In her poignant article “Posters: Advertisement, Art, Political Artifact, Commodity”, Susan Sontag takes issue with a forceful push for consumption that transforms a seemingly benign pictorial medium—poster—into the driver of capitalism. The author deliberates on the nature of the art-commodity dichotomy while focusing her analytical lenses on mass-produced images as material objects that function both within political and artistic realms. This paper aims to discuss Che Guevara posters that are commonly displayed in people’s rooms with reference to the writings of Sontag.
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The distinctive image of Che Guevara has been brandished by revolutionaries of all hues and stripes; however, no one has been so brazen about sporting the iconic portrait as those who do not have any understanding of the historical significance of the person. A case in point is a Che poster in my friend’s apartment. Never having been to Cuba, it is challenging for Nathan to connect the abstract meaning of the image with anything that he might have experienced in his daily life. In addition to being completely detached from the historical, cultural, and revolutionary processes underpinning the emergence of Che on the political arena of Cuba, the man has no interest in challenging lingering dogmas of the establishment. A corollary is that the choice of the countercultural symbol is not loaded with deep symbolism; rather, it has been entirely dictated by a whim, which instantiates ‘emotional tourism’ derided by Sontag.
It can be argued that the poster of Che has been purchased by Nathan in a bout of omnivorous consumption that undergirds all disparate structures of the modern capitalist society. Instead of championing revolutionary ideals, the poster propels the expansion of capitalist capacities by sanctioning the ideological consensus on the state of the economic participation of masses. It follows that without grasping the concept behind the image of the revolutionary leader, the poster cannot be regarded as an emotional foci of one’s aspirations and ambitions.
I would be remiss in not pointing to the strong commercial undertone of the image itself that precludes the emergence of any meaningful emotional response to the poster. By virtue of being mass-produced, the measured brevity of the image gives way to a great measure of the ideological cynicism of the modern era that facilitates the occurrence of a transaction in which an embodiment of heroism and resistance is exchanged for units of oppressed individuals’ toil. Taking into consideration the paucity of inputs into the production of a single picture of the guerrilla leader, the egregiousness of the transaction allowing to extract profit from unassuming cultural consumers can indeed produce ‘moral vertigo.’
The intellectual climate of the modern era breeds emotional tourists who are, unlike actual travelers, dare not to venture outside the comfort of their conceptual bounds. However, it can be argued that a diligent attempt to glean several smidgens of meaning behind the iconic image can cancel out the toxicity of its dark underbelly. Even though the mass-produced Che posters cannot approach the grandiosity of art crowning Cuban liberation and its identity forged in the struggle, the conscious choice of the cultural object redeems one from partaking in cultural appropriation to some extent.
The paper has discussed the subversion of the revolutionary meaning of Che Guevara posters by their commercial production. It has been argued that the modern use of the countercultural symbol would have been frowned upon by Sontag who in no uncertain terms opposed the dilution of the aesthetic aspect of image-making in the process of its transformation into an object of consumption.