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About Sociopolitical Art

Updated on October 29, 2014
"Act Like A Patriot", original art by Tree Pruitt
"Act Like A Patriot", original art by Tree Pruitt

What is it?

Find here the definition of sociopolitical art, often spelled socio-political and called social commentary as a category at many web sites for artists. See examples of how the meaning of this philosophical art category is expressed from a variety of resources -- paintings both old and contemporary, digital media, poetry, video, music, dance and film. Not just by expressing activism, protest, or social injustice, this art wants to spread moralistic values to let us know that we're not alone in our range of human emotions. A challenge for the artist expressing in this method is to balance the art on a "soap-box" between entertainment and heartfelt education.


The artwork shown above is "Ignorance = Fear" by Keith Haring, an example of Definitive Expression sociopolitical art.
The artwork shown above is "Ignorance = Fear" by Keith Haring, an example of Definitive Expression sociopolitical art.

What is Sociopolitical Art?

Sociopolitical art is a form of conceptual art where the idea to be expressed, by whatever artistic media, is both social and political in origin.

Why is it different from other types of art?

Any art medium or style can fall into the category of sociopolitical, making it closer to a philosophy rather than a mere artistic type. But unlike most other types of expression this art doesn't care if it's decorative or not. At times an artist may feel the need to voice or sway an opinion, spread an idea, and try to enact a change within society. They will often look to analogy to present the argument, where one thing represents another, so that the message is told.

Original artwork titled, "Enough", by Tree Pruitt is an example of Open Expression within sociopolitical art.
Original artwork titled, "Enough", by Tree Pruitt is an example of Open Expression within sociopolitical art. | Source

What makes art sociopolitical?

Sociopolitical art seeks to get a reaction from viewers, and may utilize shocking words or passionate imagery creating a nearly or literally interactive work of art. The effort of interpretation at least is required from the viewer. The motivation of the artist is about communication. Sociopolitical art wants the viewer to have an understanding of the relationship between the art itself and the concept the artist wishes to convey; for example, this art reflects what I have to say and not just what I see. Such artworks are often also part of the Existentialist movement. Dealing with matters of the human condition they can expose the beauty, horror, and humor in mankind. Parody and satire are devises also frequently used to imprint a concept in a viewers mind through punchy humor. Not having much concern for being politically correct, the sociopolitical artist is involved in a cultural rebellion -- a connection of social revolution from mind to mind.

Breaking It Down

The artist has two main choices for expression style within the category of sociopolitical -- Open Expression and Definitive Expression. Open Expression leaves the viewer of the artwork with an open ended question, concept, or asks of them to continue to ponder the theme. It invites the viewer to either make or include his or her own point of view. Definitive Expression, however, makes a direct definite statement. The viewer has little doubt about the theme of the artwork or what could be it's intended meaning.

Below are different examples of sociopolitical art in imagery.

Shown here is an example of Open Expression within sociopolitical art.
Shown here is an example of Open Expression within sociopolitical art. | Source

Open Expression

Here we see an example of Open Expression in an artwork titled "Separation". This piece presents the concept of the ongoing debate within American society of the separation of church and state through religious prayer in public schools. This example makes it fairly easy to discern what the main topics of conversation are, yet offers no definitive conclusion. The artist is making a statement that the conflict separates focus from the well being of the children, but excludes offering a preference towards one side or the other of the argument overall, therefore the expression is open-ended.

"Restrictions", soft sculpture by Tree Pruitt.
"Restrictions", soft sculpture by Tree Pruitt. | Source

"Restrictions", an emotive soft sculpture assemblage art piece, is another example of Open Expression. It is a conceptual art construction inspired by a Peruvian mummy that had been bound and buried. It is intended to reflect the restrictions within this life, how they can effect us emotionally and perhaps serve as a reminder not to carry those restrictions into the after life. Even though there are no words within the artwork to tell the viewer what emotional response is expected from the art the viewer non-the-less is left with a sense of confinement or restriction.

Shown here is an example of Definitive Expression in sociopolitical art.
Shown here is an example of Definitive Expression in sociopolitical art. | Source

Definitive Expression

Here we see an example of Definitive Expression in sociopolitical art via the use of a Pop Culture advertising icon. In this example the intention of the artists message is easily discernible; the message or meaning is well defined. Definitive Expression directly states an opinion on a social situation.

Example of Art Being Both Definitive and Open Expression

Sociopolitical Goya

At times sociopolitical art can be both Definitive and Open Expression in its message style. The Spanish painter and print maker Francisco Goya (30 March 1746 - 16 April 1828) has been regarded both as the last of the Old Masters and as the first of the moderns. The subversive and subjective elements in his art provided a model for the work of later generations of artists, including Picasso. Unlike his fellow Spaniard Picasso, most of the depictions of the effects of war Goya chose to portray are examples of Definitive Expression in Sociopolitical Art because he'd often include text to let the viewer know which direction thoughts should travel on the subject at hand. Though Goya sometimes did literally spell out the subject matter, much of his work also becomes Open Expression as well because he doesn't tell you whether what's in the scene is right or wrong; the viewer is left to form personal thoughts and feelings. Known as a chronicler of history, Goya produced numerous thought provoking paintings, drawings, and etchings such as the one shown below here.

No se puede saber por que. ([1810-1820]) Goya, Francisco
No se puede saber por que. ([1810-1820]) Goya, Francisco | Source

The etching includes the title of "No se puede saber por que", which translates as "No one knows why", and it is one example of many sociopolitical artworks produced by Goya where the artist portrays the unfathomable horrors of war; indeed no one knows why such acts are performed by one human upon another of kind. A publication from 1914 further explains Goya on this matter...

"About the greatest of human illusions he has no illusion. In drawing after drawing he states without mincing matters his conviction that to fight is after all only to murder. I think that it is this insistence not merely upon strife but upon murder that gives these drawings a character of horror more emphatic than that of any other representations of warfare. And it is not only against the barbarousness of war that he utters his passionate protest, but also against its tragical illogicality. It is not the business of art to attempt to solve the problem of pain or to hazard guesses at the riddle of the universe, and that Goya showed a just sense of its limitations in preferring to exhibit slices of life rather than to attempt an interpretation of the whole. He tosses us these raw and palpitating fragments and leaves us to digest them as best we may."

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*Francisco Goya. (2009, May 19). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 06:23, May 20, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Francisco_Goya&oldid=290994967

*The New York Public Library Digital Gallery

http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?1109956

*Goya - Disasters Of The War, originally published 1914

http://www.oldandsold.com/articles22/goya-13.shtml

To reveal art and conceal

the artist is art's aim." - Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray

Picasso Makes A Statement

Although Pablo Picasso might have protested the title of "Sociopolitical Artist", he has non-the-less become one of the first examples of this expressive devise to come to mind. Thinking back to one of his first paintings, of a child kneeling at a communion rail, the author suspects most all of his works could be placed under the heading of sociopolitical in that religious quests, emotions, family dynamics, political upheaval, social changes, female issues, and personal strife are all major themes in the works of Picasso.

An artist often isn't aware that he or she is creating a social statement. An event or change may occur to cause the artist to have a great need to react, to release strong emotions or opinions from within; to be reactionary. Reaction is essential in all art, as it is the reaction to a thing that causes the need to create; to take action in what may be the only way the artist is able. In a quote below, Pablo states, "My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art". Yet, even such a well known painter is subject to the overwhelming need to create a statement -- HIS REACTION -- about an event that struck him deeply.

Picasso's 1937 painting, Guernica
Picasso's 1937 painting, Guernica

Art Speaks Up

The Protest Power of Sociopolitical Art

The painting by Pablo Picasso titled Guernica is an Open Expression example of sociopolitical art. Though most all people who look upon it do get the artists message of the pain and destruction of war, Picasso is not directly spelling out his message; it is still open to interpretation or simple viewing. There is no road sign to tell us where this scene takes place. No dropping bombs are visible to tell us the destruction was not caused by a natural disaster or some other event. The viewer is left to ponder the emotional aspects of the image and to relate to what they see as they need. Because this painting is so very open in expression, it's sure to continue being personally interpreted by viewers for many, many years to come.

"The Spanish struggle is the fight of reaction against the people, against freedom. My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. How could anybody think for a moment that I could be in agreement with reaction and death? ... In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death." -- Picasso http://www.answers.com/topic/list-of-picasso-artwo...

Shown below is, "Radio Description", an Open Expression painting by Tree Pruitt depicting an emotional reaction to the destructive events in New York on September 11, 2001 and created while the event was in progress. As the title suggests, this image was created based solely upon the description offered by news reporters on live radio that very day. Much like Picasso's Guernica, this painting offers no direct opinion but rather seeks to record the emotional impact of a tragic historical event.

"Radio Description" original art by Tree Pruitt.
"Radio Description" original art by Tree Pruitt. | Source
Source

Interactive Activism

In Spring of 2013, one million bones - made by artists, activists, and students - flooded our nation's capital. One Million Bones is a collaborative art installation designed to recognize the millions of victims and survivors who have been killed or displaced by ongoing genocides and mass atrocities in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Burma. The mission is to create a visible movement that will increase global awareness of these atrocities while raising the critical funds needed to protect and aid displaced and vulnerable survivors.

The One Million Bones brand image was the concept and design of artist Marie Shriver. Marie generously donated her talent to the project designing this very powerful image that will carry the One Million Bones brand. Marie's concept evolved from the idea that the number 1,000,000 has six zeros, when overlaying those zeros on top of one another, a "target" forms. The "target" represents genocide. Learn More -->

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Now, an excerpt from the website The Art of Protest: From Vietnam to AIDS...

Dada, Fluxus, and Situationist International

Activist conceptual and performance art often owes a debt of influence to Dada, a form of anti-art which used satire and non-rational discourse to critique the First World War and its capitalist agenda. From its origins, Dada often had the feel of festival and agitation-propaganda, and challenged the elevation of art to elite status and high price tags in galleries. Their example inspired the group of artists associated with Fluxus, whose performances, installations, and conceptual art often expressed overt political intentions. For example, Wolf Vostell's Phänomene (1965) "involved the spontaneous contributions of poets, artists, and onlookers amidst the crumbling piles of broken cars (i.e., the detritus of capitalist production and destruction)" (136). Other Fluxus artists of note include Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, and Nam June Paik.

"Act Like A Patriot", by Tree Pruitt
"Act Like A Patriot", by Tree Pruitt

Say It With Words

Sociopolitical Art Examples Including Words

The art image shown in this section is titled "Act Like A Patriot", and is a modern art collage painting offering a response to the American Patriot Act, oil and gas prices, border control, and general Middle East issues (specifically those during the Presidential administration of G.W. Bush). It speaks of many political issues within one space via the combination of words cut from commercial media with organically painted figures. Two faces of government are shown -- the President and Vice President -- one offers a penny (or takes it), and the other holds out a cookie (chocolate chip, of course). Lady America grows from his ribs like Eve in the primordial garden. She ignores the events by chatting away on a cell phone. It is our personal freedom that is dead as a skeleton in the grave. Words and phrases scattered throughout the scene tell of the pictured social strife, including allusions to the causes.

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Below is an example of sociopolitical poetry. Again, multiple subjects are touched upon in one allegorical frame including such themes as Father Time, former President G.W. Bush, an implied Christ like force, United Stated border patrol issues, and human aging as a whole.

Thorn Bush Soliloquies

I hunger --

Yet Father Time asks for more.

I mourn --

But my tears move him not.

I become weary

Of deceptions built upon layers of disillusion --

Father Time protects only himself from the thorns.

My body thin and weak,

Holds fast to Father's promise.

A heart filled with childish faith

Lay tattered on a heap of reality trash.

Burn the pile!

Yet Father Time asks for more.

It is this, and then it's that --

We children suffer

While Father Time gets fat.

Share the life, share the expense --

We are all in this together!

But Father's not on the team --

Economic heart felt sabotage.

We give --

Thorn bush harvest --

Our blood for Fathers goblet.

He feeds --

On golden fields of highway grain

We bathe --

Our fragile naked bodies

Immersed in streams of nature bane.

We grieve --

The loss of freedom fair.

I ask where is dear Father?

High a' loft in easy chair!

I say --

To all my brothers and my sisters,

That it was us

Who set him there!

What is this Father

Without his children's mind?

Empty clock on fictitious shelf

A' waiting to be whined.

Father's voice,

Now faint within my ears --

Thorn bush illusion fails sharpness power,

Through passage of fragile years.

In this thorn bush soliloquy I hunger --

My body thin and weak.

It is this, and then it's that.

What is this Father?

We give,

We grieve,

We grow!

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"Thorn Bush Soliloquies", by Tree Pruitt.

"Wisdom" - Opinions are cheap.

"Wisdom", an oil painting by Tree Pruitt, exposes social preference of commerce over spiritualism.
"Wisdom", an oil painting by Tree Pruitt, exposes social preference of commerce over spiritualism.

Say YES to Yoko; First time ever I saw your space

An early sociopolitical influence for the lensmaster

I personally recall the first time I was aware of sociopolitical artwork. At the tender age of seven, a piece I'd seen had struck me with the pure concept of self realization and all of the implications of the work that my mind could comprehend at the time. I've continued to ponder it's meaning to myself; As the years of my life have gone by, it's truth reaches only deeper.

"Ceiling Painting", an important work of pioneering, avant-garde artist Yoko Ono invites the viewer to climb a white ladder, where, at the top, a magnifying glass attached by a chain hangs from a frame on the ceiling. The viewer uses the reading glass to discover a block letter "instruction" beneath the framed sheet of glass - it simply says "YES."; such small letters make such a large statement!

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*Read about visits to see "Yes" Yoko Ono at the Walker Art Center

*Yoko Ono Lennon profile at Instant Karma, bio & more.

Ceiling Painting/Yes Painting, photograph By Marsha Ewing, see link above.

Social Media Effects

A new Path for Sociopolitical Imagery

With the ever growing popularity of connecting with people via social media sites sociopolitical art has found a new venue for expression. Websites such as MySpace, Twitter, and Facebook allow users to easily share opinions through artistic images from all around the world; most of us probably do it often. When a user of these sites finds a picture or graphic meme that they want to share a few simple clicks of a button spreads the image to friends and family, thus spreading the concept as well. People who have never had an artistic voice can now creatively express the issues that they feel are most important by sharing images created by those who do have the technical skills required to make the things. However, these things are not art for the sake of art alone but are in fact a social propaganda. Propaganda may sound like a scary word, but it simply means me trying to get you to accept a concept that I care about, or vice versa.

Social Propaganda

The graphic meme shown below is well designed social propaganda that wants to make you think by using art methods. The Western eye moves through a scene from left to right, just as we read, so we automatically go to the image on the left first. Then too, light toned imagery will catch the eye before a darker image. Because of the contrasts of light and dark in the portion on the left it's hard not to look at it; The creator of the graphic has used that same method with the font lettering. It really doesn't matter that it's written in another language too -- what matters is the white on black background. Now, how it makes you feel is however it makes you feel, but these images were skillfully cropped and put together in order to make you feel something. The more eyecatching an issue based graphic is the more likely it is to be share often on the social media site.

Graphic meme created by Mariana Assis.
Graphic meme created by Mariana Assis. | Source

FREE Oscar Wilde, "The Picture of Dorian Gray"

from Project Gutenberg

Most certainly a tale of social situations, Oscar Wilde's sharp wit created what was close to being one of the first modern horror novels, but one with lessons to heed. Never one to preach, dear Oscar paints a picture sure to alter your inner vision and possibly your own personal portrait.

I'm pleased to help spread the efforts of *Project Gutenberg's, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde*. Read it online for FREE! Please consider making a donation, while you're at the site, to help keep quality literature under curious noses... as darling Oscar would have wanted! ;)

"You don't understand me, Harry," answered the artist. "Of course I am not like him. I know that perfectly well. Indeed, I should be sorry to look like him. You shrug your shoulders? I am telling you the truth. There is a fatality about all physical and intellectual distinction, the sort of fatality that seems to dog through history the faltering steps of kings. It is better not to be different from one's fellows. The ugly and the stupid have the best of it in this world. They can sit at their ease and gape at the play. If they know nothing of victory, they are at least spared the knowledge of defeat. They live as we all should live -- undisturbed, indifferent, and without disquiet. They neither bring ruin upon others, nor ever receive it from alien hands.

Your rank and wealth, Harry; my brains, such as they are -- my art, whatever it may be worth; Dorian Gray's good looks -- we shall all suffer for what the gods have given us, suffer terribly."

Voices Breaking Boundaries - Sociopolitical Arts Project

Political Art Images Video

A collection of images someone chose to share on Youtube.

© 2007 Tree Pruitt

Discussion Forum & Guestbook - Remark, share, or just say hello!

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    • profile image

      Colin323 4 years ago

      Good lens. I like the razor sharp wit of Gerald Scarfe, the political cartoonist, who uses caustic humour to lampoon politicians and others in power

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Hi

      An interesting and informative blog. I would welcome your comments on my sociopolitical works:)

      Kind regards

      http://richardmarshallartist.blogspot.com/2011/04/...

    • mariatjader profile image

      mariatjader 6 years ago

      Well constructed lens & squid angel blessed*

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      DianeClancy 9 years ago

      This is very interesting!! Thank you for pulling all this together. I am very active in protecting and advancing social justice ... but my art doesn't tend to reflect that directly ... just in a reflective way. Thank you! ~ Diane Clancy