Art That Questions Society

Let us not stand idle and let society's laws rule us when they exhibit oppression against our fellow humans.  Part of being a cognicent being is having the ability to question the world around us.  I want to believe that we create art in order to seek out reason and purpose. The artists that I will be talking about below feel the same way in their own art profession. By producing art, they have found a way to comment on the injustices and prejudices of society that have bound many individuals to tunnel vision thoughts.

For The Moon | Faith Ringgold | 1969

For The Moon | Faith Ringgold | 1969

Faith Ringgold created her piece For The Moon during the Civil Rights Movement. At surface level, the image portrays an American flag, but if you look into the stars and stripes, you can see the jarring words "Die Ni**er". Ringgold's intentions for this piece were to grab the attention of her viewers to see the inequality that she and many other African-Americans have undergone in this nation. She expresses how the flag is supposed to be a universal symbol to the nation and have a fully encompassing feeling of nationalism between American citizens. Her rendition of the American flag tells her audience that minorities are not universally represented under the flag. Her message reveals that oppression of minorities was still very prevalent during the time of this piece’s creation and that America cannot live up to the expectations of freedom without making a change when it comes to social injustice.

Not only was this piece created during a vital era of fighting for African-American rights, but it was also created in response to the United States moon landing that occurred in 1969. Ringgold felt that the United States’ space exploration was deeply flawed in timing. The government was focusing so much more on exploring beyond our atmosphere, yet they hadn’t even solved societal issues on the home front. The space race drew attention away from social justice issues and onto a subject matter with a greater cover appeal. For The Moon is a reflection of African-Americans overt oppression in America and is a relatable subject for many Americans to this day. Faith Ringgold’s message within this artwork still haunts many Americans and illustrates that while we have accomplished so much, there is still oppression and discrimination against minorities.

Thirteen Most Wanted Men | Andy Warhol | 1964

Thirteen Most Wanted Men | Andy Warhol | 1964

Mugshot from  Thirteen Most Wanted Men

Mugshot from Thirteen Most Wanted Men

Thirteen Most Wanted Men was a piece commissioned for the 1964 World’s Fair at the New York State Pavilion and was created by Andy Warhol. The appeal of the World’s Fair was to exhibit the best of the best of the United States, our technologic advances, and our people. In this mural, Warhol took an interesting approach to the idea of the best of the best in a profession. Thirteen Most Wanted Men displays thirteen screen prints of America’s most wanted criminals from the 1950s. Warhol captures American ideals of achievement and success in this mural with an interesting twist. The board for the 1964 World’s Fair was appalled by Warhol’s mural and requested that he took it down. In response to this request, he simply painted over it with an aluminum cast which still allowed the men’s faces to peak through. The anger of this mural surrounded the disgust of showing criminal’s faces as achievement driven Americans in front of the world. Just like Warhol did by painting a shadow over the mural, the board wanted to hide the unsavory truths of American society from the public eye.

It has also been noted that the men depicted in the image are particularly handsome men. Many of the men sported popular 1950’s attire and haircuts. It is possible that Andy Warhol was also making a comment on homosexuality and people’s discomfort with it. The title Thirteen Most Wanted Men, implies that the men may be of other desires beyond just the law. Their handsomeness curates desire within both men and women and it is suggested that, with Warhol being gay himself, he wanted to bring attention to the male Gaze from the perspective of a gay man.

Now let’s change our gears and focus in on a musical interpretation of art that questions society. The musical group, Pussy Riot, got their inspiration for their group based on the philosophies of the American philosopher, Judith Butler. Butler spent much of her career focusing on social issues and has done a great deal of study in queer theory and gender studies. Following in her footsteps, the feminist musical group aspires to draw people’s attention to social injustice against a variety of peoples. While a majority of the members of Pussy Riot are from Russia, many of the topics of their songs address issues happening within the United States. If you watch their music videos, such as “Make America Great Again” or “Police State”, they are theatrically staged and somewhat jarring. They do this in order to make a point and show a correlation between their own exaggerated action and the unnatural actions of a greater society.

I would highly suggest that you go and watch the music video for “Police State”, because it is filmed very well and the message may change your perspective on some things. There are messages embedded in the lyrics which address issues of police brutality and coercion into submission under that police state. I would like to point out the chorus which is very catchy and I find myself often singing along to in the car.

The lyrics read:

“Oh my god, I'm so happy I could die

Oh my god, I'm so happy I could cry”

The use of these words for the chorus is innately ironic. The idea that they are trying to get across is that people within this society are being told to obey and act a certain way in order to be happy. Subjecting one’s self to laws and regulations that are oppressive will not make you happy, but the government wants you to think that it will. The irony of their words is directly noted by the lyrics “Drink the Kool-Aid, it's a new way, do what I say” which is a reference to Jim Jone’s cult, the People’s Temple, which subjected its followers to inhumane treatment and eventually, involuntary death by “drinking the Kool-Aid”. The song is an overall comment on the anti-autonomous culture that exists in the United States, as well as many other nations. The group advocates for change that benefits a greater majority of people rather than just the top tiers of society.

How do these artworks influence you now that you have more context on their origins? Do you know of any current artists who are advocating for change regarding social injustice?