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The art of social commentary

This is a post from the weareoca.com archive. Information contained within it may now be out of date.
Commenting critically on social issues through art has for many artists become their artistic focus and for some has ultimately become the area which they are most renowned.
Take Francisco Goya for example. Goya was a court painter in the late 1700’s and was employed to paint portraits of the Spanish nobility. But, his opinion of these prominent social figures was less than complimentary, and he began publishing small books of satirical prints in secret, the content of which caricatured, mocked and exposed the corruption and immoral behaviour of the very people he was employed to immortalize in his portraits.
If we go even further back to the 1500’s, the caricature has its roots in Da Vinci’s exaggerated sketches of the grotesque, produced to better understand beauty. But from his observations sprang a long running tradition of applying these grotesque exaggerations, or caricatures, to particular individuals in order to mock or belittle them. When combined with text related to events of the time, the political cartoon as we know it was formed, and so art became a platform for social commentary.

That’s not to say that the political cartoon is the only form of social commentary in art, far from it. Many artists, working with the entire spectrum of artistic forms, some working anonymously for fear of prosecution, some engaging communities, and some exhibiting in major art institutions, comment on social issues in their work.
Artists ranging from William Hogarth, Richard Hamilton and Robert Rauschenberg as well as more recent work by Banksy, Peter Kennard, Barbara Kruger, and the work of the Communist Gallery (aka The Commonist Gallery) among many others have used their work to comment on the social and political issues of the time.

I guess the question I wish to pose in relation to art which comments on the social and political issues of a particular time is, how important is it? What purpose does it serve?
Top image: Peter Kennard
Engraving: Goya
I shop: Barbara Kruger
Camera: Banksy

Posted by author: India
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17 thoughts on “The art of social commentary

  • This feels like a bit of a minefield but my initial thoughts are that its primary purpose, aside from expressing the artists opinion, is to engage people in a debate that they might not consider through more formal channels.
    For me its importance lies in the fact that it is an additional communication route for the thoughts and ideas expressed.
    Looking at the examples provided it seems to me that only two constitute social or political commentary. The first two images are straightforward personal abuse aimed at the character of individuals – rather than the issue they are associated wit. Calling someone a donkey or suggesting that they enjoy war is neither clever nor insightful. By contrast the Banksy and Kruger pieces are both witty and thought provoking.

  • I have never liked the photograph of Blair using a mobile phone to photograph himself against destruction he was in part responsible for … yet so are all those who voted him in and supported him without whom the Iraq war might not have happened … I do not think this image accurately portrays the situation … it is a rather insensitive and politicised version of events … satire perhaps but one-sided … if Blair was the war monger some people think he is, I do not think he would have spent so much time since his premiership working for peace in the Middle East! So I find myself also wondering what purpose such imagery serves other than to air a certain belief held at a particular time.

  • Balanced satire? Now there’s a novel idea! Amano, the purpose was indeed “to air a certain belief” as is the purpose of all political and social comment be it visual like this, blogs on the internet, editorials in newspapers, discussions on TV, and so on. The difference is that a visual form, such as the Blair photograph, has an immediate impact which you then reflect upon as you study it further. Remember, the function of an artist is to make people see things in a way they hadn’t seen before. This photo does that.

  • It can be diificult to unravel the message from the portrayal – the social commentary may be effective or wothwhile, but that is separate from the ‘art’. How do you rate the success of the piece? You might, conversely, totally disagree with the message but find it effectively rendered. Do you just hold yourself apart from your actual opinions?
    Some profondly meaningful works transcend the issue of the time – Picasso’s Guernica, say – but I bet Franco didn’t appreciate it.
    Dickens had a lot to say about social issues but his writing was at its best when he was not on his soapbox.

  • I think this discussion has swerved away from the original questions raised within this topic and seems to be turning into a debate about the particular issues raised or individuals mentioned in the few examples given here.
    What I wished to illustrate is how social and political issues are given an airing through art in general, and to get you to consider how this is done and what purpose it serves.
    This isn’t about anyone’s personal preference or beliefs, it is about looking at an area of art practice objectively and analysing its merits and problems.

    • I think these are important questions India
      Depressingly one of the answers that comes to me is that what can be perceived as raising social or political issues can easily translate into striking an attitude. The work then gets co-opted to support the status quo.
      City trader interested in showing you are out there? Then drop £200k out of last year’s bonus and pick up a Banksy to put on the walls of the penthouse.

      • During the cold war the CIA championed ‘Abstract Expressionism’ not necessarily because they liked the the art but rather because the style could be seen to represent freedom in comparison to the Soviets ‘Socialist Realist’ style which was art as propoganda.
        Powerful groups will use art to promote themselves and their ideas. The Arts Council of England for example will support only a a particular kind of visual art at the expense of more popular art forms and the type of art promoted in Art Schools and Universities falls into the same category.

        • Surely the trouble with this argument is that if the Arts Council only funded popular art forms we’d be funding the X factor.

    • What purpose it serves….I think its empowering for the artist to be able to make comments on issues in ways of their choice. Whether the work made then is seen by anyone is another matter – I guess there are ways of putting your work in the world that don’t rely on funding or buyers… even then if the work is seen it may not have any noticeable effect.
      So I don’t really think art can make a difference in political or social matters apart from maybe confirming the views of those who agree with the view expressed.
      I suppose the only thing that makes me feel more positive in this is the idea of the Butterfly effect where one small thing, by complex processes, can sometimes go on to have a large effect.

      • More examples of the butterfly effect would be good. I can’t think of any specific at the moment, only examples where Facebook messages and images have gone viral. Would be interested to hear about some ‘Art’ examples.

        • although the art being discussed is largely of a political nature, I think that most art is social comment, as it depicts contemporary life in the way it is seen at this time by visual art techniques that are current.

    • I take your point India!
      About his work, Kennard writes that he hopes it … “will instigate debate about art, politics and society. It attempts to bring together different issues to stimulate the development of new forms of art that deal with everyday global themes. ”
      So he has been successful with me!
      The point I might have made is that this is a montage of appropriated images! So for a photographer it not only raises questions of technique (relatively simple with the necessary digital editing skills) but also of ethics around appropriation and the use of photomontage within photographic practice.

      • What I originally wanted to say is that I do not see Kennard’s photomontage as “social commentary” (the subject of this article) more as a form of “political belief”

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