The visual artist plays a very unique role in society. Not only can an artist be inspired by his surrounding culture, but in fact, he can also inspire his surrounding culture. In this way, artwork can have a profound affect on society. Artists throughout history have been inspired by a variety of different circumstances. Whether it is personal relationships, morality, social, or political issues, art is influenced through every facet of our lives. It can also be said that art itself can equally influence these aspects of our world.
There have been many artists throughout the ages that have recognized this powerful idea and have used it to their advantage. None, however, are more apparent than those artists who have exercised this power to make political statements. The political artist has undoubtedly played a very important role in our world, and their artwork is evidence of the fact. I will compare and contrast, through use of examples, how artists of the 19th and 20th centuries have used their art as a political statement.Order now
As the 19th century began, we saw the Neoclassical period draw to an end and give way to Romanticism. Although he did most of his work before the turn of the century, Jacques-Louis David is one Neoclassical artist who recognized his influence in the political scene. David, “who was the official artist of the Revolutionary Government” (Gombrich 485), mainly used his artwork as political propaganda for Napoleon’s military campaign. In 1801 he painted Napoleon Crossing the Saint-Bernard (Stokstad 470) which depicts an idealized Napoleon on a great white horse, decorated in heroic outfit.
Instead of depicting him on a donkey, which is what really occurred, David chose to highlight the heroic event by placing him on a grand white steed instead. By using his artwork in this form, David was stating to the country that these were heroic actions that France’s political leaders were engaged in, and subsequently influenced many people. Although he was paid by the French political leaders, his art was most definitely a very influential political statement. The Romantic period produced another artist of the 19th century who also utilized his abilities to make political statements, Francisco Goya.
One of his most obvious attempts to use his art in this way can be seen in his Third of May, 1808, finished in 1815. The painting “shows the random executions of the Spanish citizenry” (Weems, The Third of May) as a result of the French’s occupation of Spain. While he was originally welcoming to the French “enlightenment” Napoleon’s brutality eventually ended whatever affection he had for the French (Weems, The Third of May). As a result, Goya painted this piece, and although it was after the fact, it was used to “warn men never to do it again” (Stokstad 475).
In a political statement toward all future monarchs, Goya’s work cannot be overlooked. To exemplify the influence of his work, we can note that “after the Napoleonic Wars were over, Ferdinand had promised to rule with a written constitution. But when he went back on this promise… this sparked a liberal revolt in Spain in the 1820s which was brutally suppressed” (Weems, The Third of May). Not to be outdone by the 19th century artists, the 20th century might be considered the greatest period of political statement in art.
Most of the ideas and controversies revolved around the two World Wars and the impact that the Great Depression had throughout the world. In the beginning of the 20th century, one thing that is very notable is the fact that painters “shocked the public by refusing to see only the bright side of things” (Gombrich 568). This was largely seen in the various expressionist movements throughout Europe. Although having no direct political objective, works like Oskar Kokoshcka’s Children Playing, created in 1909, were instrumental in inspiring some of the century’s later artists.
In this particular Die Brucke painting, two children are depicted in “awkward…. disharmonies” (Gombrich 569) which starkly contrasted the accepted portrayal of children as “pretty” and “content”. These expressionistic movements laid the groundwork for the political art to come. One standout artist whose work was directly related to political changes was Dorothea Lange. Lange, a student of New York photography, was hired by the Farm Securities Administration to photograph the plight of the rural American worker.
In one of her most famous photographs, Migrant Mother, a 32 year old mother of 10 is depicted with a bleak look on her face, surrounded by two young children. The picture, taken in 1936, was used as political propaganda to show that the poor in America were suffering immensely. She also documented the plight of Japanese Americans during World War II after they were ordered to armed camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “Lange created images that frequently juxtapose signs of human courage and dignity with physical evidence of the indignities of incarceration” (Women: Come to the Front, 1).
Without political statements like Lange’s, which depicted Americans in their natural forms, much of the suffering would have been easily forgotten. The last movement of the 20th century that I will touch on is the Avant-Garde in mid 20th century Germany. Henri de Saint-Simon described the philosophy behind this movement in one swift statement; “We, the artists, will serve as the avant-garde: for amongst all the arms at our disposal, the power of the Arts is the swiftest and most expeditious” (Avant-Gardes 1).
He is describing the influence that art can have on the political and social scene and this is what German Avant-Garde artists hoped to accomplish during the 1930’s. To accomplish this they relied on modernized structure, and many painters even used “intense depictions of German soldiers defeated in WWI… were considered unpatriotic” (Stokstad 557). Because of this, the movement was crushed by the Nazi regime and many of the works from this period were burned or destroyed. In this example of political art, which sought to bring about political and social change, the movement was destroyed, but not unsuccessful.
In analyzing the various forms of political statement that I have given as examples between the 19th and 20th centuries, there are a few things to note. Political art is not always as direct as we might think, like it is shown in Goya, David, and Lange’s work, but it can also be manifest in indirect ways like Kokoshcka and the Avant-Garde artists in Germany. We can also see that the styles and forms are not directly related to the political goals, yet may be indirectly related. The examples show a variety of styles; Neoclassicism (David), Romanticism (Goya), Expressionism (Kokoshcka), and Realism (Lange).
However, taking this into account, we can also see that the style chosen can in fact add to the effect that a certain piece has on its intended viewer, as we can see in Kokoshcka’s work. Although these are just a few of the many examples of the ways in which art has interacted with politics throughout modern history, it is easy to see the far reaching effects. Not only does art seek to describe its environment, but more importantly art also seeks to influence its environment. Only after understanding the contributions art has made throughout our cultural history, can its ideas and value be truly appreciated.