By Kirsty McHugh, OUP UK
The UK will be having a general election this Spring, and the campaigns for (re)election are hotting up on all sides. Recently, both the Labour and Conservative parties began unveiling major poster campaigns, and in the piece below James Hall, author of The Sinister Side: How Left-Right Symbolism Shaped Western Art, takes a closer look at a Labour poster attacking Conservative leader David Cameron and discusses what the left-right symbolism is telling us in it. A version of this article originally appeared in The Guardian print edition in February, and you can also read more from James Hall on OUPblog here.
Good political advertising has to be both topical and archetypal, addressing a contemporary issue while preying on primitive desires and fears. Labour’s new poster campaign, attacking David Cameron for being ‘two-faced’ on the NHS, is especially interesting in this respect, for it deftly exploits universal cultural beliefs about left and right.
The poster splices together two profile images of Cameron’s face, so that each looks in the opposite direction. Ostensibly, he resembles the bicephalous [two-headed] Roman God Janus, who in the Renaissance came to signify Prudence, the ability to look forward and back at the same time. The word Prudence, was, of course, Gordon Brown’s favourite word for much of his time as Chancellor, and was repeated by him like a mantra. But the Cameron faces are not identical, and signify not so much Prudence as Machiavellian scheming, hypocrisy and brutality.
The head that faces to Cameron’s right (our left) is brightly lit and in full, healthy colour. He is animated, loquacious, cheerful and plentifully supplied with thick hair. The dazzling white caption reads:
DAVID CAMERA ON “we are committed to the NHS”
But the head that faces to Cameron’s left (our right) is in dark shadow, tight-lipped, silent, bald, sharp nosed, sinister. The grey caption reads:
DAVID CAMERA OFF wants to scrap your right to see a cancer specialist within two weeks
The two-headed David Cameron is constructed like a heraldic shield. In heraldry, when a shield is divided vertically down the middle, the side of the shield that faces us on our left is the ‘dexter’ side, and the side that is on our right is the ‘sinister’ side. Dexter is latin for right and sinister is latin (and old English) for left. Right is traditionally regarded as better than left, and the ‘dexter’ David Cameron is, on the face of it, better than the ‘sinister’ David Cameron.
The poster is divided in a classic way. Aristotle drew up a table of opposites in which ‘Right’ is aligned with good qualities such as ‘Light’ and ‘Good’, while ‘Left’ is aligned with ‘Darkness’ and Bad’. Christianity followed suit, so in the Last Judgment, the damned fall away to God’s left (our right), while the blessed rise to God’s right; in Crucifixions, the good thief is located to Christ’s right, where we also find the Virgin Mary and, overhead, the bright Sun; to Christ’s left is the bad thief, and, overhead, the gloomy Moon. Christ’s crucified body and head are usually oriented to his right; however, in Last Judgments, Christ turns to his left in order to condemn the damned.
In the ‘dexter’ side of the Cameron poster, we have every chance of being resurrected; but in the ‘sinister’ side, we lose our right to be saved (“…wants to scrap your right to see a cancer specialist…”).
In Buddhism, the path to Nirvana divides into two: “The left-hand one is to be avoided, the one to the right is to be followed”. Freud espoused similar notions: “right and left in dreams have an ethical sense. The right-hand path always means the path of righteousness and the left left-hand one that of crime”. Depth psychologists later claimed that the left side of the face represented our underlying wishes and desires – the ‘wish face’ – while the right side was their ‘public face’. This was epitomized by the Batman villain Two-Face, who first appeared in 1942 and was inspired by the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Two-Face has had the left side of his face hideously disfigured with acid: he decides to bring about good or evil by flipping a coin.
In the poster, the bicephalous Cameron’s ‘wish head’ is to the left of his ‘public head’, and implies that the latter is nothing more than a shiny mask. His innermost wishes reveal him as a potentially lethal hypocrite – a wolf in sheep’s clothing who pretends to be righteous.
Still, it is now quite clear what Gordon Brown must do to win the election. He must appear on posters as a two-headed Prudence, but dressed in Batman gear.