Ever since we began expressing ourselves through creative means, artists have been using these platforms to provide social commentary or to make a statement. While it has never been the goal of every artist to express a political or social idea through their art, it has been fundamental in the propagation and longevity of art in modern society. Furthermore, today’s technology allows artists the means to spread their messages across a much wider audience, giving them the capability to make an impact through their brushstrokes or song lyrics. While all artists seek to capture some aspect of the world’s natural beauty or share an individual experience within it, oftentimes artists produce their work in reaction to a specific event, ideology, cause or injustice. These artists use their creative avenues in order to challenge an idea or spread awareness.
Oftentimes, these statements can be taken too far as they are political in nature and aim to incite a reaction among those that either agree or disagree. However, many times these statements provide the push the public needs to incite action and change. For example, Pablo Picasso’s 1937 oil-on-canvas painting “Guernica” is a response to the bombing of the Spanish Basque town of the same name by Nazi and Italian airplanes. It displays the violent consequences of modern warfare, and it can be argued that this painting allowed the public access to the atrocities committed in Europe at this time, further facilitating the onset of World War II. Picasso’s representation of the destruction in Guernica is a classic example of the impact a simple painting or art piece can have.
Artistic representations showcasing messages or ideas are not just present in the traditional sense of art. Substantial ideas can be spread through various creative channels; one of the thriving forms of contemporary social commentary is street art, or graffiti art. This exposure is due to the public nature of street art. You no longer have to go to an art exhibit in order to receive the artist’s message; you may see it on your drive from work or while walking to the store. The most prominent and controversial street artist in today’s media is an anonymous London-based artist working under the name “Banksy.” He has pioneered the use of sprawling urban landscapes as canvases. He uses these concrete canvases to speak to the social and political climates of our times.
With street art, it is not just the image that evokes a reaction, but also the setting of the art piece. Artwork displayed in controversial places that depict controversial images garner a lot of media attention. Banksy knows this and takes full advantage of it. Israel’s West Bank barrier, which separates Palestinian territories from Israel, segregates thousands of people from their families and farmlands. As a means of protest, Banksy devised a plan to paint multiple pieces that portray the implications of building these massive borders that separate thousands of people from their livelihood and families. Banksy uses symbolic imagery throughout his work to showcase corruption and conflict, as well as to raise awareness for other social issues. His work has sparked controversy across the globe, but many feel he pushes an agreeable narrative through his work.
In what many would agree is an attempt at social commentary gone too far, members of the Russian protest punk rock band P—- Riot have spurred much controversy after their illegal 2012 performance inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The performance was in protest of the Orthodox Church leaders’ support of Vladimir Putin during his election campaigns. Three of the band’s members were sentenced to two years on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” While many may agree with the group’s support of feminism and their outspoken opinions on the Russian government, the band’s actions may have crossed boundaries that should not be crossed in regard to using art as a means of protest.
Artists from a wide spectrum of art forms make use of their platforms in order to spread ideas to their audiences. The onset of the Digital Age has only worked to facilitate the ease with which artists can spread their artwork and, thus, their messages. While many artists do not take advantage of their large audiences to comment on society, others have embraced their celebrity status to raise awareness of positive movements. In his acceptance speech at the 2017 Brit Awards, Matt Healy of British rock band The 1975 urged other artists not “to stay in your lane” and to speak out about social issues that may not necessarily be relevant in their lives. It is clear our perspectives can be shaped through art and can be used to promote a movement or speak against an issue. As artists realize this and make use of the Internet to spread their messages, our society is becoming more aware of the issues that plague our world.