely these days due to the many articles with greater depth and better style.

But I don't keep up with the Euro-News as much as when I lived in Germany and read three or four newspapers a day, two of them in German . . . or tried to.

By the way, you might be interested in a couple of comments that some fellow left here.

Jeffery Hodges

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