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The power of political art

An exploration of art and artists powerfully presenting social and political themes, including the work of Banksy, Keith Haring and Dean Martin.
The relationship between art and politics is an issue that has sparked debates from ancient times to the present day. Aside from propaganda (works created and commissioned by those in power), there are two broad schools of thought. The first is that artists should avoid all forms of “political” statements, whilst the second makes the bold assertion that all art is fundamentally political.
 
In our modern world, where everyday life, social media and political concerns collide, “political art” has taken on new meaning. It does not just refer to political parties or belief systems, but the entire range of social justice issues – from gender and sexuality to class, race and gentrification.
 
Today, we shine a light on artists tackling political and social concerns. From street art legends such as Banksy and Keith Haring to exciting newcomers such as the “Mad Artist” Dean Martin – here are some of the most fascinating and insightful political artworks.

What is political art?

“The mere making of a work of art is itself a political act.” – W.H. Auden
 
Many scholars have argued that art is itself a form of political discourse – a way to describe, interpret and understand the world around us. Even with “art for art’s sake”, creative endeavours are influenced and shaped by social conditions and circumstances.
 
Politics has no easy definition, but it is generally taken to mean any activity associated with the rule of a country or area, or issues of individual social status and opportunity.
 
Art presents the artist’s unique vision of the world or how it should be. It has the potential to provide alternative “ways of seeing” (as John Berger famously put it). “Political” art can therefore represent possibilities, just as much as social realities.
 
“Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art’, are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.” – Chinua Achebe

Street Art and Politics

Artists of all periods and mediums have made political statements. Take ancient Egyptian depictions of great rulers and prosperous societies for example, or modern works such as Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds, which speaks of China’s industrial production and social inequalities.
 
Even so, contemporary street art has emerged as a particularly well-placed medium for exploring social and political concerns. By its very nature, this is art that emerges in the midst-of and out of the communities it represents.
 
We’ve already written about the inspiration and social causes underpinning Stik’s street art, but here’s a few more examples of leading artists dealing with the “small-p political”... 

 
Possibly the most famous street artist working today, Banksy has a long history of tackling social and political issues. He’s created numerous works in Palestine – from murals on the walls of bombed family homes to stencils on the “Segregation Wall”, ironic travel campaigns and pieces across Gaza and the West Bank.
 
Whilst these artworks speak to specific geo-political concerns, Banksy has also created works closer to home – tackling broader social questions.
 


Get Out While You Can” is part of a series released in 2004 which depicts the artist’s iconic rat holding up various placards. The other two signs read “Welcome to Hell” and “Because I’m Worthless”. Whilst much of Banksy’s art is shrouded in mystery, the inspiration is thought to come from the book “Get Out While You Can” written by George Marshall, which discusses modern salary slavery or the “rat race”.
 
Banksy’s rat appears to be partaking in some form of political or social protest, or perhaps just warning of the dangers of capitalist society. The “original” Banksy rats appeared all over London in the early 2000s with only a few still visible today.
 
By anthropomorphising the figure of the rat, Banksy’s art makes a strong social statement – speaking for those oppressed, looked-down upon or simply defeated by modern society.
 
“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” - Banksy
 
 
Otherwise known as The Mad Artist, Dean Martin is no stranger to political issues in art. The artist has spoken at length of his background as a “self-taught, working class artist” with themes of social class, gangsters and political leaders often featuring in his art.
 
Having previously exhibited alongside Banksy, his 2021 work “You’ll enjoy it, They Said….” plays on Banksy’s rat series. The additional message (with two young children viewing the rat in a traditional gallery setting) heightens Banksy’s social commentary – with capitalism and consumerism controlling even young lives.


 
 
“Art is for everyone!” – Keith Haring
 
As a legend of the New York Graffiti scene, Keith Haring’s work is famous for bravely depicting the most pressing social issues of the day. In the 1980s, Keith Haring turned his artistic focus to subjects such as apartheid in South Africa, the separation of East and West Germany, the HIV/AIDS crisis, drugs use (“Crack is Wack”) and LGBTQ rights.
 
Although his drawings often didn’t feature any text, Haring’s imagery, bold lines and vivid colours expressed his messages of unity and social equality.


 
Works such as Pop Shop III, See No Evil (1989) are characteristic of his pop-art style. Even after the artist enjoyed phenomenal world-wide success, he stayed true to his belief that art should be accessible to everyone. He consequently opened his own Pop Art stores (or Pop Shops) where the public could purchase stickers, posters or t-shirts from as little as a few US dollars.
 
Haring fearlessly supported social and political causes he believed in, creating work for AIDS campaigns, flyers against apartheid and a 1986 mural on the Berlin Wall. A year before Haring died of AIDS-related complications in 1990, he created The Keith Haring Foundation which provides child-welfare and AIDS research funding to this day.
 
Street art is a medium uniquely placed to offer insights and commentary on political and social issues. From Banksy to Stik, Keith Haring and Dean Martin, the ArtMarket Gallery are proud to represent some of the most socially-conscious artists creating work today. We match people with artworks they love – so why not get in touch and arrange a visit?