Often, the greatest thing about art isn’t the art itself, but rather the questions it can provoke, the statements it can make, the thoughts it can breed, and the silent, personal revolutions it can inspire. It can do this with no, or very little words, and no real language barrier. All of those things amount to providing visual artists with the perfect platform to raise political ideas, statements and comments. There are many ways that the two different worlds can help each other, or sometimes less favourably can come together.
Barbara Kruger may be one of the most famous examples of political artists. Her work is instantly recognisable, it compromises (usually) of black and white photographs accompanied with red blocks going across with text. Most of her work is of a feminist nature, that comments on a variety of issues from beauty to war. Kruger’s work is often bold, strong and incredibly powerful. The images are succinct and make clever, and interesting points that cannot be missed. When confronted by Kruger it’s natural to rethink a lot of things that you’ve grown accustomed to and whether or not you agree with them, and you also begin to question these things. Kruger’s pieces are dramatic and intense, they’re one of the most perfect examples of how art and politics can be crossed together.
Patrick Brill, or rather Bob and Roberta Smith, is another famous example of political artists. His work falls under what is called “slogan art” but in a much more recognisable way his art looks more like political pop art. His work usually involves commentary on popular culture, art culture and politics. A lot of Brill’s work is quite humorous, and light-hearted, so it’s easily accessible to children and adults alike. It’s okay to find art funny, in fact sometimes it’s the desired outcome. While some of his work can be funny and easy, there are some pieces, like shown above make some very good and serious points. What makes Brill’s work so brilliant – who doesn’t love some obvious word play? – is that it’s bright and appealing, it doesn’t take itself so seriously but can get some very serious points across eloquently and easily across.
For those less inclined to the contemporary arts, fear not, for politics in art has long been around. One of the most celebrated artists of all time is Francisco Goya. Goya was definitely not unfamiliar with difficult subjects, and The Third of May 1808 is the perfect example. Goya’s famous painting makes a comment on the Peninsula War and goes with another piece The Second of May. Both paintings show war and its effects. While not specifically a protest piece, it doesn’t paint war in a great light. The painting itself is dramatic and uncomfortable in content matter. But beyond the painting, Goya managed to achieve a whole new style of documenting within paintings, and left the more traditional Christian depiction of war. The painting in itself was a revolution.
For those that are interested in conceptualism, or want to understand it a bit more, Ai Weiwei is a brilliant example of how conceptualism and political activism go hand in hand. Having grown up with Anti-Right wing politics in his home life it is no surprise that Weiwei has turned his artistic career into a way of criticizing Chinese politics, and commenting on right ideologies. A lot of Weiwei’s work serves as protest work, or as commentary, in fact one of his most incredible pieces is his most political piece. The piece in question is Remembering. Remembering is an installation piece consisting of 9,000 children’s backpacks. Each backpack represents a child that died in the earthquake that took place in the Chinese province of Sichuan in 2008. The backpacks in different colours form a sentence in Chinese that translates to “for seven years she lived happily on this Earth” a quote from a mother whose daughter died in the Earthquake. The piece is impressive as it stands alone, but knowing the much sadder, and more sinister context behind makes it so much more powerful, and so much more impactful. Weiwei isn’t a stranger to making strong political statements in very impressive work.
These four pieces are just a few examples of how art can be used as a platform for questioning, for celebrating and for raising political awareness. There is so much that can be done without language that can convey such strong and powerful images. While I have nothing but respect for Banksy, there is a whole world of political art that is just as accessible as Banksy’s graffiti pieces that I implore you to go and explore, as you’ll be pressed to not find some incredible things.
Words by Selene Mortimore