Joseph Goebbels ™
essay from the book "Anatomy of Design" by Steven Heller and Mirko Ilic
Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s minister of propaganda and enlightenment,
who along with his wife, Magda, and six children committed suicide in Adolf
Hilter’s bunker as Soviet troops besieged Berlin, was the master of word and
image manipulation. Joseph Goebbels™ is an art project in the form of a
commercial advertising campaign that addresses the nature of media and mass
communication at the beginning of the twenty-first century. “Sixty years after
Goebbels,” states author/designer Aleksandar Macasev, “we find ourselves in a
highly developed infosphere—the Internet, twenty-four-hour news, direct
broadcasting, countless nonstop radio, TV, and cable stations, mobile
communications, and so on—that constantly barrages us, its intended
recipients, with messages. There are ads for products, political programs or
activists’ ideas, weather forecasts, information about terrorist actions, and
fashion trends. The overwhelming power of the media sometimes gets under
our skin, but we nevertheless remain gluttonous recipients of the messages.”
Truth, he notes, has become almost irrelevant, and in its place “we consume
ideas from a huge marketplace of messages and narratives that we believe in
without any immediate experience or judgment as to their truthfulness.” Dr.
Goebbels proffered the “big lie,” which, he argued successfully, if repeated long
enough becomes its own truth.
As a critique of today’s unabated information and disinformation glut,
Macasev adopted the evil doctor as the poster boy for his acerbic analysis of
contemporary propaganda that every day streams out of governments and
corporations. The logo for this project, four connected loudspeakers (the symbol
of the Orwellian Big Brother) assumes a swastika shape set in a white circle
against a red field that is similar to the dread Nazi symbol. Dr. Goebbels’s
steely-eyed visage on the poster is actually composed of minute Netscape,
Yahoo!, Explorer, QuickTime, CNN, and other information highway signs.
Underpinning this project are the following questions: Given Goebbels’
genius, how would the Nazis have used this limitless new media? And with a few
companies controlling the Internet, is it ripe for dictatorial control and its users
easily controllable? The project offers no concrete answers, but it raises important
questions through graphic devices guaranteed to stimulate, if not frighten.
Goebbels will not be recognized by all who see Macasev’s poster and
website, but the Nazi swastika is unmistakable. Despite its early history as a
symbol of fertility and good fortune, its adoption by the Nazis forever
transformed it. Today, virtually any four-legged hooked cross or combination of
red, black, and white evokes dread—even, at times, when the colors are used
for such benign purposes as No Parking or No Turn signs. The loudspeaker
logo is nothing if not eerily resonant.
The substitution of small visual elements in place of halftone dots is not
unique to this project. In the 1950s, typewriter art was the rage among
concrete poets who fashioned mammoth images out of small random letters
and numbers. Early in the personal computer revolution, when ASCII was the
dominant language, rows of ones and zeros were used to conjure, as if by
magic, portraits of well-known persons. Now, with advanced programming, it is
common to see tiny photographs forming larger faces (how many times has
Mona Lisa been reconstructed in this way?).
Similarly, corporate logos have been used to evoke likenesses of, say,
Che Guevara, or human forms, maps, and other familiar objects. Since the
Vietnam War, corporate logos and marks have been the target of ire (for the
perceived collusion in war and other morally questionable activities) and satire.
Modification, tampering, and sampling of otherwise registered trademarks are
common satiric conceits. Substituting logos for stars in the U.S. flag or usurping
the basic type and logo designs of major companies such as Disney and Coca-
Cola are familiar ways of grabbing attention while making critical commentary.
For Joseph Goebbels™, Macasev employs these well-established graphic icons to
send the message that receivers, as well as creators, of graphic messages
have a responsibility to seek out the truth, even if it is submerged beneath
piles of diversionary imagery.