The History of Art as a Vehicle for Societal Change

Staff Writer: Kendal Windom ‘21

Art is not simply an activity done leisurely for pleasure, but a vehicle utilized to silently, yet effectively, defy oppression. Throughout history, those who were unable to speak out for themselves, in the face of fatal repercussions, turned to artwork to unify and express their distress. In the wake of a worldwide pandemic and a looming presidential election, art has given us a chance to unite in a time where the world is extremely divisive.

On January 13th, 1879, artist Elizabeth Butler created “Remnants of an Army” as a protest to the first Anglo-Afghan War. This oil-on-canvas painting depicts William Brydon, member of the Bengal army, arriving at the gates of Jalalabad in 1842 after nearly escaping death. In this depiction, Brydon was the last survivor after over 16,000 soldiers perished in battle. The observer can see a tired Dr. Brydon toiling the last few miles to safety on an exhausted and dying horse, behind lay a wasteland destroyed by war. As Butler paints, she utilizes darker, more somber colors to emulate the sad atmosphere that surrounds war, while painting tired, hopeless expressions on both the horse and its rider. As an audience, we are forced to sympathize with this soldier, ultimately evoking anger directed towards those who encourage a war. This painting's purpose is to stress the casualties that war brings as a consequence to a nation’s hubris. Naturally, Lady Butler was unable to simply stop a war, so utilizing art as a vehicle, she stirred anti-war sentiments throughout the world, pressuring those in power to reconsider war. This is just one example of how a paintbrush and canvas can speak louder than any words can.

In 1937, renowned artist Pablo Picasso painted the masterpiece above, which he titled, “Guernica.” Its namesakeGuernica, Spainwas a once peaceful Oceanic town controlled by the Spanish government. Under the leadership of Dictator Francesco Franco, the Spanish government allowed Nazis to use this populated town as a practice site for experimental bombs. Over 100,000 pounds of explosives were dropped, killing more than 2,000 civilians and destroying 70 percent of the city. Picasso and other anti-war protesters were enraged by this brutal incident. In response, he created the painting above as an impressionistic approach to expressing his anger. He utilizes distorted shapes and suffering faces to highlight suffering felt by everyone. This painting depicts people, animals, and buildings destroyed by Nazi bombs and dark colors, which heighten the psychological impact of the paintings. To this day, this piece of artwork is still known as one of the most powerful anti-war statements in the history of art.

Recently, the world has fought against our latest social issue: racial inequality, leaving the Black Lives Matter Movement in its wake. This movement's intent is to fight against systemic racism, racial injustice, racial criminalization, and the slaughter of unarmed people of color by law enforcement. Artist Demar Douglas has drawn the picture above, which illustrates a hooded person of color blindfolded by the American flag, and in the background lay a noose bound to tree. In this example, the hooded child is a representation of individuals like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown who were brutally murdered, in response to the polices’ perpetuation of their fear of black men. The hoodie itself is an article of clothing in which America has criminalized when worn on an African American male, and therefore a symbol for America's justification of police brutality. The noose in the background alludes to times of slavery, in which Africans were subject to the ultimate punishmentdeathfor minor transgressions, as African Americans are today at the hands of police officers; the American flag blindfold is representative of society’s attempt to conceal deeply rooted racism. By simply utilizing a pen and paper, Douglass has addressed the suffering of many across our nation.

[Edited by Mimi Brown ’21.]

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