Many artists throughout history have adopted roles of political and social commentators. Whether these engagements are voluntary or supported by various political players, artists function as exclusive media that filter incoming messages. This process is based on their internal moral compass. It subsequently produce an idiosyncratic outgoing communication marked by a distinctly creative storytelling.
Interaction with art can evoke strong emotions, making artists’ charged content much more profound in impact than information consumed through traditional channels. An impactful medium is deeply connected to a local community and since art is also inherently local, artists become community-trusted links. The need to participate and comment intensifies during periods of social and political unrest. During these challenging times, artists participate in public events in order to either document them as commentators or directly influence the outcomes as activists.
The activist artists dedicate their lives and art to the causes aligned with their deep-rooted convictions and world views. Their commentary is resolute and provocative when covering local events (Jacque-Louis David in The Death of Marat, 1793), movements (Keith Haring in Stop AIDS, 1989), social phenomena (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec documenting the underground life of the Moulin Rouge and immortalizing people in it, such as in At the Moulin Rouge, 1892-95), or even personal misfortunes that have evolved into future movements, such as is the case of Frida Kahlo who became a symbol of female independence and feminism (Two Fridas, 1939).
The (un)canny rebellion
Interestingly though, many artists have taken a less radical but still participatory approach to become sensible commentators rather than full-time activists. Some are louder in their voices and some choose subtle, yet effective strategy—the (un)canny rebellion—which is characterized by potent and mysterious content. Many of these artists have penetrated deeply into relevant social and political circles.
These often-opportunistic moves to get commissions from the regime or party leadership enables artists to participate and comment while maintaining the desired artistic freedom to commentary in their art. They communicate their observations through a relevant or popular choice of an artistic medium including paintings, drawings, etchings, posters, murals, sculpture, photography, poetry, handouts, and letters. The political content is usually presented in complex artistic messages that could only be deciphered by tuned-in contemporaries or by future scholars engaged in a study of individual artworks in the political and social history context.
An investigation of how the artist’s views are reflected and communicated in a politically charged climates reveals various innovations in the choice of media and communication tools. Four examples of artists who took a more poised, almost bipolar approach, are discussed in this article.
Rebellion of Girodet and Goya
Two major painters of the late 18th and early 19th centuries — Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767-1824) and Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) — had both been impacted by the events of the French Revolution.
Girodet and Goya were contemporaries, who despite living in different countries, were affected by the Revolution. It radically overturned the old regime of royalty into the system of republican ideals ultimately led by Napoleon Bonaparte. Both artists used their art to comment on and express their political beliefs through a unique attitudinal approach—the (un)canny rebellion—using subject matter, realism, allegory, graphic violence, composition, freemasonry, authenticity, symbolism, eroticism, satire, mystery, and shock as political communication tools.
Interestingly, when looking at career trajectories of Girodet and Goya, both artists professionally participated in projects with the regime leaders. Girodet became one of the main painters of Napoleon Bonaparte and his family. Goya, even after Napoleon invaded Spain, regained the status of a court painter.
However, as artists they felt the need to express their innermost dissonance and they did so through their art. For both artists of fine intellect and considerable education, it was a question of civic duty and honor. As their commissioned works of art, especially the portraits, seemed neutral in nature, we see the rebellion attitude emerging in other art pieces marked by clever, esoteric content.
Rebellion with elements of terror
Girodet’s seemingly neutral romantic and neoclassical styles contained identifiable elements of rebellion. For example, he illuminated or rather galvanized bodies in his paintings (O’Rourke, 2018). New scientific experiments with electricity and the idea of electricity itself became the metaphor for revolutionary aspirations. Any use of electricity in art had political implications (O’Rourke, 2018). Another sign of the (un)canny rebellion communication strategy was Girodet’s display of eroticism that is particularly apparent in The Sleep of Endymion from 1791 (Solomon-Godeau, 2006).
In the case of Goya, the artist took more direct approach to document the violent events he witnessed with the use of realism, dramatic composition and shocking details in the series of etchings called The Disasters of War (82 prints completed between 1810 and 1820) and in his painting The Third of May 1808: The Execution of the Defenders of Madrid (1814). As both artists suffered from health and perhaps conscience problems near the end of their lives, their work exhibited fiercer and uncanny elements of rebellion in the form of nightmarish features like cannibalism in Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son (1823) or horrors of biblical disasters in Girodet’s The Flood (1806).
The rebellion of female artists
In the historical context, women did not have many opportunities to be successful in professions that socially belonged to men or were not permitted by the political regime. In art, we see the manifestation of inequality repeated many times throughout history. It was very difficult for women to become professional painters in the Renaissance and Baroque Italy. If they did succeed, it was because of politically focused networking and the (un)canny rebellion strategy these female artists adopted in their commentaries.
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) and Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625)—two Italian painters that achieved critical success—pushed through their careers as female artists using clever political maneuvers that guaranteed their professional recognition.
Female perception of the world
Artemisia was raped in her teens—an experience that solidified her determination to succeed as an artist. Her rebellion is apparent in the choice of her subject matter of strong and suffering women as well as in the graphic and disturbing details she included in her paintings, as seen in Judith Beheading Holofernes (1613). She communicated her determination not only in her paintings but also in the correspondence she exchanged with her patrons: “You will find a spirit of Caesar in this soul of a woman” (Pearson, 2019).
For Sofonisba, it was a matter of establishing politically prosperous relationships that facilitated her artistic freedom and movement. After soliciting and receiving Michelangelo’s expert blessings, Sofonisba befriended major players of the Spanish Court. She became one of the most accomplished portraitists in the late Renaissance. She intentionally chose portraiture as her rebellion strategy infusing her portraits with gender politics. That is apparent in a famous portrait of Sofonisba and her sisters, engaged in a strategic game of chess. It carries an incisive inscription: “Sofonisba Anguissola virgin daughter of Amilcare painted these three sisters and a maid from life” (The Chess Game, 1555).
Both artists willingly and intentionally broke the boundaries and used an (un)canny rebellion strategy to offer an opposite gender commentary. They documented current events and people through a female artist lens, thus changing the world perception that was predominantly portrayed by male artistic media. Both women refused to be defined by their gender. They established their roles in the art profession and inspired future generations of female artists to follow suit.
Ordinary citizens want their voices heard in times of social and political unrest. And so do artists. They consider participation through commentary a civic duty in their artistic manifestos and as creatives, they have sophisticated communication tools at their disposal.
The study of four artists experiencing social and political pressures that found unique ways to construct their commentaries offers an unusual participatory communication perspective. Primarily, it reveals the use of an innovative communication approach — the (un)canny rebellion. This approach fired up these artists to carve out the path for contemporary and future artists navigating the foggy waters of political and social commentary.