You are pacing along the white walls of a modern art gallery, exploring a vibrant exhibition devoted to… well, you cannot exactly figure it out. But the highbrow attendees around you seem to know exactly what they are looking at. The pieces before you look like the remnants of an intense paintball match, and you desperately attempt to crack the code of each one, recollecting what you learned from your freshman year art history class: the composition, the use of color, the space it occupies. You reach the center of the exhibition, where a large, colorful group of people swarm around an empty plastic water bottle sitting atop a white marble pedestal. More perplexed than before, you begin to consider a new perspective: that of the artist. You wonder, “Does the artist intend to speak solely to the viewer, or are there greater factors at play?” And exactly how are we, the viewers, supposed to interpret this? With what lens should we view this plastic water bottle, or any work of visual art?
While there are many elements that affect the outcomes of visual art, three main factors, beyond the purely aesthetic, must be considered before all else: the social, the economic, and the political. There is much overlap when it comes to the foundations on which art is created, but each factor has a distinct way of conveying its individual message. Social factors concern the state of a specific society at large; economic factors explore both the state of a society’s economy and art commissioned by a patron that thus involves the economy; and political factors involve the political climate at the time of the piece’s conception and the politics of the art world itself. Each of these factors is significant as a means of documenting historical change—a way that the world at large can utilize a primary source that is wholly visual. Being able to discern these motivations for creating art is integral to understanding the piece as a whole. Without this knowledge, the piece loses much of its intended purpose, depriving us of centuries of historical context. We must utilize art to aid our understanding: a key that opens an underground vault full of unique historical treasures.
In order to assert truths about a society’s economy and politics and their relationship with art, we must first address the members of said society and their respective social characteristics. Art that concerns social life depicts individuals performing typical actions of their daily lives, such as practicing religion, communicating with others, and working in specific professions. This theme also brings to light ignored social issues and can incite change in a struggling society. While these purposes vary, art often symbolizes, in the words of social psychology scholar Ashay Deshpande, “the holistic opinion of society, making any art created a reflection of society,” whether it comes to its triumphs or its faults (Deshpande). This means that no matter the intention behind a piece, art often holds more historical and societal context than what is seen on the surface.
In the early years of painting as a popular medium, women artists were able to convey socially progressive messages to the patriarchal societies in which they lived. One of these women artists was Artemisia Gentileschi, Italian painter and student of Caravaggio. In her painting, Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612) (Figure 1), a biblical story is told with a feminist spin that is conveyed through the actions of its subject. The subject, Judith, is shown in the act of beheading the invader general Holofernes in his sleep, her sleeves rolled up and her face determined. If seeing one murder is not scandalous enough, her maid aids her in the process with the same resolute attitude. A woman shown unabashedly performing a stereotypically masculine act stirred controversy at the time of its conception, and Genteleschi’s version is still held against Caravaggio’s tamer iteration of the same subject, in which Judith reluctantly and disgustedly beheads her victim as though the task is too gruesome for her. Though Genteleschi’s piece appears to have a political element along with the social, there is no political movement that facilitated the creation of the piece, and when viewing it as social, the historical mistreatment of women in society is all the more relevant.
More often than not, social issues and politics collide, leading to dissonance and a need for voices in the social realm that do not stem from political institutions. As governments grow silent on pressing social issues, art grows louder. A notable example in which awareness was needed occurred during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, a time when American president Ronald Reagan refused to address the epidemic until 1987, contributing to the loss of 89,343 lives by the end of his presidency in 1989 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). In his lithograph Ignorance = Fear (1989) (Figure 2), Keith Haring, an artist who later died of AIDS himself, writes the words “Ignorance = Fear” and “Silence = Death” in bold lettering above and below colorful figures with crosses on their stomachs that signify “the transformation of humans into targets” (Brown). Each of the three figures is pantomiming a different part of the proverb “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” which can be interpreted as the American government turning a blind eye to the AIDS crisis. This call to action brought with it an awareness of a social issue that the government consciously chose not to address, and this artistic filling of a void in leadership was necessary for American society at the time.
While art as a means of expressing social issues is often addressed to multiple people and groups, economics plays a much different role. This role goes two ways: directly involving the economy in art (or that of commentary on a society’s economic state) and patronage to the arts (funding given to artists and their projects, typically from influential people or groups). To elaborate, economics is expressed in art through works that hint at the economic states of societies, whether said economies are prosperous or poor. Secondly, patronage to the arts has been seen in the societies of feudal Japan, the kingdoms of Southeast Asia, and Renaissance Italy. In the modern era, government patronage is more popular than private patronage, with some governments allotting a percentage of their budget to the arts.
One example of art that was originally meant to be a practical tool while inadvertently showcasing the thriving economy of the Middle Ages was the Catalan Atlas (1375) (Figure 3). In this map, the route of the Silk Road is shown stretching from Southeast Asia to Western Europe, with famous figures in trade such as Mansa Musa and Marco Polo making appearances along the way. Each major city’s religion is denoted and each region’s national flag is drawn, making the atlas not only decorative but also informative. This depiction of the Silk Road documents not only the path of the Silk Road, but also its significance to the economies of twelfth-century Afro-Eurasia.
The second aspect of economic art involves patronage, its most notable example appearing in the Italian Renaissance, during which the Medici family played a major role in the art world through their patronage. The Medicis were a noble family who rose to power during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, becoming de facto political rulers through serving as personal bankers to multiple popes (Lenihan). They had great influence over all aspects of Roman and Florentine life. One specific story of their patronage involves Fra Angelico, a Dominican priest who was commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici to paint the San Marco Altarpiece (1443) (Figure 4), meant to not only serve as a religious scene of the baby Jesus on Mary’s lap but also to demonstrate the influence of the Medicis by including members of the family as worshippers in the scene. Those who saw the altarpiece in the fifteenth century could recognize the family and, more importantly, the economic power they wielded throughout Italy. This link between Fra Angelico and the Medicis contributed to the artist’s rise in popularity, as he later “got many commissions for the homes of Florentine citizens” and a “patronage by Pope Nicholas V” (Lenihan). The way in which this piece’s economic history is directly connected to the art itself shows that historical context should not be discounted when it comes to viewing commissioned pieces.
A final example of art with an economic theme captures the hardship of the Great Depression, a time in which the stock market crashed and, at its worst, left up to 23 percent of Americans unemployed (Crafts and Fearon). Dorothea Lange, a photographer whose focus was human subjects, photographed Migrant Mother (1936) (Figure 5) by chance, at a road stop in California. This still photograph captures a mother greatly affected by the Depression, her concerned expression looking into an uncertain future, her children crowded beside her, and the tent in which they live serving as a bleak backdrop. The effect of this photo was predictable in the sense that, as Americans universally felt the impacts of the depression, it was not difficult to relate to the mother’s plight. This photo is a piece of historical documentation that sheds light on not just what the Depression was, but the ways that it affected individuals, especially mothers.
While social and economic factors are linked in a way that is specific to one society or country, political factors often involve multiple societies in conflict. Especially when considering globalization in the modern era, propaganda and other political art has become a tool with which societies can further their own political agenda and express collective or personal opinions. In earlier eras, political art was often created to depict and memorialize historical events, and sometimes conveyed one side’s stance on current events, but as globalization increased, propaganda began to thrive.
Expressions of political events in one society can serve the purpose of reflecting a society’s values and documenting the attitudes of those involved. One such example takes place during the July Revolution in France. Liberty Leading the People (1830) (Figure 6) by Eugène Delacroix is an explicit revolutionary sentiment that depicts Liberty personified as a woman raising the French flag in one hand and holding a musket in the other, with armed commoners following her. Men and children, lower and middle class alike, face the light that surrounds the figure of Liberty while moving away from the clouded chaos in the background. The piece is a documentation of which side the revolution began to favor, as well as an outline of the ideals that the revolutionaries were fighting for, the French Revolution motto of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” In this way, the historical context of this piece is invaluable when it comes to fully understanding it.
The next example is shown in two parts: that of propaganda meant to further an agenda and incite fear in a society’s citizens and that of a memorial which discounts that same propaganda’s ideology while paying tribute to those affected by it. As stated earlier, propaganda is a political tool used to promote a specific ideology in a biased way. The role art plays in propaganda is essential, as a visual representation of what the public should either support or fear makes a greater impact than words alone. When considering famous political propaganda with the power to convince a large population of the ideology it promoted, Nazi Germany is typically one of the first to be mentioned. The regime’s propaganda was meant to turn German society against the Jewish population by portraying Jewish people in anti-Semitic, stereotypical ways. One piece of political propaganda is a poster for the 1940 film Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew) (Figure 7). The poster contains a Jewish man with a face described as “swarthy, hook-nosed, and untidily bearded,” stereotypes that had been perpetuated for centuries prior to the events of the Holocaust (Lisciotto). His features are also made sinister by the poster’s harsh contrasting colors and the subject’s downturned face with an upward gaze into the eyes of the viewer. These artistic choices seemingly threaten the viewer into believing that this figure is out to get them, their children, and their livelihood. The film itself was commissioned as propaganda by the Nazi regime, who sought to further its agenda by portraying Jews in a way that would incite fear in the German population.
The polar opposite of the example above comes in the form of a much later memorial triggered by political remorse. Following the fall of the Nazi regime after World War II, the German government attempted to rid itself of any and all Nazi ideology, condemning the actions of the regime, and over time constructing memorials that serve as reminders of the Holocaust. One memorial in particular was constructed in the concentration camp of Dachau, and focuses specifically on the Jewish lives lost in the camp. Built in 1967 and topped with a menorah, The Jewish Memorial (Figure 8) takes viewers six feet underground on a path that leads to an enclosed prayer room, inviting viewers of all faiths (or none at all) to reflect on a dark time in history. When looking up at the sliver of light offered in the otherwise dark depths of the room, one can share in Germany’s hope of reconstruction and remembrance.
Now, back at the art gallery, the empty water bottle still sits before you, daring you to analyze it. You assess your options and see that its interpretation could go a number of ways. It could be a social commentary on consumerism and its effects on the environment, or a commission by a local government urging residents to do away with plastic bottles, or a political statement in which the emptiness of the bottle represents the population that suffers from a lack of clean water. As this example shows, social, economic, and political themes in art are multifaceted, and deciding which meaning is most plausible can sometimes prove difficult. Taking a closer look at each factor and determining which one the artist intended to showcase is not only important toward understanding the piece, but in understanding the broader context of society, and thus, the history that is depicted.
Though interpretations vary, there is one indisputable truth: Art is for posterity. From medieval maps that document a major trade route, to paintings that convey the political grievances of France’s poorest citizens, it is clear that an artist does not create for themself alone. And when communicating social, economic, and political themes, we find that art from long ago was created with us in mind: the heirs to their histories. It is up to us whether we want to turn the key and enter the vault.
Angelico, Fra. San Marco Altarpiece. 1443.
Brown, Kate. “Keith Haring’s Art Has a Secret Language – Here’s How to Decode His Most Powerful Symbols.” Artnet, 20 March 2018.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “HIV and AIDS Timeline.” National Prevention Information Network, 10 January 2017.
Crafts, Nicholas and Fearon, Peter. “Lessons from the 1930s Great Depression.” Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 1 October 2010.
Cresques, Abraham. The Catalan Atlas. 1375.
Delacroix, Eugène. Liberty Leading the People. 1830.
Deshpande, Ashay. “The relationship between art and society.” Introduction to Aesthetics, 14 March 2014.