We find ourselves living in tumultuous times. The past two and a half years have been especially trying, but if you look back through history, each decade or era has had its share of challenges to deal with, so I'm not sure we're all that special. The 1930's had the Great Depression, the 1940's had World War II, the 60's dealt with Vietnam and Civil Rights violence. The list goes on and on. For each of these historical eras, going back to the Renaissance, art has always reflected an aspect of the world at large.
Art's Role in Today's World
Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother", taken in 1936, is one example of art communicating the general feeling of a country, during the Great Depression. While the details of the woman's situation are a matter of dispute, the overall story of a mother struggling to raise her children as a migrant worker during the Depression is one many at the time identified with, and many continue to identify with over 80 years later. The two children, tired and hanging on to their mother for support, the look of deep concern on the mother's face, her tired eyes, and slightly disheveled look, is something I think all of us can relate to in one way or another.
Photographers and photojournalists aren't the only ones to have a say in current events as far as artists go. Pablo Picasso's "Guernica" has long been regarded as one of the most powerful anti-war paintings ever created. It was painted in response to a Nazi bombing of the Basque Country town of Guernica on April 26, 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. In viewing the painting, one can feel the horror of war, as depicted by a gored horse, screaming women, a bull, a dismembered soldier, and a dead baby, and flames.
Picasso had been commissioned to create a painting for the 1937 Paris World's Fair by the Spanish Republican government, and was working on sketches for the painting when the bombing occurred. He was then approached by poet Juan Larrea to make the bombing the subject of his painting. After reading accounts of the bombing in the New York Times, Picasso decided to agree to Larrea's suggestion.
Sadly, the war continues to be an ongoing theme throughout history, as Russia has been waging war on Ukraine since this past February. We've all seen art in some form or other created by artists to express their outrage over Russia's invasion. The crying eye with the Ukraine flag, created by UK street artist My Dog Sighs, is a powerful piece expressing the sadness and anger over the situation in the Baltics. The artist was inspired to create this piece after a bombing in Kyiv. The painting features a silhouette of St. Sofia's Cathedral in Kyiv, as a explosion blooms behind it. The crying eye speaks for itself as the world has recoiled in horror and anger over these attacks. The painting was done in Cardiff, Wales, in the UK.
So it's pretty clear that some artists use their artistic voice to express anger, or sadness, or fear, in photographs and paintings. Art has always been a reflection of society and has played an important role in societal change. But what about "pretty art"? Is that somehow less important simply because it does not convey a sense of sadness, anger, or struggle? I don't believe so. Because despite the fact that beautiful photos or paintings are more comfortable to look at, the message they convey is no less important.
Ansel Adams' documenting of the American landscape from the 1920's through the 1970's were a means of a positive message, showing what would be saved if we conserved our resources, as well as being aspirational images that many take inspiration from. While many artists show us the struggle, others choose to show the reward. The carrot vs. the stick, if you will.
In addition to having a positive message of conservation, as opposed to say, conveying a negative one by way of showing photos of garbage on beaches, pretty landscape photos offer a form of escapism. I've written before on the mental health benefits of hanging landscape and nature photography in your home or office. Let's face it, many people don't watch the news, or spend much time on social media, due to the negativity that's prevalent in those forums. I know that personally, I find my insides tightening in frustration when I spend too much time reading about current issues at hand. I do so because I feel I need to be informed.
At the same time, once I'm done reading the news, almost invariably, I dive into my work, or look at others' work, as a means of escaping those feelings of anger and frustration over issues and situations I have little control but affect me directly. I firmly believe that some artists use their voice to bring our attention to issues, and to express their own feelings on those issues. But I also believe that those of us who deal in "pretty pictures" serve an equally important purpose. We all need to escape a bit. We all need to be able to get away from the craziness of the modern world at times. And that's where artists like me, who take pretty pictures, come in.
Think about it for a second. In March of 2020, when the pandemic caused the country to lock down, where did we all turn? To the arts. We binged TV shows on Netflix, we turned to books, we turned to music, and we turned to photos and paintings and drawings to help us pass the time, to escape, to feel better. We used art as a salve as we were all hurting a bit, missing our friends, fearful of what might happen next. It's actually pretty amazing that art tends to be very versatile. It communicates our pain, but also eases it. It conveys complex and intense emotion, but can also provide calm.
I've always been a bit of an idealist. Some have called me naive for it. They can call me what they want. I don't much care what people say about me. But I firmly believe in focusing on the good, on what can be done to change things, rather than focusing on the negative and shrugging my shoulders and accepting what is. So I continue to seek out beautiful landscapes, beautiful people, and beautiful happenings, as a focus of my work. My work is my voice. I know we need those who point out the bad in this world. I'm not Pollyanna here. But we also need those who show us the good, and show us what can be.