The following extracts are taken from an essay by Václav Havel, author, former critic
of the Communist regime and now the president of the Czech Republic. He wrote it in
1978. Although he refers to Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, his remarks are also relevant
to the pictures shown here. Some of the tendencies he describes – such as the encounter
between dictatorship and consumerism (see picture no. 30) – were only in their early
stages at the time Helwig-Wilson was taking photographs.
Note: When speaking of the „post-totalitarian regime“, Havel refers to the advanced
phase of communist dictatorship, not to what we mean today by „post-totalitarian“.
Václav Havel, The power of the powerless
(quoted from Václav Havel, Living in Truth.
Twenty-two essays published on the occasion of the award of the Erasmus Prize to
Václav Havel, faber and faber, London 1990, translation by P. Wilson)
“... The manager of a fruit and vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and
carrots, the slogan: ́Workers of the world, unite!́ Why does he do it? What is
he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity
among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible
impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals?
Has he really given more than a moment́s thought to how such a unification might occur
and what it would mean?
I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think
about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real
opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters
along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has
been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has
to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble.
He could be reproached for not having the proper ́decoratioń in his window;
someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done
if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him
a relatively tranquil life ́in harmony with societý, as they say.
Obviously the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit;
he does not put the slogan in his window from any personal desire to acquaint the public
with the ideal it expresses.
This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or
that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such
it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this
way: ́I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the
manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and
therefore I have the right to be left in peace.́ This message, of course, has an
addressee: it is directed above, to the greengroceŕs superior, and at the same time
it is a shield that protects the greengrocer from potential informers. The slogańs
real meaning, therefore, is rooted firmly in the greengroceŕs existence. It reflects
his vital interests. But what are those vital interests?
Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan, ́I am
afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient́, he would not be nearly as indifferent
to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would
be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in
the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his
own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of
a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction.
It must allow the greengrocer to say, ́What́s wrong with the workers of the world
uniting?́ Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low
foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It
hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology. ...
Why in fact did our greengrocer have to put his loyalty on display in the shop window? Had
he not already displayed it sufficiently in various internal or semi-public ways? At trade
union meetings, after all, he had always voted as he should. He had always taken part in
various competitions. He voted in elections like a good citizen. He had even signed the
́anti-Charteŕ. Why, on top of all that, should he have to declare his loyalty
publicly? After all, the people who walk past his window will certainly not stop to read
that, in the greengroceŕs opinion, the workers of the world ought to unite.
The fact of the matter is, they dońt read the slogan at all, and it can be fairly
assumed they dońt even see it. If you were to ask a woman who had stopped in front of
his shop what she saw in the window, she could certainly tell whether or not they had
tomatoes today, but it is highly unlikely that she noticed the slogan at all, let alone
what it said. It seems senseless to require the greengrocer to declare his loyalty publicly.
But it makes sense nevertheless.
People ignore his slogan, but they do so because such slogans are also found in other shop
windows, on lamp posts, bulletin boards, in apartment windows, and on buildings; they are
everywhere, in fact. They form part of the panorama of everyday life. Of course, while they
ignore the details, people are very aware of that panorama as a whole. And what else is the
greengroceŕs slogan but a small component in that huge backdrop to daily life?
The greengrocer had to put the slogan in his window, therefore, not in the hope that someone
might read it or be persuaded by it, but to contribute, along with thousands of other
slogans, to the panorama that everyone is very much aware of. This panorama, of course, has
a subliminal meaning as well: it reminds people where they are living and what is expected
of them. It tells them what everyone else is doing, and indicates to them what they must do
as well, if they dońt want to be excluded, to fall into isolation, alienate themselves
from society, break the rules of the game, and risk the loss of their peace and tranquility
and security ...”
The selection of pictures presented here aims at illustrating the themes that were most
common among the many slogans of which Helwig-Wilson had taken pictures. These themes are
peace and separation from the West.