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Gettysburg Inc.: The use and abuse of an historical icon

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A combination of image, text, historical reflection and political commentary, this graphic research article explores the use and abuse of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address within the US public sphere. In 155 years since Lincoln gave this speech, his words have been subsumed into all manner of heated debates on issues such as race, class, international relations and the Civil War’s legacy. Indeed, as Barry Schwartz argues, the Address’s figurative power lies not in a single interpretation, but in the way in which successive generations reinterpret it ‘in light of new situations and challenges’. From Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon to Donald Trump, it has continually served as a rhetorical battleground upon which arbiters of various political persuasions wage war over the meaning of American democracy – past, present and future. When soon-to-be President Trump delivered his ‘Contract with the American Voter’ at Gettysburg in October 2016, he was but the latest in a long line of politicians to put the Address’s symbolic power in the service of his own ideological ends. ‘Every salesman needs a pitch’ writes the historian Jared Peatman. ‘And over time, increasing numbers of Americans came to see the Gettysburg Address as the most effective way to sell the ideals of this country, both internally and externally’. A collaboration between a graphic designer and visual culture historian, Gettysburg Inc. is a satirical rendering of the Gettysburg Address for the contemporary era. Taking the form of a sleek corporate brochure, this article explores the disconnect between words and deeds, truth and fiction, democratic ideals and the political process. Visually, we draw on the ‘hand of Lincoln’ motif, central to the president’s visual mediation in historical paintings, sketches, political campaign posters, advertisements and sculptures. Appropriating and reframing words, images and events from the recent past, we engage with ideas on the politics of collective memory, and the symbiotic relationship between memory and ‘forgetting’. A piece of critical design, Gettysburg Inc. is a reflection on the unstable nature of collective memory, and an exploration of the ways in which graphic design can engage with, and offer new perspectives on, history and politics.
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Keywords: Abraham Lincoln; Gettysburg Address; critical design; graphic design; politics; public memory

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Portsmouth

Publication date: June 1, 2017

More about this publication?
  • The poster-maker, the pamphleteer and the tagger aim to sway the popular heart and mind through visual public interventions. As new technologies rise, turning the public sphere into a transparent, ubiquitous communications medium and a global marketplace, is the privileged status of the poster doomed or are we seeing it transformed as part of a new wave of visual rhetoric? When the environment starts to become responsive to our very presence and aware of our individual nature what is the role of the 'traditional poster' delivering a classical rhetorical message? This peer-reviewed journal aims to lead the debate. The Poster stands as a vehicle for the ideas of media theorists; scholars of Cultural Studies and Cultural Materialism; for social psychologists of visual communication, for architects and designers of wayfinding schemes; for philosophers of Aesthetics and Politics, Society and Linguistics; for social scientists, anthropologists and ethnographers; for political campaigners and artist activists; for communications researchers and visual communications practitioners.
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