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Art Guide: Socially Conscious Art

"I think it's a responsibility for any artist to protect freedom of expression and to use any way to extend this power." Ai Weiwei, "Ai Weiwei 'Does Not Feel Powerful'"BBC, October 13, 2011.

Ai Weiwei was commenting on being named the most powerful person in the art world in 2011 by ArtReview magazine after his three month detention by the Chinese government for alleged tax evasion. His position as most powerful art world representative is largely due to his political statements and the conscientious stance he chooses to make with his art.

Art making began to take on a more blatant socially conscious role during the 19th century, frequently reflecting the plight of the poor and criticizing the government. Many philosophical arguments were recorded on the role of art at this time. It was often not enough to have "art for art's sake" or art for the sake of an individualized patron's interests. The advent of photography propelled the message to an even wider audience, often wavering between the concept of photography as art and photography as journalism. By the 20th century, the government began commissioning artists to record the reality of the time with programs such as the Works Progress Administration, directing social awareness to merge art and journalism.

Socially conscious art deals with issues ranging from women's suffrage and the civil rights movement to ecology. Artists' practice of being socially conscious is recorded most obviously through their subject matter, but also can show through the materials they use. For example, El Anatsui's art comments on politics and culture in Africa, while using found materials from his surroundings in the creation of his work. The depth of exploration into these issues can take many directions and can be fed by many resources in the library. Many books deal with the direct discussion of social movements and their record in art. They critique and draw attention to the issues raised by artists as a reflection of a society.

These books offer commentary on socially conscious art:

While some artistic projects are socially aware without advertising for rhetoric, others are blatant in their criticism of reality. Some simply record what is, and the impulse to react is left to society. Either way, we see our world reflected back to us through the interpretation of the artist.

From the 19th century to the contemporary, these artists take a socially conscious attitude toward art making, often falling into more than one of the following categories:


Shirin Neshat, Diego Rivera, George Grosz, Honore Daumier, Shepard Fairey, Rashid Johnson


Mark Dion, Arte Povera, Agnes Denes, Alexis Rockman, Marcel Duchamp, Olafur Eliasson, Hiroshi Sugimoto

The Human Condition

Jacob Riis, Kathe Kollwitz, Walker Evans, Zoe Strauss, Janine Antoni, Kara Walker, Jenny Holzer, Collier Schorr

For more on the theory of artistic creation: art for art's sake versus art as a reflection of the society of the artist, try some of these books:

For a closer look at the role of ecology in art this summer, visit MoMA PS1 for their exhibition EXPO 1: New York, which is "an exploration of ecological challenges in the context of the economic and sociopolitical instability of the early 21st century." Read more about current political expressions in art in ArtReview magazine or The Art Newspaper online. Also, the Art:21 blog asks questions and offers insights into to the role of social responsibility in art.

Is there an art work that you find socially powerful?


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