Art can be defined as the expression or application of human creative skills and imagination, producing works that are intended to be appreciated first and foremost for their beauty or emotional power. According to this definition, the main goal of art is to produce something beautiful for the viewer to see. Of course, the definition of art has expanded far beyond that. Moreover, while art is usually associated with visual media, artistic expression can take many forms: paintings, sculptures, photography, books, music and more recently cinema and television. As the variety of mediums through which artists could express themselves expanded, so did the purpose of the artists themselves. Art became far more than the creation of beauty, or mere entertainment. It became a means of bearing witness to the artist's world; sometimes to question or criticize it and even, when possible, to transform people and change their minds. This is what we call committed, socially conscious or engaged art.
The artist as a witness of his/her time
While it is generally agreed that art's first purpose is to create beauty and provoke an emotional response from the viewer/reader/spectator, there is no denying that artists, through their very role, bear witness to the time in which he/she lives and represents it through different media. In that sense, even before the concept of "committed" or "protest" art was created, artists have always played an important role: that of a witness reflecting their time, creating emotions and reaching out to people.
Painting a time in history
A lot of artists consider it their duty not only to create, but also to be a messenger, a witness to their time in history so that future generations will get to know what it was like. Writers and painters are able to portray the people and to describe or paint the landscapes and cities of their times.
An artist, be it a painter, a novelist or a musician belongs to a specific time and place. He/she therefore becomes a witness who "paints a picture" of a specific setting that will be kept for all eternity. What we, as viewers of the 21st century, know about so many historical events or important figures is based not only on historical accounts, but also on the paintings, portraits, and descriptions provided by the art that was created at the time.
"The artist's job is to be a witness to his time in history."
When La Bruyère wrote Les Caractères in the 17th century, he ensured that current and future readers would be able to discover the French Royal court through his eyes and therefore strove to paint a picture that would endure the test of time. With his quill, he painted portraits of a now bygone place and time that remain famous centuries later.
Historical portraits have long been a popular and effective way for painters to bear witness to their times and share with future generations what some moments and places in times looked like. Before the invention of photography, painted portraits were the best way for important historical, political, powerful or religious figures to ensure their legacy after their death.
Without portraitists like John Trumbull, we would have a lot more trouble imagining the Revolutionary War or the Founding Fathers. The painter himself fought in the War and later took the opportunity to use his talent in order to immortalize some important events or figures from this important moment in American history. Some of his most famous works of art include The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill, The Declaration of Independence and General George Washington Resigning His Commission. Several of those paintings were purchased by the U.S. Congress and can nowadays be seen in the Rotunda, bearing witness to a seminal moment in the nation's history.
|To expand||(S')étendre, (se) diversifier|
|A medium/media||Un moyen, une matière|
|A mean||Un moyen|
|A purpose||Un but|
|Committed, socially conscious or engaged art||L'art engagé|
|A painter||Un peintre|
|A novelist||Un romancier|
|A musician||Un musicien|
|A witness||Un témoin|
|To bear witness||Se faire le témoin de|
|The setting||Le décor, le cadre spatio-temporel|
|To strive for||Viser|
|An account||Un compte-rendu|
|Bygone||Du passé, autrefois|
|To endure the test of time||Résister à l'épreuve du temps|
|Current||Actuel, en cours|
|The quill||La plume|
|The legacy||La postérité|
Not only do artists play an important role as portraitists by freezing a moment in time for everyone to see, but through the very act of creation, they are also able to share a unique perspective on a subject. That act of creation allows the reader/viewer/spectator to react to a specific work of art. More often than not, art provokes a reaction or causes one to reflect further on a given subject.
Furthermore, art often triggers an emotional reaction, we can adore a painting or hate another on sight. On the other hand, art can also grow on us over time, such as we come to appreciate a painting that we initially disliked, or when we start worshipping a book only after having reread it for the third time.
"All art should inspire and evoke emotion. Art should be something you can actually feel."
Art has been around since mankind has existed which begs the question: why is art necessary in any human society? There is evidence of Prehistoric art (40,000–4,000 B.C.) like the world famous Hall of the Bulls that can be observed in the Lascaux Caves in France which definitely implies that artistic creation is a necessary part of humanity because it encourages people to make sense of their emotions, to think, to broaden their world view.
When looking at the famous painting Guernica by Pablo Picasso unveiled to the world in 1937, one cannot help but feel the artist's intention: to make us feel the utter violence and despair that are inherent to warfare. Even without analyzing the painting in depth, the emotional reaction of the viewer is usually immediate and quite strong. That initial reaction then leads to a deeper reflection on the subject the artist has chosen to depict. That makes art an extremely powerful tool because of its ability to reach a huge number of people.
|To spark a flame||Allumer la flamme|
|A portraitist||Un portraitiste|
|A work of art||Une œuvre d'art|
|To worship||Adorer, aduler|
|To make sense of||Faire sens de, tirer du sens de|
|The despair||Le désespoir|
|To release||Sortir, paraître|
|In depth||En profondeur|
Reaching out to people
Artists are reaching out to people, they want to communicate their feelings, their ideas and their thoughts on what they are witnessing.
Artists, through the different means they have at their disposal: books, paintings, photography, movies, music and many more, have the ability to reach a huge number of very different types of people. Art is a universal means of communication and a hugely popular one. That is especially true today when means of distribution have improved so much that art is now a worldwide commodity, reaching every corner of the planet in a short time.
In that sense, artists are some of the most powerful people on earth because they have the capacity to touch a wide audience and become part of the collective unconscious (the part of the unconscious mind which is derived from ancestral memory and experience and is common to all humankind). Some works of art have had such an impact on the world that people travel thousands of miles just to see them.
The Sistine Chapel attracts millions of visitors, for example. No other medium of expression can attract such a wide audience.
One needs only to look at huge stadiums filled with screaming fans of famous musicians to understand an artist's ability to reach so many people.
Andy Warhol changed the face of artistic distribution when he, along with several other artists, created the Pop Art movement in the 1960s. He put consumerism and the cult of fame at the very core of his artistic movement. His genius changed the face of art and his work continues to be an inspiration to so many different artists to this day. Works like Marilyn Diptych or 100 Soup Cans are so ubiquitous that they now belong to the collective unconscious and are still regularly used as the basis for multiple new works of art, parodies and other artistic creations.
It is obvious that even before artists started willingly creating art that was politically or socially engaged, they were already playing an essential role in the molding of the minds of their contemporaries but also, and this is especially significant, of future generations who would rely on these works of art to understand what came before. But some artists take it further than that by creating art that is meant to criticize or denounce the society in which they live.
|Worldwide||Dans le monde entier|
|Commodity||Un produit, un article, une marchandise|
|A wide audience||Un large public|
|The ability||La capacité|
|The collective unconscious||L'inconscient collectif|
|A parody||Une parodie|
Questioning and denunciating
Art is, by its very definition, quite subjective. There is no impartial or neutral art since artists offer the world their perspective on things. Some artists choose to emphasize that subjectivity by creating work that is purposefully engaged/committed. They can also choose to overtly question or criticize an element of society that they find problematic. Last but not least, some forms of art are inherently subversive because their very form questions the established values of a society.
Questioning society by using another: utopia and dystopia
Artists can present another society to the world which ultimately provokes a reflection upon one's own society. One of the tools that artists use in order to encourage the reader to question their world is creating utopian or dystopian fiction. Both forms allow the reader to take a step back and reflect upon their own society by comparing it to the invented model. What is powerful about this literary genre is that the artists will include elements of their own world that the readers will be able to identify and think about.
A utopia is an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect.
In a utopia, an idealized society is presented in order to offer a reflection on the author's own setting and encourage the reader to think about the different ways to better the world in which they live.
Thomas More published his book Utopia in 1516 and it is seen by most scholars as a comment on or criticism of 16th century Catholicism: the problems of More's time are described in Book I and in many ways apparently solved in Book II. Through his description of an idealized and perfect society, More actually criticizes everything in his own society that prevents it from being perfect and draws the attention of the reader to the shortcomings of their own world and compels them to reflect on possible solutions to creating a better society, one that would more closely resemble his utopic vision.
Other famous examples of utopian fictions include Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Daniel Defoe or Gulliver's Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift.
A dystopia is an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.
Dystopian fiction is the very opposite of utopian fiction, but it serves the same purpose: creating a society where great injustice and suffering can be found. By analyzing the mechanisms that lead to such a society, authors warn their readers about the possible future awaiting their current society if things don't change. By exaggerating the shortcomings of their country, the artist offers the reader a distorting mirror meant to point out the evils of mankind and society.
In 1984 (1949), George Orwell describes a world where "Big Brother" controls every aspect of people's lives. Orwell effectively explores the themes of mass media control, government surveillance, totalitarianism and how a dictator can manipulate and control history, thoughts, and lives in such a way that no one can escape his control. This novel is one of the most famous dystopian novels ever written and still relevant to today's society, which explains its long-lasting success. Many other dystopian fictions deal with the fear of science going too far like Brave New World (1931) by Aldous Huxley. Artists use the dystopian format to explore the fears of their own society through the setting of an imaginary one.
Dystopias are today more popular than ever and have found their way to popular culture through movies and TV shows.
The British TV show Black Mirror (Joe Wright) is a perfect example of a dystopian fiction. Through different episodes and settings, it explores the potential dangers that go hand in hand with our use of modern technology. The Black Mirror is therefore both the screen of our many devices, and also the dark reflection of our society and its over-reliance on new technologies. In an episode like Nosedive (2016), the viewer discovers a world where people grade each other's social interactions and behavior which impacts their way of life and creates great injustice. It turns out the TV show ended up being prophetic since such a system of social grading through the use of mass surveillance has been implemented in China over the past few years. This shows how artists can aim to create cautionary tales in order to warn their readers about the possible dangers of modern society.
|To emphasize||Agrandir, souligner, insister sur|
|To question||Interroger, questionner|
|A tool||Un outil|
|To take a step back||Prendre du recul|
|A scholar||Un spécialiste, un savant|
|To prevent||Empêcher, prévenir|
|To draw attention||Attirer l'attention|
|A shortcoming||Un défaut, un échec|
|A distorting mirror||Un miroir déformant|
|A device||Un appareil|
|Over-reliance||La dépendance excessive|
|A grade||Une note|
|Mass surveillance||La surveillance de masse|
|To be implemented||Être mis en place|
|A cautionary tale||Une mise en garde|
An artist can choose to create art aimed at overtly criticizing some aspects of their society or the institutions that they feel are behaving in a way that is hurtful or potentially dangerous. To do so, artists can use protest songs, social novels, protest art or movies.
When thinking about engaged or politically committed art, one cannot help but think about the very powerful medium of music and more specifically, the art of protest songs. While the genre itself is not new, it became widely popular in the 20th century, especially during the 1960s in the USA.
From Bob Dylan to Joan Baez, the 1960s in the USA were filled with folk artists expressing their disapproval of the Vietnam War and the conformist nature of post-World War II American society. Famous examples include Blowin' in the Wind (1963) by Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Lyndon Told the Nation (1965), Pete Seeger, Bring ‘em Home (1966) or Joan Baez, Saigon Bride (1967).
Some of those songs openly criticized the Vietnam War and the politicians that waged it, some called for peace or respect for the lives being wasted in a war that made no sense. The 1960's were an incredibly rich time for protest music and artists found new ways to criticize society through powerful lyrics.
While the art of protest music has evolved over time and means of distribution, there is no denying that, to this day, singers and musicians still play a role in voicing political or social concerns through their music and lyrics.
Fight the Power by Public Enemy (1989), Alright by Kendrick Lamar (2015), The Story of O.J. by Jay Z (2017) are examples of songs that question and criticize society by trying to give a voice to people who feel like they have been ignored or whose voices have traditionally been marginalized.
In the wake of Donald Trump's election as President of the USA, a lot of artists have come to openly criticize or blame the president and have encouraged their audience to rebel against his way of doing things.
A very buzz worthy freestyle by the rapper Eminem in 2017 actually demanded that his fans make a choice between him and the President asking his fans: "If you're a fan of Trump and you're a fan of me, I'm drawing a line, which side are you on?"
This shows that protest songs still have a future when it comes to artists expressing their worries and concerns about their society.
From the 19th century on, a new literary genre emerged that aimed at criticizing society through a work of fiction in which a social issue such as gender, race, or class prejudice, is dramatized through its effect on the characters of a novel. By using this genre, the artists manage to make the personal plight of one or several characters a more universal reflection on a social problem that the artist wants to denounce.
The work of Charles Dickens is social, the writer describes the poverty, crime, and terrible living conditions of workers. In Oliver Twist (1839), we follow the story of an orphan named Oliver, raised in terrible poverty, hungry, mistreated and used and abused by everyone he meets. The reader cannot help but feel compassion for the young character and anger at a society that allows him to be mistreated in such a callous way.
Many other examples can be named here such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), John Steinbeck's 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, Richard Wright's 1940 novel Native Son, James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953).
More recently, the young author Angie Thomas has tackled the theme of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement through her novel The Hate U Give published in 2017.
The Hate U Give
The novel tells the story of a young black girl who witnesses the shooting of one of her oldest friends by a police officer. This tragedy sets in motion a series of events that will force her to take a side and decide what she wants to fight for. By using a realistic tone, describing events that are dramatized yet still ring true, and by naming all the recent victims of police brutality at the end of her novel, the author manages to offer her opinion on a burning social issue in a way that will encourage people to think and maybe question their own implicit biases and previously held opinions.
Visual media are a powerful way for artists to express their revolt, anger or desire for social change. It is called protest art.
We have already mentioned the revolution that pop art was in the artistic landscape, making consumerism and the desire for fame a subject of artistic creation. But many other works of art have acted as a way to question or criticize society.
Norman Rockwell's work The Problem we all live with was first published in 1964 on the cover of Look Magazine. The painting represented an important and recent historical event: the escorting of the young Ruby Bridges who was one of the first black students to be schooled at a formerly "all-white" school in the south of the United States during the Civil rights movement and the desegregation of the south. The painting has become a symbol of the Civil rights movement, representing the innocence of a young child, forced to be escorted by Federal Marshals in order to go to school. The racial slurs visible on the wall behind the characters are there to represent the violent protestors who picketed the school and more widely, the people who believed black and white Americans should remain separate.
More recently, many pieces of art have aimed at criticizing elements of society that the artists believe to be wrong or dangerous.
Supermarket Lady, by Duane Hanson (1969) is a radical takedown of consumerism/consumer society, The Guerilla Girls defend women's rights through their work especially the poster Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into Met. Museum? (last version published in 2012).
While the art of cinema is often associated with entertainment, there is no denying that many directors are known for creating socially/politically engaged movies that were aimed at bringing about societal change or at least, the broadening of people's minds.
Movies about important historical figures allow the directors of a film to share their opinion on the events but also the political/social setting of the story.
The movie In the Name of the Father, by Jim Sheridan (1993) is based on historical events pertaining to the Irish/Great Britain conflict and the innocent men falsely convicted of the 1974 Guildford pub bombings. The movie, by portraying the tragic fate of those wrongfully accused men, strives to make the audience aware of the abuse of power that transpired at that time.
A movie like Erin Brockovich directed by Steven Soderbergh in 2000 portrayed the fight of a single-mother of three, down on her luck and her lonely battle to bring a corrupt corporation to justice. Loosely based on real-life events, the movie was a strong statement against corporate corruption, as well as a defense of scrappy go-getters that society sometimes writes-off too easily.
Some directors, without referencing a specific historical figure or event, are also focused on social commentary.
Ken Loach is a British director whose socially critical directing style and socialist ideals are evident in his treatment of social issues such as poverty, homelessness or labor rights.
|The lyrics||Les paroles|
|To voice||Mettre en voix, articuler|
|In the wake||Dans la foulée, à la suite de|
|Buzz worthy||Qui a du succès, qui crée le buzz|
|Worries and concerns||Des inquiétudes|
|Gender, race, or class prejudice||Des préjugés de genre, de race ou de classe sociale|
|Personal plight||La détresse personnelle|
|To be mistreated||Être maltraité|
|To tackle||Traiter un sujet|
|The shooting||La fusillade|
|To set in motion||Mettre en mouvement, en route|
|Police brutality||Les violences policières|
|A burning social issue||Un problème social controversé|
|The artistic landscape||Le paysage artistique|
|A racial slur||Une insulte raciste|
|A protestor||Un manifestant|
|A bias||Un préjugé|
|A director||Un metteur en scène|
|Pertaining||En lien avec|
|Falsely convicted||Condamné à tort|
|Down on one's luck||Être à la dèche|
|Go-getter||Fonceur, ambitieux, déterminé|
|To write-off||Oublier, négliger|
|Socially critical||Socialement critique|
|Homelessness||Le fait d'être sans domicile fixe|
|Labor rights||Droits du travail|
Subversive forms of art
While it can be the artists' expressed intent to resist, question, criticize or protest through their creations and their content or meaning, some works of art are also subversive in their very essence. They don't necessarily aim at protesting, but their very existence and format can still be thought-provoking or rebellious.
As a result of its very nature, street art has been a game changer for the "industry" of art. Art was traditionally something to be created and shared through traditional means of distribution: auctions, sales, museums, exhibitions. But street art, on the contrary, is directly made for public viewing since it is created in the public space where everyone can have access to it for free: on buildings, on streets, on trains, etc.
Originally, street art was a means for the artists to express themselves, to voice or embody their angst or revolt against the system. It has evolved quite a bit and is now recognized as a legitimate form of art, but it remains associated with protest or guerilla art because its very nature goes against established boundaries.
Girl with Balloon by Banksy was sold for 1.4 million at an auction in 2018 and actually self-destructed because the artist had installed a shredder in the frame of the painting to destroy it if it ever went up for auction. In doing so, Banksy questioned the concept of art being for sale by literally destroying his own work.
New forms of arts
New forms of art are always seen as subversive. New movements, new dance styles, new genres of music have always been met with resistance even when their aim wasn't overtly political. New artistic styles and forms of expression appear threatening or subversive to a society that is not yet used to them.
This was the case when jazz music first appeared and people associated it with a lifestyle of excess. This was again the case when rock and roll hit the airwaves.
The singer Elvis Presley was considered a threat to public morals because of the way he danced.
This often has to do with generational divides and conflicts, where the older part of the population and the establishment cling to styles of art they are used to when the younger generations looks for new ways to express themselves.
In the mid 1970s, the punk movement came on the scene in Great Britain and America. Through visual art, literature, music, fashion and strong ideologies, this artistic subculture defined itself in contradiction to the established ideas and institutions that dominated western societies at that time: they valued individual freedoms, non-conformity, direct action and protested the establishment, authority, corporatism and governments in general that they believed to be corrupted and dangerous.
|The essence||L'essence, l'être|
|The aim||Le but, la direction|
|A game-changer||Un élément qui change tout|
|An exhibition||Une exposition|
|The public space||L'espace public|
|A shredder||Une déchiqueteuse|
|The frame||Le cadre|
|An auction||Une vente aux enchères|
|The lifestyle||Le mode de vie|
|Generational divides and conflicts||Le conflit générationnel|
|To cling to||S'accrocher à|
|A subculture||Une sous-culture|
|The head of State||La tête de l'État|
|The national anthem||L'hymne national|
|To take a stand||S'opposer à|
|An act of protest||Un acte de protestation|
Art to transform society
The artist can act as both a messenger to the world but also a resistant-like figure, questioning and criticizing the world in which they live. But artists who speak out can sometimes suffer political or commercial backlash for it. Moreover, while many people can be influenced or moved by a work of art on a personal level, it remains impossible to measure the actual impact of art on social or political change. But just because art doesn't directly change society, doesn't mean that it doesn't play a crucial role by giving a voice to people who might feel as though they are not being heard and by creating shared experiences for human beings to bond over.
Backlash against some politically/socially engaged artists
Many artists believe that it is their duty to create work that will challenge their society or political regime. However, when it comes to authoritarian regimes, the control of artists is at the core of their politics because, more often than not, free art (as opposed to state-sanctioned propaganda) is a way to question or threaten totalitarian power. In a democratic regime, there is less of a risk for artists to suffer political, state-sanctioned backlash for their political opinions and works of art. But they can sometimes nevertheless suffer the consequences of their political stances on a more commercial, moral or personal level.
"Art is the only power to free humankind from all repression."
Many authoritarian regimes like the Stalinist government of the 1930s required art to meet strict criteria of style and content to ensure that it only served the purposes of state leadership.
The regime of Pinochet in Chile which was born in 1973 did not shy away from arresting, torturing or exiling muralists or even killing artists such as the singer Víctor Jara who was killed as a warning to other artists.
More recently, an artist/activist called Ai Weiwei has suffered a lot of political backlash from the Chinese government. He was even put under house-arrest for his various works of art that sometimes criticize or question the regime such as his mural Remembering (2009) which was a response to the Sichuan earthquake and a thinly veiled criticism of the negligence of the Chinese authorities for the poorly built schools which collapsed.
In a democratic regime, artists can suffer commercial backlash. Censorship can play a big role in stopping an artist from sharing his work. Many famously socially engaged works of art were banned from certain places (public libraries for examples) or from being taught in school.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck whose depiction of the harsh working conditions in Depression era California was so brutal was banned in the county depicted in the book.
More recently, Lois Lowry's 1993 young adult novel The Giver, was banned in several U.S. states, including California and Kentucky, for addressing issues such as euthanasia.
Moreover, the artists can also suffer a backlash those who disagree with their political stance.
Norman Rockwell received hundreds of letters of hate mail (including death threats) after the Problem we all live with was published.
You can also sometimes encounter artists who have suffered commercially after taking position on a controversial or burning issue.
This was the case of the country band the Dixie Chicks whose leader singer spoke out against War in Iraq on a London stage in March 2003. This resulted in the band being boycotted from radios, their concerts cancelled and CD's burned or bulldozed to show how much their audience disapproved their political engagement. The band also received a great number of hate mail and threats and that political stance certainly affected their careers.
|A duty||Un devoir|
|At the core of||Au cœur de|
|Authoritarian regime||Un régime autoritaire|
|A criteria of style and content||Un critère de contenu et de style|
|The purpose||Le but, l'objectif|
|The state leadership||La gouvernance de l'État|
|To shy away from||Avoir peur de|
|To be on house-arrest||Être détenu chez soi|
|An earthquake||Un tremblement de terre|
|A veiled criticism||Une critique voilée/dissimulée|
|State-sanctioned||Sanctionné, autorisé par l'État|
|The backlash||Un contre-coup, un retour de flamme, une conséquence négative|
|The front woman||La porte-parole|
|The band||Le groupe (musique)|
|Hate mail||Du courrier malveillant|
|A political stance||Une prise de position politique|
|A career||Une carrière|
Art changing people's minds
While it is impossible to be able to measure the exact impact of protest art on a society, there is no denying that art and artists still play a major role in shaping people's minds and opinions about political or social issues.
"Art is not supposed to change the world, to change practical things, but to change perceptions. Art can change the way we see the world."
Art does not enforce change on a global scale, it doesn't actually change the world, but it does have an impact on individuals on a personal level. It changes people's minds, it broadens their horizons, it forces them to watch, think, question, agree or disagree. It also allows people to find common ground through the shared experience of having seen/read or watched a work of art and discussing it with others. The debates around engaged art and its worth give legitimacy to that very kind of art by showing of much of a starting point for debate it can be.
When young women dress up as characters from the Handmaid's Tale (a book and TV show by Margaret Atwood describing a dystopian society where women are no longer citizens but servants obeying strict social rules) in order to protest patriarchy, we can see that art has the ability to give us images, analogies and symbols which will unite us in our fight for our rights.
The worst argument against the importance of protest art is practical utility. It's very hard to find songs, movies, novels, paintings that have led to a policy change. But that is not the purpose of art.
Protest art makes people feel less alone, it gives them a voice or allows them to find theirs. It can also cement their beliefs and give them the courage to act on them.
|To shape people's minds||Modeler les esprits|
|A global scale||Une échelle globale|
|The personal level||Le niveau personnel|
|Common ground||Des points communs|
|The starting point||Le point de départ|
|A debate||Un débat|
|To dress up||Se déguiser|
|Analogies and symbols||Analogies et symboles|
|Practical utility||Utilité pratique|
|To lead to||Mener, conduire à|
|Policy change||Un changement de politique|
|The purpose||Le but|
|To act on||Agir sur|