The Different Functionalities Of Socio-Political Art

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Looking back to the late 4th century BCE in Italy, Roman coinage is a great example of art that reflected the society it was made in at the time. They had the function of being a vehicle to spread the imagery of the ruling class and often carried likenesses of emperors and famous imperial monuments (Carttwright). This would be the nearest most 2 Romans ever got to see of them. The coins, in this socio-political context, served as the mass media of the age, giving them an extremely social importance in spreading images of powerful people and places, which involuntarily is political, as it relates to power between people. Predominantly, across all ages, propaganda has existed and been predominant in society. Propaganda is information, often of visual and especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view. For example, Roman emperor Hadrian used buildings and even a large nearly functionless wall as propaganda. According to experts, “There seems little doubt that the wall, like other great Roman frontier monuments, was as much a propaganda statement as a functional facility”. Through images on this wall, made of fresco, mosaic, and sculpted panel, “it promoted a cultural identity and shared values”.

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Moving along to the 17th century, portraits in this time period often had the purpose of presenting one’s wealth and power. This status was communicated through the specifics of the artwork such as symbolism, color and composition. Just having a portrait done of oneself required immense power and wealth, as this was before paint was accessible to all. Nowadays, portraits still often have the purpose of exposing one’s relationship with power, which is why most portraits from all ages and cultures can be considered extremely political. There have also been more explicit cases of art as a strong and compelling statement concerning the social and political effects of ongoing wars or events.

‘Guernica’, the famous grand painting by Picasso, is a lucid example of this. Through this, Picasso revealed and protested the tragedies of the Spanish Civil War and more specifically the 1937 bombing on the town of Guernica. Contemporarily, the digital age and new technological methods of producing art have introduced a whole new generation of political art. Graphic design, from election campaign posters to protest badges, has had a prominent role to play in much of this, as it is often through graphics that our political hopes and fears are expressed. New technologies have always affected the way political messages are created and distributed, and with social media, an image can have a life independent of its maker as soon as it goes online. Posters, banners, placards and badges are the traditional media of political advocacy. Now their reach and resonance can be expanded by being made and shared digitally.

Today, anyone can make political graphics and reach a global audience. During presidential election campaigns, for example, to support their vote people may send the official campaign poster as by their signature, or post it on their social media. A specific example of this would be the poster that Shepard Fairey created in 2008 to support his US presidential vote, Barack Obama. The poster, which started off as ‘fan-art’ spread so rapidly with 3 immense popularity, that it became the unofficial face of the 2008 Obama presidential campaign. It was officially chosen to represent Obama’s campaign shortly afterward and evidently had a grand socio-political impact in relation to the elections as Barrack Obama became president of the United States of America the following year.

Other contemporary artists use other mediums to be extremely political in dramatically different ways. For example, Ai Weiwei, one of the most famous contemporary Chinese artists in the world, is known for being extremely political and involved in various socio-political protests, especially against the Chinese authorities. He, however, does this in a different way than artists like Shepard Fairey. He uses the making of objects, and the arrangement of culturally significant objects themselves to communicate deeper ideas and values. His motto is “Everything is art, everything is politics”. In order to understand the different functionalities of socio-political art, one needs to look at what that exactly it is. Socio-political art can be interpreted in countless different ways. The spectrum of what art is socio-political and what is not ranges all the way from considering propaganda as the only category to considering everything, and all art political. As it is impossible to analyse art and try to find what makes it a socio-political or not in the contexts of various definitions, some strategies for this characterization are necessary.

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