William Drenttel | Slideshows

Thoughts on Democracy, July 4 2008

During the summer of 1942, the American painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell embarked on a series of paintings that would come to be known as "The Four Freedoms." Inspired by an impassioned speech President Roosevelt had made a year earlier, this quartet of images — freedom from want, from fear, freedom of speech and of worship — were published in The Saturday Evening Post the following winter, and remain among Rockwell's most celebrated works. They were also highly effective as a means of social impact. The Office of War Information distributed thousands as posters, and a 16-city tour of the paintings was seen by 1.2 million people, raising over $130 million dollars in war bonds. Writing in The New Yorker a few years later, one critic noted that as a series, these paintings were received by the American public with more enthusiasm, perhaps, than any other paintings in the history of American art.

Obviously, "The Four Freedoms" were not just art — they were propaganda in a time of war. The tension between the two has been embraced by the Wolfsonian Museum at Florida International University, which has commissioned 60 designers to design a new work inspired by Norman Rockwell’s posters. The exhibition, Thoughts on Democracy, opens today in Miami (tomorrow being July 4th, Independence Day in the U.S.). Certain designers have followed the four-poster, four-freedoms model; some have chosen one of Roosevelt's four themes; and others have selected new freedoms, things neither envisioned by Franklin Delano Roosevelt nor by Norman Rockwell. The following is a selection of the commissioned posters.

Play Slideshow >>

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Illustration, Politics

Comments [19]

some of these look kinda phoned in, as is the case with a lot of
commissioned poster shows. why does it always seem that way?
brian Alter

I'm guessing, but presumably once designers were commissioned, (clearly by drawing from a predictable list of big names), there was no jurying or curatorial process to evaluate the strength of the specific work submitted by each of the chosen designers. That leaves the participants in the luxurious position of being free to either work hard at the assignment or simply "phone it in." That said, there's seems to be at least some strong work alongside the predictable, phoned in solutions.
I presume the organizers of the exhibition feel that the selection of names lends cachet to the exhibition and authority to the work. But, one cannot help but wonder if a juried event--one that's not by invitation only--would produce stronger work.
Rob Henning

If the work was selected by artists names only then it stands to
reason ones work IS only as good as your name. As I pealed
through the images I was indeed struck by how many seemed flat
and lifeless. I looked through the images without looking at the
names... It's better that way, I mean not knowing, so as to protect
the innocent.

Michael Jekot

Wow... amazingly bland stuff.

Yeah, most of these are very... not exciting. I'm wondering if any innovation is left in anti-war/protest graphic design, or if it's all been milked since the start of the Bush administration. Some of these are worse than the projects I saw in my design classes when we had politics-related assignments.
Design Benign

I am truly surprised. I am a junior at an art college and the freshmen work shows more inspiration and innovation then half of these lifeless pieces. Isn't liberty, freedom, and democracy suppose to mean something and convey emotion? I guess not in our day and age...

There were a few that made me smile, but almost only because it was refreshing to see at least a few meaningful pieces in this pile of rubble. That is sad.
Sara Stollings

I think Sara has a good point: Words like liberty, freedom and democracy have become hollow to me. To "defend" liberty, freedom and democracy governments are taking away those three things in their "war on [anything they don't like these days]". This made me realised the true threats to freedom, liberty and democracy hold office in most "western" countries (I'm from a european country where the current government is a bit too eager to please allies.)

I think creatives should be observers and visionaries and do something with that. The majority of the displayed results show neither of those virtues.

I don't like those Norman Rockwell posters either to be honest: too WASPy so to say (but that was the mindset those days).

These invitational exercises usually have open-ended, more or less
purposeless briefs that tend to engender soft responses (and I like
these more than most, to tell you the truth.)

One of the reasons that Rockwell's originals have endured is that
they weren't simply visual meditations on the concept of freedom.
They were promotional tools to sell War Bonds. The artistry is all in
the service of accomplishing a very specific, concrete goal. I think
most designers need that kind of challenge to bring out their best

Happy Fourth of July.
Michael Bierut

Wow, what interesting work.
— — — —
With sixty leading contemporary artists and designers and Steven Heller as a Curatorial Consultant, what could be so bad this Fourth of July? It sounds like a dream project for Cathy Leff and Tim Hossler.
— — — —
Lupton and Winterhouse and many of the artists have developed the idea that — stripes can become bars to freedom!
— — — —
I hope the Wolfsonian-Florida International University continues to do projects like Thoughts on Democracy in the future.
— — — —
Happy Fourth of July to the designers!
Carl W. Smith

A significant editorial layer is that D.O. posted less than a third of the show (which is understandable). These are just what Mr. Drenttel thought were noteworthy after what was probably a fairly cursory look. One guy. Look through the whole thing on the blog http://www.thoughtsondemocracy.blogspot.com and decide for yourself if perhaps some of the people in the show approached the charge seriously. As a nobody who was thrilled to be included, [no sour grapes on not making the D.O. cut --heck Richard Tuttle didn't even make it.] I took it very seriously and labored over the challenge of working after a formal master like Rockwell. "Design[ing] a new work inspired by Rockwell's posters" which were inspired by a speech, which needs to be looked at through the lens of our similar situation today, is very complex and a lot of the work shows the weighing of all of these factors.

And yes, for the integrity of a show that I think is interesting, I'll remain anonymous.

It seems the United States is such a terrible place to live these
days? God help us all.


I thought Chip Kidd's "abuse" of the wants was interesting - if not preachy. It made me take pause and think about my basic wants that I take for granted and helped me shift my thoughts to wondering if I have abused any of them (today or ever).

It was the poster that made me feel like an American or connected to a bastardized America the most.

Rockwell's made me love America, Kidd's made me feel not so love-ly.
Jessica Gladstone

It's disturbing to see that Chip Kidd seems only to appreciate
freedom when it's used by people he likes in ways he approves of.
But that is, alas, how most people think about it.

Predicable, dull, and predictably anti-American. But perhaps I've missed the storm-troopers on every corner, hacking away at our rights to free speech and association. Personal vitriol aside, wouldn't it have been far more counter-intuitive, and far more creative, to perhaps acknowledge some of the greatness in this country? Bush will be gone in January. We've nominated our first black candidate for President. We may not be perfect, but we remain a meritocracy, and most of us still attempt to reach for our better angels. Sorry, but these posters seemed kind of sophomoric, bratty, and infantile to me. The truly risky artist would have dared to celebrate America.
Bob Williams

Disappointingly uninspiring posters. I was expecting much more from the designers whose work I know well from before and the rest looks outstandingly amateurish.
Jesper Nordström


Even Chip Kidd's contribution seemed entirely built on clichés that we have all seen before. JN


Blogger Ann Althouse has an excellent review of the Wolfsonian Museum exhibition here:


I teach at a large urban public high school in Illinois. The poster you have created regarding the four freedoms would be useful for my students to see as many of them are from countries other than the U.S. If you could send me a copy of the poster I would be grateful. I teach at Waukegan High School, 2325 Brookside Ave., Waukegan, IL 60085.
John J Finnegan

let's not confuse freedom with democracy.
democracy just means majority rule.

Jobs | June 17