Is Art Political?

What I am discussing here is art on paper, canvas, conceptual art etc and not theatre, films poetry etc which are a branch of the arts, but this blog is all about political visual art.

There has been artists through the centuries that have made statements through their art that has had political overtones.

Some of the greatest art has something to say about our world, about events that are happening or happened and to alert the viewer to social injustices.

Between 1810 – 1820 Francisco Goya produced a set of 80 etchings titled “The Disasters of War.” These 80 etchings and aquatints show scenes from the Spanish struggle against the French army under Napolean Bonaparte, who invaded Spain in 1808. When Napolean tried to install his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, as King of Spain, the Spanish fought back, eventually aided by the British and the Portuguese. Goya’s prints explore the horrifying consequences of this kind of guerilla warfare and the famine that followed it. The French army is often shown by Goya as a disorganised force, leaderless and cruel. However, the most revealing etchings in his series is the emphasis Goya placed on war’s power to dehumanise everyone involved. We see the brutality of the two armies was equalled by the fury of the Spanish people.

Goya’s prints explore the horrifying consequences of this kind of guerilla warfare and the famine that followed it. The French army is often shown by Goya as a disorganised force, leaderless and cruel. However, the most revealing etchings in his series is the emphasis Goya placed on war’s power to dehumanise everyone involved. the brutality of the two armies was equalled by the fury of the Spanish people. In some of the panels in this series such as, “And they are like wild beasts”, it is shocking to realise that the “beasts” are not the army but Spanish women fiercely fighting to protect themselves and their children from a group of French soldiers.

Pablo Picasso was not one to shy away from putting on canvas his thoughts on war.  His famous picture “Guernica” (1937) is a large mural-sized oil painting on canvas completed in June 1937. The painting, which uses only three colours, grey, black, and white, is regarded by many art critics as one of the most moving and powerful anti-war paintings in history.

A political statement 'Guernica'
Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Picasso painted this work as an immediate reaction to the Nazi’s devastating indiscriminate bombing practice on the Basque town of Guernica during Spanish Civil War.

The tragedies of war

Guernica shows the tragedies of war and the suffering it inflicts upon individuals. Particularly innocent civilians. This work has gained a monumental status, becoming a constant reminder of the tragedies of war, an anti-war symbol, and an embodiment of peace. On completion, Guernica was displayed around the world in a brief tour.  It became famous and widely acclaimed. This tour helped bring the Spanish Civil War to the world’s attention.

The Tower Of London’s poppies was a thing of beauty, an installation constructed to mark the 888,246 British First World War fatalities.  It was a timely reminder to the viewer (by the sheer number of poppies), the cost and futility of war.

political statement 'Girl & Soldier'
Banksy image of Girl and soldier

Not every political motivated piece is about war.  Street artist Banksy who has become quite famous has used his graffiti art to make statements criticising capitalism, the police and Israel amongst others.

political statement: 'Tent'
Tent by Tracey Emin

Art can be personal politics

Tracey Emin is another who stirs people’s consciences with her work. Her installation piece “Everyone I have ever slept with (1963-1995)” lists the names of people she has slept with embroidered on the inside of a tent.  The symbol of the idea that the personal is political.

Art is a powerful medium for artist’s to get a message across about social issues and is particularly effective when they are well known.

Should art be political?  Well, we live in a society where by and large, people are free to express themselves in whatever way they want.  There are many injustices in the world. Many questions that need to be asked about the kind of society we live in and many areas that deserve discussion.  Sometimes, artists want to use their talents to make a point or statement that affects us all and why not?

What do you think

studio 18

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