Art is inherently subversive. Throughout history, it has played a key role in every process of social change. And even though all artistic expressions share this trait, here we will focus on what they call the visual arts and some of its most frequent modern forms: painting, graphic design, photography.
Art is as old as humanity itself. Certain studies claim that cave paintings appeared even before the human being developed the ability of speech. Art is of course one of the strongest (if not the strongest) means of expression, though its true power does not lie in the expressive quality but in the fact that it is a means of communication. An individual act of creativity is doomed unless it reaches others, it is meant to be shared. In this respect, art is as social as we humans are.
Art conveys a message, but it also mirrors reality. As a reflection of a particular context art fulfills another of its critical roles, that of the critic. But an art work is never a sterile snapshot, a mere witness of a certain period and place. On the contrary – it is the judgement of ingrained habits, shared beliefs, national customs and the status quo in general. Art is never compliant nor accommodating.
Ingenuity and creativity are the main elements that enable change, and social change is no exception. Men and women have the intrinsical capability of imagination, something that allows them to picture a different future.
Culture always precedes political change. As a cultural product, art reflects and spreads the experiences of the people as a constant process.
Throughout history, political revolutions can be read as the discrete units that condensate months, years and even centuries of social shift. Art has been present in every one of them, working at many levels and triggering subsequent phenomena.
Who knows how many more decades would France’s Ancien Régime have lasted if the printing press was never invented. The Printing Revolution was technical, but it made quite a few political revolutions possible. The spread of the printing press facilitated the wide circulation of information and ideas, and the people of the French Revolution made great use of this technology. However, in 1780’s France, those who needed a revolution the most were also the least educated. Less than 30% of the population could read and/or write, which is to say the clergy and the nobility. This is why the vast majority of printed materials that were distributed during the French Revolution were illustrations, accompanied by little or no text. Some of these pamphlets would convey the principles of the Revolution graphically, others would provide information or a call to action. Many more would portray the hated monarchs and nobility in ridiculous positions or situations, in an attempt to humiliate the enemy.
Pamphlets and posters and political caricatures kept the Revolution going forward, while the traditional painters depicted those convulsed times in new ways. Jacques-Louis David was, whithout doubt, the artist of the French Revolution. This neoclacissist despised the stiffness and frivolity of the Rococo style, and produced one of the most iconic works of the period: the Oath of the Tennis Court, the depiction of the moment in which the French nation agreed to have their first constitution.
Some 50 years later, painter Eugene Delacroix would create Liberty Leading the People. This is the portrait of the ancient regime’s definitive fall, and of the people’s victory.
The experience of the Revolution would lay the groundwork for the events of May, 1968. These protests against consumerism, capitalism and American imperialism took place in the French universities and factories. Posters, grafitti and stenciles were the weapons of choice, and protesters would cover the walls of schools and work places in them. The mottos were simple, but witty – you had to be clever to understand them.
It’s all good with the French, but the Russians were the first graphic designers…or at least the best ones. Russian Constructivism was an artistic philosophy that came to be during the early 1910’s, and its most prominent figure was Aleksandr Rodchenko. The objective and utopia of the constuctivist program was ‘an orderly society’. This artistic movement was taken by the Russian government and put at the service of the regime. Socialist propaganda was circulated in this style, and the usual topics were the reorganization of the state and the companies and products it distributed. Needless to say, Russian constructivism had a great impact on modern advertising.
Around the contructivism’s golden years, another great political movement took place: the Mexican Revolution. After ten years of violence, blood and struggle dictator Porfirio Diaz was overthrown, putting an end to a 35-year regime. Nationalism was on the rise after the war, and the streets were its public proof. Murals appeared all over the country, showing the different stages of the Mexican Revolution. Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros are two of the main Mexican muralists.
Muralism served a further purpose: murals would help provide literary instruction to thousands of Mexicans that could not read nor write.
Murals were also a core part of the Maoist Revolution in China, in 1966. The goal of the Chinese leader was to preserve Comunist ideology, hence he launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
Mao surrounded himself with the youth, in an attempt to regain power within the Communist Party. The creative power of young communist artists was celebrated, but the traditional Chinese techniques (such as ink painting) and themes were forbidden. The leader wanted to deeply renew the arts, eradicating the past in the process. As a counterpart, resistance arose: a group of traditional artists created an underground organization called No Name, and continued exploring all styles of painting.
In these five milestones we have just discussed, art and social change are so intertwined that it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other starts. Part of the problem lies in the fact that art never stands still: sometimes because it is forbidden and has to go into hiding (just like the members of No Name), but mainly because creativity is in the motion…
And motion is life!