Identifying political and historical references in art

Political art can be described as art works with overtly political subjects or messages made to express criticism of the existing state of affairs, whether it's local, national, or international topics.

We showcase a number of political art works below that we have found in a variety of venues: street art, sculpture parks, and art galleries. We suggest having students (or any interested person) identify the political or historical context of each of these art works.* After viewing them and discussing, you can scroll down to find our answers and explanations.

*For teachers, this skill is covered in Grade 9-12 Visual Arts Standard #3, and involves being able to relate understandings about the historical and cultural contexts of art to situations in contemporary life.

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#1. This street art piece was seen in New York City in the fall of 2008. Can you identify or describe what current events at that time would have inspired an artist to make this?

political art showing woman holding a sign saying where is my bailout

#2. This street art piece was seen in New York City in the summer of 2012. Can you explain what events slightly prior to this time would have inspired this art work?

street art with political message about Occupy Wall Street, featuring Yoda from Star Wars

#3. Can you identify the historical figure in this stencil graffiti found in Paris? For a bonus, can you also name the event where the original photograph (on which this image is based) was taken?

stencil graffiti found in Paris featuring an image of Martin Luther King Jr.

#4. This sculpture is by the American artist George Segal. Can you identify the historical event which this sculpture is representing and tell us what these men might have been doing?

sculpture by George Segal showing men in a depression era bread line

#5. This painting is by American artist Brian Leo. Can you identify the political figure represented in this art work? Why do you think that the artist wrote "Who?" on his painting?

Portrait of Osama Bin Laden by Brian Leo

This sculpture is by Chinese artist Wang Du. Can you identify the political figure represented in these sculptures? Why do you think that Wang Du created 30 copies of the same plaster bust - what is the significance of this?

sculpted busts of Osama Bin Laden by Chinese artist Wang Du

Answers and Explanations

#1. This street art piece relates to the financial crisis of 2008, which resulted in the threat of total collapse of large financial institutions, the bailout of banks by national governments, and downturns in stock markets around the world. The artist is expressing his or her outrage that while the banks who engaged in risky behavior were bailed out with financial assistance, the common person who might have also had economic distress due to these conditions got no assistance.

#2. This street art piece relates to the "Occupy Wall Street" protest movement that began on September 17, 2011, in Zuccotti Park, located in New York City's Wall Street financial district. The Star Wars character Yoda is giving his language-reversed version of the protestors' slogan "We are the 99%."

#3. This stencil graffiti image is based on the photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his "I Have A Dream" speech on August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. You can see a comparison between the stencil graffiti image and the original photograph below.

From the I Have A Dream speech

#4. The title of this sculpture explains it all: "Depression Bread Line." Bread lines during the Great Depression provided relief to people in terms of food assistance. They were funded by either the government, charitable institutions, or churches. They were given free to countless homeless and jobless people. You can see an actual photograph of a bread line below; it's interesting to note that despite being in the midst of a Depression, the men arriving on line for the hand-outs still dressed in suits and hats.

photograph of a bread line from the Great Depression

#5 and #6. Both the painting and the sculptures depict Osama Bin Laden (March 10, 1957 – May 2, 2011), who was the founder of al-Qaeda, the Sunni militant Islamist organization that claimed responsibility for the September 11 attacks on the United States, along with numerous other mass-casualty attacks against civilian and military targets.

As to the meaning of the word "Who?" on Brian Leo's painting, we can only speculate; what do you think? Is he downplaying the importance of Osama Bin Laden? Is he sarcastically referring to Bin Laden's notoriety? Is he suggesting that we will soon forget about Bin Laden?

As far as Wang Du's sculptures, it has been noted that much of his work has focused on the relationship between the media and the public consciousness, and on the artificial controls and manipulation imposed by the media. You may have noticed all of the photocopied news articles about Bin Laden that are littered on the floor surrounding these sculptures, and perhaps the large number of sculptures of the same person reflects Du's belief that the extreme media coverage distorts our perception of Bin Laden.

Extra Credit Assignment: Pick a topic in the news today, and make your own statement via a political art work of your own creation ... and then see if your fellow students can identify your topic.

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