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Articles on artshole - Art & Society Should Art Reflect Society?

Work produced by Liou Ming Law

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Art & Society Should Art Reflect Society?


Religious World
Renaissance and Patronage
Time of Beauty
19th Century Art
The Modern World


Art and Society, what is their relationship? Does Art encourage the growth of a society or does a society provoke the direction of its Art? What are the influences? How much is being influenced? Art began, one may argue, when civilization was borne. With each civilization, we form a society, a group of people with individual characteristics, philosophies and cultures within which all sorts of ideas, thoughts and opinions are always brought to challenge and evaluation. These may be recorded in literature or in different forms of expression we known as Art. Right from the where culture started, events have been recorded in forms of pictures i.e. historical paintings which inform us about experiences in the past historical periods. History is the record of the development of human society. It can be expressed in forms of architectures, sculptures and paintings. As the topic is vast, I will therefore be focusing on the relationship between painting and society. I will be referring to different periods of Art movement to view its contribution to its society, and how Art and society have counteracted in bringing forth new Arts and new societies for generation to come.

Traditionally, Art has been used as a vehicle to illustrate and illuminate history as historians recognize that some Art may help them to identify and explain the nature of a society or a period.

Ideas trigger responses and therefore arouse innumerable influences on background; heredity and environments. These influences then get translated into new ideas; the circle begins again. With the passage of time, everything changes. Although unchanging objects in themselves, works of Art are in themselves changing, flowing inspirations to succeeding generation of viewers. This reviving and self-renewing circle of exchange in ideas result in new Art and new society. The process is forever interchanging and inter-relating.

The Religious World

At the peak of Roman and Greek Civilization, religious paintings were there to impress or symbolise people’s belief and morality. It was at the disposal of Artistic imagination and the ever-changing conditions of the Roman Period during when the operation between Art and engineering gradually focused upon religion. Before the Roman period, there was the antiquity, which eventually contracted and largely disappeared. Therefore, the need of religion came to provide the only regular and continuous architectural commission for Artists. Like the early Christian paintings they told of how there was God amongst life and the motivation of religious movement began. In St. Barbara, 1437 (Right), she was imprisoned by her father to prevent her beauty from being spoiled. It showed her religious conviction by her persuading the builders to construct a chapel with three windows, which was seen a symbol for Holy Trinity. Van Eyck, who painted the St. Barbara 1437, was the master of depicting delicate architectural forms with a soft drawing style that sharply defined details of drapery folds. The delicate drawing of the great cathedral indicated how it dominated the surrounding countryside. This picture present me a feeling of how humans were relying on their beliefs in God to lead their lives, and also their need to express this desire through the construction of high cathedrals, to reach out to God. Scene from the St, Francis Cycle 1300 (above), was painted by the most highly paid painter of his time, Giotto. The Frescoes illustrated Francesco Bernardone, St. Francis of Assisi’s life. It showed how Francesco rejected his wealth in favour of poverty, a complete reverse to his upbringing. Later he acquired followers and Francisan order was found in 1209. This painting is preaching the message of good morality and religious practice regardless of obstacles.

Renaissance And Patronage

As time past Art became a growingly valuable subject, ‘The patronage and the Artist’. A new Artistic demand, a new role. Paintings, sculptures and architectures in the Renaissance were almost always produced by Artists at the specific request of another person i.e. the patron; who might be the King, the Pope, a duke or a rich citizen. Artists, did not on the whole, produce works of Art in their workshops and wait for a patron; instead, the patrons specifically requested works. Therefore the contents of Art at that period were mainly an expression of papal power, the aspiration of the community, and the indication of the wealth of a ruler or any significant figures. Powerful images brought contrast to the hierarchy of life styles; they divided up the rich and the poor. It ‘s a reflection of a society that ruled by class division.

The very essence of the Renaissance was encapsulated by the work of three Masters , who were Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael Sanzio, and Michelangelo Buonarottio. Leonardo Da Vinci was seen as the perfect man of the Renaissance. I personally like his work, Mona Lisa 1506. (Left) The expression on her face was the key to the painting. During the Middle Age, figures were painted with no life, and quite often strictly on biblical subjects. There was always a sense of rigidity and server ness. The transformation from this into a painting with life and flesh was seen as being cursed and scandalous. But, precisely for this reason Leonardo Da Vinci broke the boundary of Art, with a smile and a glimpse of life. Here Art was used to challenge the society and give it a new direction.

Titan, a patronage Artist, one of his works, Christ Crowned with Thorns (Right) depicted the execution of Christ. Two versions of this painting were made approximately 30 years apart. In the earlier version, Christ rolled his eyes towards Heaven, giving the painting a melodramatic effect, which was unusual in Titan’s work. In the later version, his eyes were cast so that Christ wore a more traditional air of resignation. Colours were painted with a more muted, darker tone compared with its earlier version where the brushstrokes was not as vigorous, nor was the pain and torture depicted as energetically. By looking at the two pieces separately we see how he had changed as time past. The disappointment caused by human violence had saddened him, and in return, his painting also expressed his sad feeling towards the society.

Breakthrough of Patronage

Around the 17th century, the restricted patronage of Art was diluting to a much freer system. Art became more inviting to people of different classes. Like in Netherlands, giving little demands for paintings, prospering middle class gradually replaced the traditional sources of patronage. Majority of the Dutch society could afford to take interest in Art, which is for people to live with and enjoy in. Science flourished, so did the Arts, from this time onward life was to be filled with intellectual exploration of ideas, displays of talent and the recognition of individual genius.

All these had brought to an introduction of a new and radical stylistic approach in 17th century painting. Caravaggio, who often emphasized the simple nobility of the common peasants, throughout most of his career being dependant largely on the religious influences from the Roman Society. His work was much influenced by the Italian paintings, an extraordinary life being punctuated by violent incidents, illustrating his volatile and aggressive temperament. From his style we can see the Realism in which holy figures in his paintings were modelled on ordinary people. This expressed his desire towards a society without the division of class. Here, we see how Art and Society was constantly encouraging each other to move towards a goal, an ideal society.

The Conversation of St Paul 1600 Bacchus 1596 Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

The time of beauty

In the early 18th century, pursue of happiness, flowers and birds were used purely as decorations. Age of Rococo, was indeed a manifestation of irresponsible freedom of ‘Art for Art sake’. Early Rococo Artist Jean Antoine Watteau who painted The pilgrimage on the island of Cythera 1717. In his time, he served a leisure society, which preferred to ignore the unpleasant side of life. His works were of unheroic subjects of people enjoying themselves. His Art was full of emotion, personality and privacy locked up in his own world. For his work, I would say, was like an adult fairy tale, a perfect world without stress. Overall, Rococo was not the Art that reflected society; its Art only gave little reference to the under-lying reality of its society.

Moving into the late 18th Century, it was the rise of English Mastery of Landscape Painting. The use of watercolour derived from the 17th and early 18th century allowed the practice of making speedy sketches for multi-purposes. The private medium of nature of medium created a spontaneous effect, charging with sublime energy. The classical landscape paintings often exposed a feeling of nostalgia, a vague unease and a yearning for freedom. Mallord William Turner’s watercolour work gave him the interest in effects and weather made by nature; a feeling for contemporary life was often at the core of many of Turner’s paintings. Like one of his late work, Venice the Grand Canal 1840, the richness of the scene made clear of the expression.

‘His people are at the mercy of the sea, life given from the sun.’
‘Human is part of nature and we are like the keeper of life’

The enlightenment destroyed the belief in a god, an ordered universe with man at the center of nature. Instead, it put humanity’s destiny in his own hand. This perception in English landscape painting later led to the birth of Romanticism. Romantic Art focused on subjects of wild scenery with mountains and waterfalls, the notion of romantic Art did not appear until the 19th century.

19th Century Art

During early 19th Century woman in Art and society were divided sharply into either domestic goddesses or ‘fallen women’, which made eroticism an area for Artists. Jean Auguste found the most acceptable way to express eroticism by referencing to Eastern societies where women were seen as merely sexual objects, a reflection of the exotics that grew amongst British Colonies. This was the century where Naturalism and Realism were promoted. It expressed the age’s interest in the physical appearance of the world. The naturalist painter, John Constable, who preferred a more open space with random composition, it was described that he painted it because it was there, but it was not as easy as it looked. For Example, in The Haywain, the woods was made to symbolize human feeling. It illustrated the fact that calmness of the composition and ordinary-ness of the woods could be just as interesting as other sensational features.

Industrial Age

From mid to late 19th century, it was the era of slavery and child labour. The Industrial Revolution had provided cheaper goods and by doing so had drawn workers on the land into dark and growing cities. Its housing and living conditions were known to be scandalously inhuman. The Artist felt passionately about the situation and responded by identifying in their Art the human implication of what was happening, and realized too that there was a new audience for their works. Therefore Art had become the big business. However, the greed of Art dealers slowly encouraged patronage, which made Art difficult for public to enjoy. Art, at this point, though attempted to express about the society, but was made corrupted instead.


In the Industrial World of Impressionists, a crisis entailed a lack of emotional commitment occurred in the 1880s. Post-Impressionist, George Seurat, with his technique of Pointillism painted Sunday afternoon on the Island of Le Grande Jatte 1886 (bottom), it depicted people enjoying themselves along the bank on a Sunday afternoon, shared with the Industrial occupation at the background. Cities grew relentlessly at the Metropolis and they became the focus of both wealth and deprivation. His Art reflected the lack of emotion and boredom brought by the Industrial world, and it acknowledged how the society lived its life.

The Modern World

After the 19th century, we stepped into the modern world of 20th century; here environment was the key to the success of society and man. Extraordinary changes speeded by the introduction of electrical power to every method of communication, from the telephone to satellite; had prolonged life span of human, allowed discovery of new medicine and chemistry. Over the last century the masses were already responding to the growth of a sort of ‘low’ Art, in today’s term ‘kitsch’ (bad taste). Artists might sometimes be confused of the limit of Artistic independence with what was expected from their society. As an escape to Realism, due to its loss of popularity and necessity, the invention of photography took over its rendered and accurate likeness. In the beginning of the 20th century, many Artists attempted to make paintings visually more appealing than the real world. Colours were charged with dynamites. These were one of the first of the many 20th century efforts to establish the primacy of colour and free it from the limitation of the natural world.
Cubism and Futurism

Whilst the world became smaller, simultaneously, life became more complicated. Things were on the move and the shock of change found its Artistic parallel in the advents of the movement called Cubism. Picasso, who motivated Cubism and conventional nude scenes, had eliminated the man and his reference to the evils of illicit sexual activities. In Demoiselles d’avignon, 1907, (Left) painted by Picasso, finished as a strange, alarming scene that reflected Picasso’s impulse to break from not only the Western Tradition of figure painting but also its entire mode of observation. Cubism exposed the Western Tradition of perspective as only one of many alternative systems of viewing the world. To the question, ‘ what is the truth?’ Cubism answered, ‘Reality.’

Futurism, the industrialization and the wide spread use of machinery. An influence on the development of the Futurism theory was based on the idea that changes of perception was an interpenetration of past and present, not a mathematical succession of states. Boccioni’s late work State of Mind 1911 (Below), it described an impression of a railway station, reflecting the declared Futurist principle of celebrating the speed, and mechanized efficiency of the modern life.

Abstract, initially the breakthrough of Futurism and Cubism, isolated to a point of half-savage Feudalism. However, in Europe the approach was simultaneous. Artists were searching for an alternative to the entire Western Tradition that held the Art that should reflect or at least suggest, something of the external appearance of nature. Painters had been all too human in accepting the outward charms of the visible world. Kandinsky interpreted the spectrum as an index of spiritual states and felt that emotions, and even sounds were awakened by a certain hue. ‘Colour harmony must rest ultimately on purposive playing upon the human soul,’ said Kandinsky.

Dadaism and Abstract

Along with the modern movement Dadaism sought to knock ‘High Art’ off its pedestal, by declaring that any object could be regarded as Art. If society was visibly rotten, then some Dadaists thought it ought to be return to the uncorrupted innocence of nature, The Scream 1893 by Edvard Munch shared his ideas of the freize of life. A scream of terror in the presence of nature flushed with anger and about to speak through storm and thunder to the petty, hare brain creatures posing as god, but without a god-like appearance. ‘Art does not reproduce the visible, rather it makes visible,’ wrote Edvard Munch. As society evolved, people became more daringly expressive. Art no longer took on a passive role where it expressed what people wanted to see, but on the contrary, it made visible of what was unseen or unheard. It challenged.

Art After War

Since World War II, the balance of power in Art had been shifted. Our daily life had become a living museum without walls. In the age of anxiety, abstract expressionism emerged with Barnett Newman, a religious observer. He used a field of colour that invited the onlooker to contemplate an absolute of light and darkness. The colour field painter wrote, ‘..with an automatic move, you could create a world.’ The medium he used in his work had forced to contradict with the message it carried. In 1966, Pop Art was a thought provoking marriage between two realms,‘high and low brow cultures’, which previously considered mutually exclusive to each other. Before cinema screens or television all men were equal, most pop Artists fused vulgarity and erudition. Roy Lichtenstein (comic strip Artist), following the style of pop Art drawing like Whaam! 1963 (below), a high scale emotion of true romance, a violence of war comics. Andy Warhol immortalized the tortures of a dehumanizing capitalism. His painting was like a mask that was never removed. ‘The reason I am painting this way is because I want to be a machine. I think it would be terrific if everybody was alike,’ wrote Andy Warhol.


From this study, I understand how society has inflicted an influence on Artist and how each movement began because of the society in the time it took place. There is a sometimes-confusing attitude, weather Art reflect society or is it the society that reflects Art? But I agree that there is \\fa mysterious power in Art. A painting that or a sculpture can express feelings or pass on a message.

Art is the product of our society, which can reflect its nature, the reflection of Art let us, experience the changes and behavior of our civilization. Each piece of Art is a history reference of the society at that particular time. We can enjoy, be proud of the achievements or ashamed of the disgrace in the course of human history. Art also has a deeper meaning that reveals something truthful to the society; it is an advancement that can carry the society into a new era. It induces critical thinking, which allows the society to re-think the values in us, the materialistic values and the human values. It is in this sort of exercise “Art”, that brings society to “movement”, in fashion, in technology and in human values; greater movements are described as “revolution”.

When we understand the beliefs in a society, the pressure, and the experiences of particular events at the time the Artwork was produced. Then, we can form our judgment about that piece of Art.

Today, there are many hopes and obstacles for the future of Modern Art, although it is a difficult struggle for Art and their Artists, but we may at least be certain that there is an inseparable interaction between Art and Society, which will shape the future of our lives.


Work produced by Liou Ming Law

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