Artists serve a variety of purposes in our lives and our societies; sometimes very particular parts of an artist’s purpose changes over time, but the observation that I have made that artists fulfill the role of social commentator seems constant throughout historical and modern times.
In most pre-modern eras, artists were primarily employed by royalty or wealthy patrons to paint portraits of the patrons themselves, their families, their estates or to create monuments or lavish palaces. This in itself is a social commentary, although the artists are unwitting participants of the times. The art itself is a commentary on who was in power, what was in fashion, what was considered attractive or desirable and what the symbols of wealthy status were. As society shifted and conspicuous consumption of the ruling class was rejected in the Neo-Classical Era, artists were once again there, visually commenting on the new social climate.
In modern eras, art has become much more accessible, and the artist isn’t necessarily bound by the subject matter approved by the church or commissioned by their patron. In this blog post, I’ll be discussing the artist as the social commentator in the early modern and post-modern (present) eras through reaction to crisis and call for change.
The Dada movement is what I feel the first moment in art history where artists began to use visual media as a vehicle for their despair and disgust with the social constructs of the age. Dada was born following the horrors of World War I and the unprecedented loss of life that followed.
These artists, without a single unified style or medium, challenged the existing socioeconomic and cultural constructs that led to the Great War, and ultimately failed humanity. Dada poet Hugo Ball wrote, “For us, art is not an end in itself, but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism for the times we live in,” (Museum of Modern Art).
“Bild mit heller Mitte (Picture with Light Centre),” Kurt Scwhitters (1951)
Kurt Scwhitters was a German Dada artist who had a traditional academic training at the Dresden Academy from 1909-1915. He was prepared for a conventional career as a painter, and his works from this time showed no influences of avant-garde or Cubist art styles. Originally exempt from military service during World War I due to epilepsy, he was later conscripted in 1918 and worked as a technical draftsman in a factory. After the war, he actively sought out connections with the modernist community in Berlin; this sudden shift in his work is attributed to the collapse of economic and political stability in Germany that coincided with the rise of the multi-national Dada movement (The Art Story.org).
He is credited with bringing collage to the forefront of the art world with his harmonious compositions created out of garbage from the streets from Post-World War I Europe. Train tickets, magazine scraps, lace and other printed media made it into his works. Scwhitters actively produced artistic journals, illustrated works, advertisements and even predicted many of the ideas and activities of the Post-Modern era of the 1960’s (such as assemblage and installation). He brought together artwork, ideas, sounds and words into unusual combinations, hoping for the audience to find their own meanings in the work (The Art Story.org). Through his works, he brought forth the commentary that art and the everyday can be synonymous.
I looked through galleries of countless works of Kurt Schwitters for this assignment, and I always ended up coming back to this particular one. I enjoy the composition of this image, the circular shape in the center that is broken up by straight lines and squares tracing the outline of collaged elements, and the use of paint to bring all of the elements into one (mostly) seamless piece of artwork. The influences of Cubist and Expressionist artists is evident here, as I see the broken up geometric shapes favored by cubists, but I also see fields of color that remind me a little bit of Rothko’s color fields. I like that while the printed words of his collaged materials are evident, they are not obvious. Some of them are layered over with paint and some of them are not, which makes them more bold. This treatment of the printed materials along with use of color gives this abstract piece a little bit of a depth of field. I very much enjoy this collage!
“Bicycle Wheel,” Marchel Duchamp (1951)
What would a discussion of early modern artwork and social commentary be without Duchamp and his readymades? Marcel Duchamp sent shockwaves through the art world when he signed a urinal, placed it on a pedestal and called it art. Through the idea of readymades, manufactured objects that are selected by the artist and then designated as art (Museum of Modern Art), the discussion of art came down to its barest form in a single question: what is art? This challenged the notion that the arts were on a higher society pedestal, and that a painted or sculpted piece of artwork was more valuable and more art than an object created by a skilled craftsman or technical laborer.
The first version of the bicycle wheel was created in 1913 was lost, having been created almost forty years earlier than the 1951 Bicycle Wheel that has been catalog. Because teh materials that Duchamp selected to be readymades were mass-procduced, he didn’t consider readymade artworks to be an “original.” This certainly challenged what society considers art, and in many ways, still does today! I feel like the reactions of the art world with regard to Duchamp’s readymades are almost more of a social commentary than the artwork itself. And that, friends, is Dada.
Personally, I am not overly fond of Duchamp’s works. My preference for artwork is definitely two-dimensional and not manufactured beyond printed material used in collage. I don’t find urinals or stools with upside down bicycle wheels to hold my interest or really be all that relateable. What I do appreciate is Duchamp’s intent. He intended to challenge the preconceived notions of what art is, alongside the extensive history and exclusivity of art. I feel that he certainly succeeded.
In a previous blog post, I discussed the history of the Spanish Civil War and famous artworks of the time that called attention to the bloody conflict. I wanted to include propaganda posters alongside the works of Picasso, Miro and Dali, but couldn’t quite figure out how to include manufactured prints alongside original paintings that held deeply personal meanings of the artists themselves. So with the final project, I am glad that I can include these!
As a reminder of the historical context, the Spanish monarchy was overthrown in 1931 and a republic government with regular elections was installed in its place. General Franco opposed this government with his national political faction called the Falanges and with the aid of Nazi Germany and Facist Italy, went to war with the Republic. The Republic fled to Barcelona, and sought to preserve Spain’s artistic heritage. Through this, propaganda posters were created by fine artists and amateur artists alike as a call to action and a boost to morale.
“Hoy más que nunca, VICTORIA (Today more than ever, VICTORY),” Signed: Renau, 1938. Lithograph.
This is one of the staggering amount of propaganda posters created during the Spanish Civil War. It was designed in Barcelona by Josep Renau, who was one of the artists most heavily involved in the war. He spirited paintings out of Valencia to safety in Spain and even helped organize the Spanish Pavilion in Paris in 1937 (where Picasso’s mural Guernica was displayed). Renau had a career as a painter and graphic designer, which is evident in the skill used in the design of his poster (The Visual Front).
This image comments on the social situation of the time: the Republic, holed up in Barcelona, aided by the Soviet Union, heavily bombarded by Franco. Although the colors are bright and the aviator seems to be both smiling and shouting, it strikes me as a rallying cry in a desperate time.
“Looters,” Banksy, New Orleans (2008)
No Post-Modern discussion about artists as social commentators would be complete without Banksy! The anonymous graffiti artist with easily recognizable work has “bombed” locations all over the world; some of his artwork is whimsical with a tinge of irony, and others are direct criticism of capitalistic society and military power. Banksy works with stencils and spraypaint, creating his works anonymously. It is also worth noting that Banksy is very much in control of his own narrative, and has identified Marcel Duchamp as an influence in his work.
Although I am not crazy about Banksy, mostly from the fanfare of his fanbase of disenfranchised adolescents, I do understand and appreciate the technique and intent of his work. It takes a lot of guts to vandalize someone’s property with imagery that directly opposses the nature of their business or the politics of the country the property is in. This image stood out to me because of the dark black shape of the window, spraypainted next to an actual window. Banksy’s treatment of simplified shadows makes it look like the man on the left is climbing out of an actual window, which is a matter of technique that I appreciate.
“Midway: Message from the Gyre,” Chris Jodran, Midway Atoll (2009-Current)
Chris Jordan’s photography has been widely circulated on blogs and social media feeds for the shock value to the average Faceobok user as well as the social commentary. Jordan’s ongoing work Midway highlights the consequences of humanity’s mass consumption. It is a fact that plastics are not biodegradable; they break down into microscopic pieces, but never truly decompose. Plastics that are irresponsibly disposed of in the ocean follow currents into the pacific ocean and end up in the Pacific Gyre, or the Midway Atoll, thousands of miles away from the nearest continent.
Jordan’s work documents the lethal quantities of discarded plastic that is foraged by albatross and fed to their chicks. The albatross mistake the floating debris as food when they are foraging. The images are heartbreaking to look at, and they force humanity to face its consumption being directly responsible for the death of another living being. Decaying organic matter contrasts inorganic plastics in color, shape and texture.
“For me, kneeling over their carcasses is like looking into a macabre mirror. These birds reflect back an appallingly emblematic result of the collective trance of consumerism and runaway growth,” Jordan wrote about Midway in 2011 (Chris Jordan).
“Conflict Kitchen,” Dawn Weleski and John Rubin, Pittsburgh (2010)
Conflict Kitchen was started by a duo of artists who wanted to create a service-industry public installation (Complex.com). This, however, has a sticking point: they would only serve cuisine from nations that the United States is in conflict with. Each iteration of the kitchen features a facade specific to the nation and hosts events, performances, publications and discussion that seek to expand understanding of culture, politics and issues at stake within their region of focus.
I absolutely love the idea of Conflict Kitchen. I think the first reason for this is because I really, really like food. Food is as much of a cultural glue as art is, and sometimes food is art in how delicately it is put together. As far as Conflict Kitchen goes, the intent of art is very evident. Its social commentary is about how food can be the impetus of gatherings between humans and how the average United States citizen rarely engages in international conversation beyond the narrow lens that the media provides (Conflict Kitchen).
The kitchen is still open today and is currently serving Palestinian food.
“Kurt Schwitters Biography, Art, And Analysis Of Works”. The Art Story. N.p., 2017. Web. 30 April 2017.
“The Visual Front – Posters Of The Spanish Civil War”. Libraries.ucsd.edu. N.p., 2017. Web. 30 April 2017.
“The 50 Most Political Art Pieces Of The Past 15 Years31. “Conflict Kitchen,” 2010″. Complex UK. N.p., 2017. Web. 30 April 2017.
I went into this course begrudgingly, dragging my feet and eyerolling over the fact that I had to take this class again after I had completed my Bachelor of Fine Arts thesis because of a clerical errors and poor time management of the past that I never bothered to correct. I admittedly didn’t have the most optimistic attitude about this class, as it started the way that most art history courses I have taken do. The Renaissance, Italian Masters, so on, and so forth. My attitude changed probably around the time we got to the Romantic and Early Modern eras… I really genuinely appreciated the opportunity to talk about art that truly interested me, that I had seen in person or has happened while I have been out of school. Through this course, I’ve rediscovered my love for art, talking about art and have actually been inspired to create my own artwork after many years of stress-induced illness and depression. Thanks, Lisa, for making an enjoyable online course!