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Are we missing the political messages in paintings?

ByBea Bray

Mar 14, 2018

Over the 20th century, art has become more and more overtly politicised, with our culture becoming more accepting of art with underlying political significance. The recent unveiling of the Obama portraits has brought to light some of the issues surrounding political art, and the way in which politics manifests in the art world.

Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ is potentially one of the most famous works of political art, painted in 1937. Based on the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War, it served as an inspiration for the modern human rights movement, and is still displayed on pickets in protests against war today. Evidently, the political message of this painting has been highly influential, named by the BBC in 2017 as the ‘painting that fought fascism’.

The Dada movement of the early 1900s following the First World War also resulted in the creation of similar anti-war art, which was highly politicised. Artists such as Hugo Ball, John Heartfield and Marcel Duchamp led this movement to show contempt for the war through visual arts, by creating satirical and often explicitly political images. At the time, these artists were shunned by society, and given the title of degenerate art; much of their art was destroyed by Hitler.

The Dada period, symbolic of a time of a protest, is now one of the most studied of all the art movements. Does this mean that as a society, we have become more accepting of the expression of political opinion through contemporary art?

When examining art in the 21st century, it appears that we have. Banksy, for example, creates highly politicised art, which is also extremely popular within modern culture. Banksy’s work attempts to mock centralised power, dealing with themes of anti-war, anti-consumerism, anti-fascism and existentialism. The artist makes his own political views overtly clear to the public, for example during the 2017 UK election he offered voters a free print if they voted against the Conservative candidates standing in the Bristol North West, Bristol West, North Somerset, Thornbury, Kingswood and Filton constituencies.

Despite his strong political views and the way these manifest within his work, Banksy is one of the most popular and successful artists of the 21st century. His painting Keep it Spotless for example, sold for $1,700,000. Is this because we are now considering art at its face value as opposed to aligning it with the artist’s political views?

The recently unveiled portraits of the Obamas raise the question of how separate we can consider art and politics to be. Both the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were painted by African American artists, adding to the ‘America’s Presidents’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Kehinde Wiley, who painted Barack Obama’s portrait, tempered his usual style, which often entails painting his subjects in poses familiar from classical paintings while engaging with popular culture.

The portraits are extremely significant in that they are making a political statement regarding race and culture. Being the first black president, it was clearly no accident that Barack and Michelle Obama chose African American artists to create these images. This shows how even in the modern day, politics and popular culture are intertwined, and the subliminal political statements made within art are becoming more and more socially and culturally accepted.

Image: Mark Barry via Flickr

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