Social Commenters: The good, the bad, the superficial

by Riana Casas

Whether you know it or not, many artworks comment on society whether good or bad. "Art is a lie that makes you realize the truth", Pablo Picasso put it simply and in these words, defines the immense power of art. The power of art includes that of persuasion, rhetoric, satire, etc. because art is a language which speaks to the viewer. Art can teach the viewer how to feel, what to see in the artwork and what not to see. Such comments, are concealed to the artist and viewer and create a close relationship in which the viewer and the artist share a secret. Artwork allows a viewer to immerse the viewer and force the viewer to look deeper and think critically. The content can range from political to psychological, to societal and a sum of many comments. These comments force the viewer to see whatever the issue is in the way the artist views the subject. Art has the power to change opinions or to make others see the other side of an argument.

"9 Disasters" by Kelley Walker. 2009
A great example of how powerful an artwork can be is Kelly Walker's "9 Disasters", which debuted at the MoMA this past fall. Walker gave the museum curators the image file and left the MoMA to do with it what they wanted. The artwork on its own, has extremely powerful content, but with what the MoMA chose to do with it, it forces the viewer to realize how huge the issue is. It was displayed as wallpaper on a gallery wall, but not just any gallery wall. The piece of artwork towers over the viewer, enforces its supreme power in its message and visual attraction. Walker's piece comments on the superficial and escapist reality of American society. Society is focused on things that do not affect the U.S., obsessed with fame, reality tv and even making fun of political issues and disaster in shows such as The Daily Show. The brightly colored polka dots represent American's escape to cloud the disaster on every street corner. It is human nature to want to supress the bad and cover it up with something lighter. So, society focuses on who slept with who, and watching Snooki get punched at the Jersey Shore on national television. Instead of focusing on the reality, American turn to the polka dots. We focus on the haze rather than the storm thats about to hit us. We choose to focus on the haze instead of the storm that is beating down on us. Walker brings this superficiality to the attention of the viewer and comments on how terrible but completely normal the escapist tendency of American society is. The artwork is
"9 Disasters" by Kelley Walker. 2009.
enormous, and uses the art of computer graphics and photography as well as modern technology to display the enormity of the issues we fight to accept. It was always be the nature of Americans, or humans for that matter, to attempt to escape the gruesome truth of reality. For instance, after the World Wars, many art movements such as Dada, Surrealism and Pop Art appeared each movement focusing on escapist subjects such as dreams, the nonsensical, and commercial society. Look at the lines at the supermarket, what's at the cash register? Celebrity trash rags, magazines that idolize a certain kind of beauty, you certainly do not find Time Magazine waiting on line for the supermarket. American's are more interested in scandal, other people's love lives, the latest plastic surgery disaster, but never disasters that affect us, like hurricanes, plane crashes, terrorism, etc. Walker is the best example of social commentary in modern times and just how powerful an artwork can be. "9 Disasters" by Kelley Walker reaches out and shakes the viewer, forcing them to wake up out of their escapist trance and force them to see the gruesome reality between the brightly colored polka dots.

"Marilyn Diptych" by Andy Warhol. 1962
As Walker comments on the superficiality of society, so does Andy Warhol with his own commercial commentary of the Pop Art Era. In today's society, everyone knows Warhol, and if you don't you've been living in cave. However, while most people know his fame and celebrity persona, most do not truly understand the meaning of his artwork. Those in the art world can automatically recognize Warhol's style of silk screening commercial objects ranging Marilyn Monroe to the Campbels soup can logo. Warhol both worship the materialistic nature of American society but also despises it. In the "Marilyn Diptych", Warhol compares Monroe to a religious figure with the same religious following. The title gives this a way, in Byzantine Art, diptych's were used as Christian stories from the Bible. Warhol alludes to this two paneled religious painting, but praises the celebrity persona of Marilyn Monroe. Monroe was an idealized public figure admired for her beauty, seen as an object rather than a person. Warhol does just that, he praises what the public thinks of Monroe and values this persona. He is commenting on the fact that no matter what Monroe could do, society would always see her as the commercial way she was shown in pictures. American society is obsessed with beauty and the celebrity lifestyle will never seem anything but glamorous. This artwork is a comment on how society idolizes celebrities, and how it is human nature to want things that one cannot have. Monroe is glorified in both color and the black and white silkscreen. Warhol, himself, is a paradox, he glorifies and loves America for its superficiality and consumerism but at the same time, shames us all including himself for taking part in such guilty pleasures.

"Nighthawks" by Edward Hopper. 1942.
Another example of a powerful painting that comments on society is Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks". Hopper's artwork is easy to spot, it emphasizes the isolation that comes with modern industrial, materialistic life. It does not just display big city lonely nighthawks, but it also shows the distance between each person, between even the viewer and the painting. Compared to the dark streets of Manhattan, at first glance the cafe would appear warm and inviting. However, the expression on the face of the woman in the window is vacant, and it almost appears as if the lights are what is keeping the people away from each other, because modern technologies and industrialization forces more barrier between people. Even with the invention of the telephone, it is the first way to avoid face to face contact. As new technologies appear, less and less human contact is needed. For example, Warhol quotes, "When I got my first television set, I stopped caring so much about having close relationships". People become more distant and barriers are put between each human being as the modern world progresses throughout the night, as the street and glass prevent the viewer from feeling like a part of the scene rather than just a bystander, but even the people in the cafe are only there for the moment. The men in the cafe were modeled after Hopper, himself, so it seems that he views the men in the scene as clones, no different from any other person as well as the women, modeled after his wife. According to his wife, Jo's diaries Hopper thought of the customer's as predators. The man working could be anyone but is free to go home to his wife, and live his life. While the customer's are stuck in the lives they live now, which makes them end up at a cafe late at night. The man and the woman look like a couple, however their body language communicate the vacant, miserable lifestyle they lead together. They seem sullen, and are not talking to each but both looking forward, with no loving handhold or any type of physical or emotional contact. Hopper saw them as were resigned to each other, but did not know how to communicate and so the gap continued to grow and will continue beyond the moment the viewer sees in "Nighthawks". Hopper comments on how some people do not know how to live in a world they did not make, in an industrialized modern society.

"$he" by Richard Hamilton. 1958-1961.

$he is another Pop Art artwork by Richard Hamilton. The piece comments on societies on idea on the relationship between women and machines. The idea that women are slaves to their households. The imagery connects the ideal pin up girl of the 60's to the machines and advertisements of the time. Hamilton says, "This relationship of woman and appliances is a fundamental theme of our culture; as obsessive and archetypal as the Western movie gun duel". Hamilton seems to be ahead of his time commenting on how society views the female sex as an object. An object of sex, and simultaneously the home appliances that connect to the persona of being a mother. In the painting, the woman is a composite derived from Esquire Magazine, the eye, breasts, shoulder, and apron. The background is an open fridge as the composite woman reaches into the fridge. The foreground in a toaster and a vacuum cleaner. It is said that as the viewers eye moves around the painting, the woman's eye winks. This wink indicates the sexual object in woman's person and the rest relates to the domestic responsibility of a wife.

Marriage a La Mode Series. "The Tête à Tête" by William Hogarth. 1743

Painter, William Hogarth, is known for his satire. The Marriage a La Mode series demonstrates Hogarth's satire at it's best. Hogarth, unlike Walker, Hamilton and Hopper, comments on the life of the "high society" in this series. The series did not get the best review, mostly because it mocked those who would have bought the paintings in the series. "The Tête à Tête" by Hogarth, mocks the marriage of two young high society members. A steward walks away with bills in a mess in horror of the two newly weds, while the two recover from the nights extragances. The wife has gone out party and is caught mid yawn drinking her afternoon tea. The husband is exhausted half asleep on his chair, sprawled out so that his coat is in the reach of their dog. The dog is sniffing at the coat, where another woman's hankerchief is tucked. Hogarth mocks the life of the high society, wrapped up in their frivolty. Also, Hogarth even mocks the work of others with the artwork hanging on the walls.

Art can be powerful enough to sway the opinions of many, however, how it is precieved is in the eye of the beholder. The dialogue between each viewer and piece of artwork can be different in it's own experience. The content of such dialogue varies among many subjects, but social commentary is always an interesting thing to look at. From the 1700s-Modern day, art still focuses on human nature when commenting on how society operates. For Walker, commenting on the escapist mentality is how society continues to function beyond the disasters that happen everyday. For Warhol, society will forever idolize, whether we should be ashamed by this or embrace it is the question. For Hopper, modern life cause those who need human contact begin to slow sink. Hamilton comments on how it is human nature to stereotype, and to forever hold people to those stereotypes and standards. Hogarth comments on how money creates demise, scandal, and altogether leads to almost not being human. The more money you have, the more you want. The more money you want, the less human you become. No matter what, artists will continue to speak out on society whether it is negatively or positivel, but one never knows what they'll have to say about us later."Great art has dreadful manners"-Simon Schama

“Andy Warhol: Marilyn Diptych”. National Gallery. Kent State Ohio. Web. 4 June 2010. “Hopper, Edward”. The Artchive. Web. 3 June 2010.“Richard Hamilton-$he 19”. Tate Collection. Tate Britian. April 2005. Web. 5 June 2010. “The Tête à Tête”. Humanities Web. 22 May 2010. Web. 4 June 2010. Schama, Simon. The Power of Art. New York: Powell’s Books, 2006.