Creative Dissent: Exploring the Power of Political Art as a Catalyst for Social Change

art_and_politics

Last Updated on August 29, 2023

How Can Art Be Political?

Political art holds the power to be impactful due to its ability to communicate complex ideas, challenge prevailing norms, and evoke strong emotions in its audience. By engaging with political and social themes, artists can create a dialogue and foster critical thinking, which can inspire change and raise awareness of pressing issues. 

The potency of political art lies in its capacity to transcend cultural and linguistic barriers, enabling it to resonate with a diverse audience and facilitate a shared understanding. Through its unique visual language and compelling narratives, political art can effectively capture the zeitgeist of a particular time and place, enabling it to leave a lasting impression on both the individual and collective consciousness.

political art, how art can be political

There is indeed a demand for political art, as it serves several essential functions in society and continues to be a significant aspect of artistic expression. Political art can help raise awareness about pressing social and political issues, providing a platform for artists and viewers to engage in discussions and critical thinking. By addressing these topics, artists can provoke thought, inspire dialogue, and foster a deeper understanding of the world around us.

Is All Art Political?

Not all art is explicitly political. Art can encompass a wide range of subjects, styles, and intentions, and not every piece is created with a political message or agenda in mind. Some artists may focus on aesthetics, emotions, or personal experiences, while others may explore themes such as nature, spirituality, or abstract concepts.

However, it can be argued that art, in one way or another, is inherently linked to the sociopolitical context in which it is created. The choices artists make in terms of subject matter, style, materials, and presentation can be influenced by their cultural, social, or political backgrounds. In this sense, even art that is not overtly political may carry implicit political meanings or reflect broader societal values and norms.

The phrase “all art is political” is difficult to attribute to a single origin, as it is a concept that has been discussed and debated by artists, critics, and philosophers throughout history. The idea that all art is political can be traced back to various sources and has been expressed in different ways over time.

Some of the roots of this idea can be found in the works of thinkers like Karl Marx, who believed that art, like other aspects of society, is influenced by the prevailing economic and political systems. This perspective suggests that art is inherently linked to its social and political context and cannot be separated from the power structures and ideologies that shape the world.

Another possible source of the idea is the famous playwright and theater director Bertolt Brecht, who once said, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” Brecht’s perspective emphasizes the transformative potential of art, suggesting that it can play an active role in shaping society and politics.

I myself have an ironic and impactful run-in with the issue surrounding the politics of political art. While living in Jordan, I was approached by the British Council to submit artwork for an exhibition to be presented in London highlighting artwork produced in Jordan. As an artist, living and working at that time in the Middle East, I saw firsthand how the politics of the region fuelled creativity and inspired many contemporary works. For instance, many artists took on topics such as women’s rights, classism, and the Palestinian Occupation as their central focus in their work.

When I presented my rather abstract body of work, the British Council declined my submission on the grounds that the work wasn’t “Jordanian enough.”

Petra Photograph by Sima Zureikat Political Art
Cross-Processed Photograph of Petra Abstraction. Sima Zureikat. 2004.

Was it lacking a flag or the flailing voice of an Islamic woman suppressed? 

Although, it could also be argued that the lack of direct political tones in the work was itself political, having grown up in the United States, apparently spared direct confrontation of certain political realities, my privilege allowed me to produce abstract work which didn’t overtly cry freedom.

Nonetheless, the ‘feedback’ and the experience as a whole forced me to reevaluate my influences and intentions regarding my work, while finding subtle nuanced ways to address social and political art themes.

6 Ways Art Can Be Political

Whether art as a political statement is the ultimate goal, art can serve as a medium for expressing ideas, critiquing systems, and inspiring change, and it can be a very effective vehicle for political influence. Here are six ways that art can be political:

1. Art as Commentary on Societal Issues

Artists can create works that address political issues, such as inequality, racism, sexism, or environmental concerns. This type of art can raise awareness, provoke thought, and inspire dialogue among viewers.

One notable example of an artist who creates political art that comments on societal issues is Ai Weiwei, a Chinese contemporary artist, and activist. Ai Weiwei’s works often touch on themes such as human rights, political oppression, and censorship, and they frequently critique the Chinese government’s policies and actions. Ai Weiwei’s art has spurred international discussions about the role of art in promoting awareness and dialogue on important societal and political issues.

One of his most well-known installations, “Sunflower Seeds” (2010), features millions of hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds that cover the floor of the exhibition space. The work represents the individual within a collective society and addresses themes of mass production, labor conditions, and the loss of individuality.

[In] the times I grew up, it was a common place symbol for The People, the sunflower faces the trajectory of the red sun, so must the masses feel towards their leadership. Handfuls were carried in pockets, to be consumed on all occasions both casual and formal. So much more than a snack, it was the minimal ingredient that constituted the most essential needs and desires. Their empty shells were the ephemeral traces of social activity. The least common denominator for human satisfaction. I wonder what would have happened without them?

Ai Weiwei, unpublished proposal for Tate Modern Unilever Series, March 2010.

For another great example of socio-political art in ethical photography, check out my write-up on the public photography exhibition, Eyes on Concrete.

2. Using Satire and Humor

Artists can use humor and irony to critique politicians, political parties, or political systems. Satirical art can highlight the absurdities, hypocrisy, or flaws in political actions or beliefs.

In regards to Jordanian-based Artists, as previously discussed, one Artist who I have known throughout the years and especially appreciate for his cutting satirical approach to political art is Raed Ibrahim

The phrase “elephant in the room” is an idiomatic expression that refers to an obvious problem or issue that people avoid discussing or acknowledging, despite its significant impact on a situation. Its origins can be traced back to the 19th century. The phrase is believed to have been first used in the English language by the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky in his novel “Demons” (also known as “The Possessed”), published in 1872. In the novel, he mentioned a metaphorical “elephant” to describe an obvious truth that was being ignored.

The imagery of a large, unaddressed elephant in a confined space likely comes from the fact that elephants are huge animals that would be hard to ignore if they were actually in a room. The metaphor thus effectively conveys the idea of a glaring issue that people consciously choose to overlook, despite its conspicuous presence. 

In this vain, Raed Ibrahim creates a giant, friendly, plush camel and places it in an exhibition space of Darat al Funun to confront viewers, Arab and Non-Arab to regard the stereotypes and associations placed on Arabic representation in media and throughout history.

In the same exhibition as the Camel in the Room, Ibrahim also places a sculpture of two giant burining cigarettes, juxtaposed in the form representing the burning the buildings of the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center tower attacks. 

As Ibrahim reflects on the work and his motivations for the work, he explains, ”I was in this very room when I first learned of the attacks on the towers. Ever since then, I always wanted to explore questions about what 9/11 did to us, what it did to the world, and how it re-represents us to the world. Our culture, religion, and image became a result of this incident and somehow minimized all our history at this one single moment.”

raedibrahm towers

When I first saw Ibrahim’s tower work, I was struck by how the use of irony and humor in the work, and the cartoon representation of the sculptures, softens the blow of otherwise extremely loaded and challenging political triggers.

3. Propaganda

Art has been used throughout history as a tool for political propaganda, promoting specific ideologies or leaders. This type of art often simplifies complex issues and relies on strong, emotional appeal to influence public opinion.

woman gec4087ea9 640

For an in-depth look at the relationship between Art and Propaganda check out my article, The Fine Line between Art and Propaganda.

Shepard Fairey and Banksy are two contemporary street artists who share a similar approach to using their art as a means to challenge political and social norms, spark important conversations, and stimulate critical thinking. 

Both artists gained prominence through their subversive works, often appearing in public spaces, and their ability to maintain a sense of anonymity while engaging with provocative themes. Fairey’s iconic “Hope” poster, created for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and Banksy’s elusive, satirical street art installations worldwide have both had a significant impact on the public’s perception of political and social issues. 

Barack Obama Hope poster 1
Barack Obama “Hope” poster, originally by Shepard Fairey. Fair Use.

Their art transcends traditional gallery spaces, making it accessible to a broader audience and democratizing the art world. By employing street art as their primary medium, Fairey and Banksy have not only expanded the boundaries of artistic expression but have also demonstrated the potential of art to be a powerful catalyst for change and a voice for dissent.

As Fairey states, Almost every image you’re confronted with has an agenda.

While both Banksy and Shepard Fairey are renowned for their politically charged street art, their approaches to incorporating propaganda elements in their work differ notably. Fairey’s art often involves the use of bold, graphic imagery and typography, reminiscent of traditional propaganda posters. His “Hope” poster, for example, employs a highly stylized portrait of Barack Obama, coupled with a single, evocative word to inspire unity and optimism. This approach is more closely aligned with the aesthetic of historical propaganda, using easily identifiable symbols and messages to communicate a particular viewpoint.

On the other hand, Banksy’s work is marked by its biting satire and subversive humor, often incorporating elements of irony to deconstruct the very idea of propaganda. Banksy’s art frequently critiques the power structures and ideologies behind the propaganda, using familiar imagery but subverting the intended message to expose its manipulative nature.

For instance, his mural of a protester throwing a bouquet of flowers instead of a Molotov cocktail challenges the traditional portrayal of political dissent as inherently violent, thereby undermining the propaganda it aims to critique. In this way, Banksy’s work reveals the underlying mechanisms of propaganda while inviting the audience to question its validity and influence on society.

Screenshot 2023 05 09 at 16.49.05

4. Representation and Empowerment

Artists can create works that give voice to marginalized groups and individuals, offering them representation and a sense of empowerment. This type of art can challenge existing power structures and encourage social change.

An artist who focuses on representation and empowerment is Kehinde Wiley, an American portrait painter. Wiley is known for his large-scale, vibrant portraits of African American, Afro-Latinx, and other people of color, often appropriating the visual language of European Old Masters to challenge traditional notions of power and identity.

Wiley’s work directly confronts the underrepresentation and marginalization of people of color in art history by placing them in positions of power, dignity, and importance. His portraits often feature people from urban communities in heroic or regal poses, echoing the style of classical European paintings. By doing so, Wiley elevates his subjects, empowering them and drawing attention to their individuality and presence.

President Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley
President Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley. Fair Use.

One notable example of Wiley’s work is his portrait of former U.S. President Barack Obama, which was unveiled in 2018 and is part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The painting depicts Obama seated against a backdrop of lush foliage, symbolizing his heritage and accomplishments. Wiley’s work with Obama and his broader oeuvre both contribute to the ongoing conversation about representation and empowerment in the art world.

5. Memorialization and Commemoration

Art can be used to remember and honor political events, figures, or movements, serving as a reminder of their impact and significance.

In this article on Picasso’s Famous Paintings, we explored Guernica, one of the most famous political art pieces ever produced by the infamous Spanish cubist painter.

Picasso’s “Guernica” is a monumental black and white painting created in response to the bombing of the town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. Measuring approximately 25.6 feet by 11.5 feet, this powerful anti-war masterpiece portrays the horrors of war and the suffering of innocent civilians caught in the conflict. The composition is filled with anguished figures, both human and animal, amidst a chaotic and fragmented scene, embodying the destruction and terror experienced during the attack.

Mural del Gernika
Reproduction of Guernica in the form of a mural.

The history of “Guernica” is deeply intertwined with its political significance. Picasso was commissioned to create a work for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. He had been struggling to find inspiration for the piece until news of the bombing, carried out by Nazi German and Italian Fascist air forces in support of Spanish Nationalist forces, reached him. The tragedy spurred Picasso to create a bold statement against the brutality of war, and “Guernica” became a powerful symbol of anti-war sentiment and a representation of the suffering inflicted upon innocent people.

Over time, “Guernica” has transcended its specific historical context and become a universal symbol against war and violence. Its political significance lies in its ability to evoke empathy, provoke thought, and challenge viewers to confront the consequences of war. The painting has inspired countless artists and activists worldwide and continues to be a poignant reminder of the human cost of conflict.

6. Activist Art

Artists can directly engage in political activism through their work, using art as a means to advance social or political change. This might involve creating artwork for protest movements, raising funds for causes, or collaborating with activists to raise awareness.

An example of activist art is the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a massive community art project that began in 1987 to memorialize the lives of people who had died from AIDS-related causes. Conceived by San Francisco activist Cleve Jones, the project encouraged friends, family members, and loved ones of the deceased to create quilt panels in their memory, each measuring 3 by 6 feet, roughly the size of a human grave.

Aids Quilt
Picture of the AIDS quilt in front of the Washington Monument.

The quilt has grown over the years, as more panels have been added, becoming not only a powerful memorial but also a form of protest and awareness-raising. At its peak, the quilt covered the entire National Mall in Washington, D.C., and it has been displayed in various locations around the world. The AIDS Memorial Quilt has been influential in raising awareness about the AIDS epidemic, fighting stigma, and advocating for research and better healthcare for those affected by the disease.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt is a poignant example of activist art, combining artistic expression with a strong message and a call for social and political change.

Conclusion

The power of political art lies in its ability to communicate complex ideas, evoke emotions, and inspire people to think critically about the world around them.

Overall, political art is a dynamic and vital force in the art world that carries the potential to create a lasting impact on individuals and societies. It serves as a powerful medium for communication, challenging the status quo, and inspiring change. By confronting social and political issues head-on, political art fosters dialogue, critical thinking, and a deeper understanding of the world around us. 

As artists continue to engage with political themes, they not only create thought-provoking works of art but also contribute to the collective consciousness and the ongoing pursuit of a more just and equitable society. Whether it is through activism, satire, representation, or commemoration, political art remains an essential element of human expression and a testament to the transformative power of creativity.

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