Art And Society – a Two-Blade Sword

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The beauty, yet the horror of art are the freedom of speech and thought that stands behind it. An artist is both a creator and a mirror that reflects in his own original way the realities of his time. In the Antiquity, Plato supported that art itself must be a reflection of the world of Ideas, not of this world which has deformed the true meaning and appearance of things. But artists, on the other hand, refrained themselves to reflect in their art such philosophical, yet unrealistic ideas. Moreover, the focus that art of any kind kept in its boundaries has been the reality itself and the way in which they, as artists, could response to it and influence others to think free and wide. Anyhow, let us not forget that this step forward was often viewed as a threat to the political, social and clerical institutions. Looking into history, one of the most pertinent manners in which art was counter-attacked by art was the period of Renaissance and Baroque, when the church produced massive art just to minimize the popularity of the teaching brought by the new homo universalis concept.

            There can be identified two types of art approaches towards society problems. The first one can be greatly noticed in the famous painting of the republican Frenchman Édouard Manet, Execution of Maximilian. This approach reveals the political oriented art that either comes from a great patriotism or from a great admiration or disapproval towards the leaders. Maximilian is a French duke left alone in Mexico after the civil war and who was finally executed together with his two generals. This deed of defiance inspired Manet to paint this “modern barbarism” painting (Stevens 10). The political message seems to be clear out in this painting, although it ignores the true social realities that were obvious in Mexico. The outmost desire was to represent the event from the French point of view and not from a legitimate and impartial one. The painting is composed of three main groups of characters: the executioners, the spectators and the victims. The spectators might seem scared because one system is falling and another one is rising without any connection to them. On the other hand, the relationship between the victims and the murderers seems a little strange. The executioners look bored, knowing that this is the ‘right’ thing to do, as they are soldiers and their life depends on executing the jobs given. The figure that impresses us the most is Maximilian. He wears a Mexican hat, has a pale dead-like color and expresses all the tragedy of his situation. Maximilian looks “psychologically distanced and insignificant, that the six men do not even point their rifles in the direction of the executed”. (Brombert, 217) This sense of serenity is somehow awkward and it was gained after re-paintings of the canvas. The scene represents both the tragedy of the moment, but also the vision of a new and uncertain future. In all the details of the canvas “violence co-exists with contemplation” (Stevens 44), the painting being the expression of the French authorities that are always calm and have things under control, like Maximilian does, and the Mexican rebels who want to change something, but lack both the experience and the vigor.

            The second approach addresses social problems, such as poverty, discrimination, hate, day-by-day life. This type of art tries to educate people in the sense of tolerance, kindness and also it wants to analyze the main issues of our society and the cause of  the events. Probably one of the most popular and widespread work of art of this type is Moisés Kaufman’s “Laramie Project”. The play deals with the most vicious thoughts of humans and the highest feeling of compassion all gathered around the murder of a young college boy, Mathew Sheppard, from the University of Wyoming. The murder shocked the entire community, so Kaufman and his theatre band decided to go in that small town and talk with the members of the community in order to find out their thoughts, feelings and impressions related to this event. It is indeed a very complex play, based on 400 testimonies and interviews. Such events bring in front of everyone beliefs, values and prejudices that once were taboo. Kaufman presents a holistic image and he does not favor either of the sides of the story. The way in which he decides to present the story is close to the reality and it has a great sense of credibility just because it is based on true interviews that are often quoted in the play. Anyhow, this contemporary play aroused comments and objections and the obvious question of why should it be played. The idea of hate crime terrifies the U.S. and as a result of this murder and of the play and movie produced after it, the government itself decided to include in the law, this type of murder that should be treated differently and punished accordingly. As Mr. Cope underlines in an interview the “Laramie Project” is a play “about ignorance and fear. This play can teach us to be more respectful, less threatened by what we don’t understand. To shy away from material because it’s provocative is to deny the greater good.” (Klein 1)

            Comparing somehow these two approaches that are intended to change the face of society, the social approach is for sure the most successful one, not only because it reveals certain taboo subjects, but also because it requires an immediate reaction and response. While the political views can be different, the social values should be unique and powerfully promoted through any type of art. Nowadays, art should not be viewed as the number one enemy that can influence only the few chosen ones, but the powerful ally that changes the life of many and restores long-lost values.


Stevens, Mark. “The Imperial War Museum”. New York Magazine . 5 Nov. 2006.

Brombert, Beth Archer. “Edouard Manet: Rebel in a Frock Coat”. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1996.

Klein, Alvin. ” In ‘Laramie Project,’ Theater Takes Dare”. New York Times. 23 Sept.  2001


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