Art has the power to evoke uniquely dynamic and personal responses. More than simply the combination of lines, shapes, and colors, works of visual art can illuminate, expand, or challenge our understanding of the world and our place within it. Engaging with works of art can encourage empathy and teach us to value the lives and experiences of others. An artistic experience can move and change us. It can even compel us to action. In these ways, art can be a catalyst for both personal transformation and engagement with the world.
Art has often been referred to as both a window and a mirror. Like a window, art can expose and bring attention to current, underrepresented social and political issues. At other times, art can work as a mirror reflecting back on society by raising difficult questions or posing a unique perspective on an issue. Often driven by personal convictions, artists have long used their medium as a space to reflect on the political and social climate of the day. Engaging with art is a social experience, one where discourse is encouraged and varying opinions welcomed. By expanding the limits of people's thinking, art has the power to open dialogue, spark debate, and change perspectives.
What role does both the artist and the viewer play in making meaning of a work of art?
Art is a visual language that communicates ideas. It can tell stories that have the power to alter and influence perspectives and opinions. Some art directly challenges powerful structures by questioning existing social and political realities and offering alternative ways of being. These artworks can empower individuals and communities by encouraging them to take direct action.
How can art inspire curiosity, interest, and action? How do artists disrupt power structures?
Over centuries and across cultures, artists have created visual images to share personal stories, express shared community values, and serve as memory preservation for important events. By looking at artworks from the past, we can learn more about how humans have lived and evolved. When looking at works of historical art with a contemporary lens, we may develop new interpretations that affect the understanding and meaning of what we see. Our perception of history changes with time and perspective, impacting how we view the world today.
How do current social, economic, and political contexts influence the interpretation of a work of art?
A primary source provides direct evidence about an event, object, or person. If an artwork depicts an artist’s firsthand experience or it was created during the time it depicts, it can be considered a primary source.
A secondary source often describes, interprets, or synthesizes a primary source. If an artwork represents a past account or is a reflection from someone who did not witness the event, it can be considered a secondary source.
The date of an artwork can provide a clue as to whether it is a primary or secondary source.
Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington [The Constable-Hamilton Portrait] was painted in 1797, during Washington’s final year in office as president. It is a primary source. Elizabeth Catlett’s Harriet was created in 1975, 62 years after Harriet Tubman’s death. It is a secondary source.
Both portraits use visual clues that not only show us what the individual looked like, but also capture an idea of who that person was and what they stood for. To more deeply understand an artwork, and its source type, it is important to know a little more about the artist and why they created the work. This information can reveal the bias or perspective of the artist. For example, Gilbert Stuart’s portrait helped establish an image of the first president as a powerful leader. Notice the expression on George Washington’s face. What might he be feeling at this moment? Are there any props - clothing or accessories - that give clues about his personality or position? Compare this portrait with Elizabeth Catlett’s print of Harriet Tubman. What do you notice that is similar or different? Elizabeth Catlett had a personal enthusiasm for depicting great women in African American history. How would you describe the way Harriet Tubman is represented in this artwork? What is being communicated by her body language? For whom do you think this portrait was made?
For more examples of art and storytelling that address civic values of equality, freedom, and justice, visit the Art & Civic Values pages.