The Art of Progressive Art


“My deal with illustrators was that I couldn't pay them much, but I could give them freedom to function.”

        — Patrick JB Flynn, art director, The Progressive, 1981-1999

         La Follette's Weekly, founded by the progressive Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette on January 9, 1909, was a magazine of “social, intellectual, and institutional” progress. Ten years later it was appropriately renamed The Progressive, and its course never veered. It has always been a voice for democracy, peace, social justice, civil rights, civil liberties, and environmental awareness. Today The Progressive is America’s oldest, continuously published leftwing journal, however, while it stayed its course it also changed its form. From 1981 to 1999, Patrick JB Flynn, the first art director (prior to this editors composed the magazine's ostensibly bland page layouts), transformed the venerable magazine into a fount—perhaps a geyser—of acute conceptual illustration and graphic commentary. Flynn created a platform for acerbic artists—old and young—who traded low fees for freedom to address heady issues of the day. During his tenure hundreds of penetrating editorial art works, rarely compromised by prejudice or caprice, were published in what one contributor called a “politically righteous” context. Although The Progressive was decidedly driven by its reportage, exposes, critiques, and commentaries, the magazine’s late chief editor, Erwin Knoll, speculated “that years from now people will not remember most of what was written in the magazine but would still be looking to the art for it's relevance.” This exhibition gives credence to his words.

        Illustration in The Progressive was never designed to be filler as in many other mass (and even some political) magazines. “The purpose,” says Flynn, “was to give voice to the issues and concerns of the left, primarily peace and justice.” And while the drawings, collages, and paintings did not alter fundamental political world-views, they did extend satiric traditions dating back to the eighteenth century English satirists (Gilray, Hogarth, Rowlandson), nineteenth century commentators (Daumier, Steinlen, Nast), and twentieth century polemicists (Hoch, Heartfield, Grosz). The art not only gave vent to social dissatisfaction but sparked debate on national and international issues. Only time will tell whether The Progressive's art can equal the staying power of the old masters’ most iconic works, but for now it is among the best indication that contemporary graphic commentary, which can be pondered and interpreted at will, has a place in the fast-moving electronic information age.

        This art would not, however, have been created if not for strong chemistry between art director and editor. In 1981 The Progressive convinced Flynn to leave the sinecure of The New York Times , where he was an art director (“in lieu of a significant reduction in my income,” he notes), with the rare promise that he would be allowed autonomy to direct the visual component of the magazine. Such yielding of power to an art director is rare in the publishing business but Flynn's agenda won out. “I believed that two voices were better than one,” he says about the marriage of text and image. And from the outset he further believed that the almost exclusive use of illustration, rather than an emphasis on photography, would set the magazine apart from other publications on the left—indeed most magazines in general. Another reason for using bold, dark art was the (poor) quality of reproduction. The magazine was printed on coarse uncoated paper mostly in black and white. “I felt that images that were bold and graphic, even a little over the top would better rise above the physical handicap of bad reproduction without the subtle nuances available through the use of four-color printing,” Flynn explains.

        Erwin Knoll embraced this strategy, and moreover, as an advocate for free speech, he felt this principle should be extended to illustration in The Progressive. With this mandate from his editor, a limited budget, and a surfeit of energy, Flynn began developing a stable of visual contributors. “Amazingly, most everyone that I contacted was happy to work for me,” he says, “and the magazine, over time, became a recognized venue where you could experiment and exercise conceptual illustration without impediment from the editors.”

        At most magazines illustration must pass through a ritual editorial gauntlet where it is pummeled and paddled before being pushed onto the page. At The Progressive Flynn directed the assignments without intervention. Only cover sketches were submitted for approval, ostensibly to make sure the typography fit. Otherwise Flynn trusted the illustrators to “think,” and Knoll's faith in Flynn's judgment paid off. Since the artists did not feel inhibited, they were more likely to experiment with style and form, as well as push the vocabulary of polemic art beyond the common cliches, which added greater intellectual value to the overall editorial mix. Illustrators whose ideas were otherwise too controversial for, and squelched in mainstream publications could stretch their critical wings. One such, Stephen Kroninger, created a photo-collage send-up of “Uncle Sam Wants You” (originally published in the Villiage Voice ) showing the first President George Bush hawking his Iraq war (the ransom note lettering accompanying the image reads, “Uncle George wants you to forget failing banks, education, drugs, AIDs, poor heath care, unemployment, crime, racism, corruption. and have a good war.”). This art was made into a Progressive poster, and because opponents were starved for alternative graphic statements in this image-managed war, it also became one of the few oppositional icons of the Desert Storm escapade.

        The Progressive’s art was not always this emotionally or politically resonant but as a rule it was at least an acute compliment to spirited prose. Decoration was verboten, too. Although artists' styles varied from representational to brut, their basic focus was on concept. So doing The Progressive’s artists routinely lived up to the following five commandments of illustration.  

An editorial illustration must:

1. Add dimension to text by conceptually synthesizing the essence of a story in such an astute way that the ideas therein are illuminated beyond the facility of words to convey the same thought.

2. Draw the reader into an article through a fusion of form and content by engaging the reader at first glance, or demanding a double take, through pun, metaphor, allegory, or symbol.

3. Invite the reader to decipher a message as though a complex puzzle or brain teaser waiting to be solved.

4. Serve as an icon, or concise amalgam, of various notions fused into a visual idea that leaves a mental “cookie” or mnemonic enabling recall of a story or idea.  

5. Keep an integral distance from the text without severing the connective tissue so that the art functions on its own merits as well as a visual modifier.

        Yet even with the promise of Flynn’s mandate, adhering to most or all these “musts” is a difficult feat. In reality illustrators share an inherently limited vocabulary, and when visually addressing political themes in ways that invite broad-based comprehension clichés and stereotypes are quickly pulled out and worn down. Finding new ways to express quotidian ideas—or what might be termed the transfiguration of the commonplace’is the greatest challenge for both artist and art director. Flynn and the artists he had commissioned admirably rose to the challenge and the work collected in this exhibition reveals an often successful struggle to create meaningful expression that had time-release resonance. But success has its limitations. Regrettably illustration is often an acquired taste that suffers the vicissitudes of fashion and preference.

        When Erwin Knoll died on November 2, 1994 Flynn's mandate and the frequent unfettered contributions of the likes of Brad Holland, Jonathon Rosen, Frances Jetter, Henrik Drescher, and Sue Coe started coming to an end. With a new editor in charge, a heightened preference for news photographs and portraits—not satiric caricatures—of personalities began. The new mandate was to lighten up. So for the next four difficult years the magazine's shift away from conceptual illustration took its toll on Flynn, and the overall character of the magazine. Acerbic art was no longer prime visual content and arguing was futile; maybe after almost two decades the new editor was not entirely wrong, either. Long-lived periodicals require reinvention to remain fresh. In truth even today The Progressive has not eliminated illustration completely. But Flynn's methodology was challenged and so was his integrity. He had always encouraged artist’s to bring their personal voice to the issues and “I think that’s what caused most of the flap,” says Flynn about the tension between free thought and editorial control. “That clarity of that voice was partly due to the fact that it was not synthesized, or filtered but was allowed as a fairly direct link to the source, the heart and minds of illustrators. I’m sure this process is what made illustration in The Progressive unique, at least in the overall sense of what was being published on the left.”

        Ironically, one of The Progressive’s more startling cover illustrations, the May 1999 painting by Brad Holland for an article about Chile's dictator Augusto Pinochet, was the coup de grace of Flynn’s tenure. After accepting the preliminary sketch and passing the final art, the editor decided to “kill” Holland's finished surreal portrait of the general with a mouth full of skeletal heads, which was already on press, and replace it with a photograph. Flynn refused, the cover ran, but he was fired. What remains of Flynn's legacy is the art in this exhibition. For eighteen years he enabled personal voices to take aim at messianic militarism, attack the assault on civil liberties, redress the dismantling of the US regulatory system and economic policies skewed toward the very wealthiest American--in short everything The Progressive fought against since its inception. And that's a pretty impressive legacy.

Steven Heller is the author of over 90 books on graphic design, popular culture, and satiric art, including Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), and Euro Deco: Graphic Design Between the Wars (Chronicle Books).