The Art in Social Awareness

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Sambhavi Sudhakar documents the historical diversity and prominence of art to raise awareness of social issues of the time.

 

In its capacity to inspire progress, art not only provides a space for aesthetic expression, but also serves as a vehicle for social change. Being gifted with the agency to express limitlessly, artists are influential in engaging with the masses and ensuring proliferation of social ideas. Visual art is instrumental in communicating ideas with an audience, appealing to them on a sensuous level while simultaneously driving home a social agenda packaged tastefully in creative form. Historically, art has been most essential to any movement that endeavoured to create a shift in a social context for the intellectual advancement of humankind.

This form of artistic creation has been most prominently represented in the Renaissance, whereby the revival of ancient Grecian aesthetics led to a blossoming of various art forms. In its celebration of humanism, Renaissance paintings paid tribute to the perfection and infallibility of human achievement. Sandro Botticelli’s Spring, for example is supposed to epitomise the new Renaissance man.

“Romantic art was conceived as a response to rapid industrialization, upholding nature, emotion, and imagination over the philosophy of the Enlightenment which laid emphasis on science.”

 

With several periodic shifts in European cultural history, there have been concurrent modes of development in art. In the 1800s, Romantic art was conceived as a response to rapid industrialisation, upholding nature, emotion, and imagination. This was in response to the philosophy of the Enlightenment which laid emphasis on science, empirical evidence, and rationality. A piece of art that encapsulates this is C.D Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog which presents the grandeur of nature alongside the infinite capacity of humankind. Artists of the Romantic tradition praised the spiritual power of nature as well as the value of man who was presumed to possess divine potential.

There have also been instances in history where art has been overtly political. Protest posters have emerged as a popular means to display political angst, as depicted by recent marches incensed by Trump’s administration. Such forms of protest date back to the 16th century, at the height of the Protestant Reformation when Martin Luther’s 95 theses were posted on a church door. This created an active discontent which resulted in a rift in the Christian Faith. The 20th century witnessed a plethora of political upheavals in the face of colonisation and warfare. From these large-scale revolutions, art emerged from regions across the globe. During the Indian freedom struggle, several artists, poets, and musicians employed art to further their nationalistic aims in the face of colonial oppression. Abanindranath Tagore’s Bharat Mata, illustrating a four-armed goddess clad in saffron, was significant in being an icon of nationalism and spirituality. Much like the artists of the Bengal tradition in India, Tagore’s works were instrumental in serving as a cultural symbol for patriotism during the colonial era.

Another movement that gained notoriety during this period was the Harlem Renaissance, a movement which is considered most significant in African-American literary and artistic history. One of the most notable artists of the period was Aaron Douglas. Douglas’ book, God’s Trombones contains illustrations portraying the black characters in pivotal roles as divine figures so as to invoke a parallel between the suffering of the African-American population and that of Jesus Christ. Aspects of Negro Life was a mural series by Douglas, representing the collective black experience captured in four panels.

“Artists like Deigo Rivera painted public frescos depicting the plight of the workers.”

 

Much like the aforementioned struggles, which used art as a means to achieve a political end, the Mexican Muralists in the 1920s revolted against tyrannical industrialization. These muralists were in support of the Mexican Communists who fought for the rights of the proletariat. Artists like Deigo Rivera painted public frescos depicting the plight of the workers. Infused with Leninist ideals, they engaged the public through their potent scenes.

Following the world wars, the post-modern world witnessed an array of burgeoning social causes. The Women’s Movement in the 1960s gave rise to painters like Nancy Spero, whose works are a portrayal of women’s issues and emotional turmoil during war. The Guerrilla Girls, a group of anonymous, mask-wearing protesters are well known for their posters and billboards. They fought for the inclusion and recognition of women and artists of colour in canonical art and culture.

More contemporary examples include Joe Caslin’s giant mural of two men hugging on George’s Street which was essential to furthering the call for marriage equality in 2015. Caslin stated that he conceived the painting of two young men embracing as a “poignant representation of same sex love in the city.” Similarly, the recent Repeal the 8th march used colourfully painted banners and posters with bold and vibrant images, insisting on legalising abortion in the country. Another contemporary movement that has been gaining global momentum, veganism, makes use of hand-painted banners during protest marches to depict the cruelty and violence of the meat and dairy industries.

Drawing from the above instances, it is evident that art is an effective tool which even in present times instigates social change.

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