Art and Social Consciousness

My final project in my Art Appreciation coursework was to create a thematic exhibit of several pieces of artwork and had to include art across different time periods, cultures and continents.  Each piece had to include a description of why I chose it and how it fit into the exhibit.  I thought you all might have some enjoyment walking through my little exhibit.  I love art and I love learning about it so I had a great time researching and putting it together.

Thematic Exhibition on Art and Social Consciousness

“Social conscience: the ability to reflect on deeply held

opinions about social justice and sustainability.”

Myshele Goldberg

 While “social consciousness” initially appears to be a much more modern theme that is more easily found today in venues from memorials to sculptures, posters and paintings, street art and gardens, it is, necessarily, a theme that we find in art going back in time hundreds and even thousands of years.   The human soul always has longed to be able to express its deepest thoughts and passions through art. One of the most powerful tools of connection, art – through writing, music, canvas – has given us, as a species, a method of relaying the profundities of the life and society that is around and inside us.

The following pieces of art all present a theme of social consciousness seen through specific lenses of justice and law, environmental awareness and responsibility, war and its aftermath of desolation, healthcare and suffering, discrimination and genocide.

This exhibition has a seemingly somewhat dark theme, but it is my wish that the viewer leave with his or her soul moved by reflection and hope. Hope that as dark as periods in our history have been, we are learning from those mistakes and making changes for our societies and our world. As long as artists are allowed the freedom to express their consciousness to and about society, we will continue to have an opportunity to seek a better present and future for our world.

Law Code Stele of King Hammurabi (1780 BCE)


While this may piece of art may seem like a contradiction, when one thinks about art as “social protest” or “social consciousness” or a “memorial or remembrance” against government injustices or political forays or destructive wars and rulers, this stone actually represents a move towards freedom in society: the freedom to not have laws and rulership arbitrary and nebulous. The laws carved out here, yes, seem brutal, perhaps, (“an eye for an eye”) but no longer is action and punishment, consequences and crime left up to moods and whims, subterfuge and scheming, but on a “constitution” of sorts. (Tran, M., 2014). Freedom without laws is really just the worst sort of slavery.

Fever Van by L.S. Lowry (1935).


“Fever Van” is included in this exhibition as a moving witness of the never-ending issues of healthcare that confront every modern society and country on earth. Birth, life, sickness, death, compassion, money, politics: all are always inevitable involved. This picture depicts the then current practice in Britain, of forcibly taking away a child with an infectious disease to an “isolation hospital” from which they had little chance of ever coming home. (Martin, C., 2013). Lowry is famous for his depictions of the deplorable state of healthcare at that time and his art serves as a reminder for us of the continued need for social reform in this area.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso (1937)


A contemporary of L.S. Lowry, Picasso became also moved and inflamed by social events surrounding him during the early 20th century. Though specific interpretation of the symbols and images are, in typical Picasso fashion, left up to the viewer to interpret, “Guernica” was an outraged expressionistic response following the bombing of a little town in Spain that left more than 1,000 people dead.   General Franco allowed the German and Italians to bomb Guernica in a hideous experiment to “learn about the psychological effects of air warfare.” (DeWitte, D.J., Larmann, R.M., & Shields, M.K., 2012).

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe by Peter Eisenman (2004)


Last year, I had the privilege and grave honor of viewing this memorial in Berlin. It is a moving experience to walk through the 2,711 tomb-like structures and contemplate both what the tragic events that the Memorial stands for and what the artist was trying to convey with both the lack and the extremes of symmetry. Like Picasso’s “Guernica,” Eisenman wanted the viewer to interpret the memorial as he or she wishes, and, indeed, many different conclusion have been drawn from viewing and experiencing this memorial of remembrance. Though the article is a general criticism of the memorial, I found the following paragraph written by Richard Brody in The New Yorker particularly expressive of this piece of art:

“…In the shallow corner of the plaza, tourists sit and chat on bench-high stelae, children climb, all enjoy wide-open and thrillingly grand perspectives on the surroundings, including the Tiergarten to the west, and the installation takes on the cast of an austerely modern yet pleasantly welcoming park. But, upon entering the narrow alleys and plunging between higher and higher slabs, perspectives are sliced to a ribbon, other visitors are cut off from view, and an eerie claustrophobia sets in—even as some visitors (not just kids) play little games of hide-and-seek in the rectilinear maze. And the title, striking against the experience, creates sparks of metaphorical extrapolation: The Jews of Europe lived carefree, as in a park, until they wandered into frightening canyons of shadows from which the escape routes were narrow and distant. Yet, even then, amidst terrors and dangers, children played and families cohered, citizens from whose midst neighboring Jews were deported and slaughtered continued to frolic with indifference, exactly as many living in relative comfort do nowadays while political depravities are inflicted daily on far too many in places around the world. When my family and I got back to the bench-high stelae, I, too, sat down and checked messages.”

Cry Freedom (1987)


This film about apartheid is based on the true story of a South African, black activist, Stephen Biko, and an American, white, liberal journalist. Though there are many films and documentaries made about the issues, times, and people of apartheid in South Africa, I chose this film to be a part of this exhibit both because of the accessibility of the film for viewers and the superb personal stories and acting. I believe that films have ways of raising social awareness that other art cannot as easily. By combining art forms and the ability to capture movement and scenes, film uses our combined senses to emote a response that lingers in one’s mind and heart.

Street Art by “July i”


On a lighter note, this last piece in my exhibition, reminds us of the issues surrounding us today regarding the environment: pollution and waste are real and we are well-served to remember that each of us can do something about it in our every-day lives. “July i” is an anonymous street artist that in provocative and mostly amusing ways, hones our attention to the beauties and inconsistencies surrounding us. Street art is a valuable form of expression in our communities today and serves to remind us of not only our responsibilities but our connectedness to each other.

Robert Kennedy said,

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”  

Art is one of the most powerful ways of expressing this. As one of my good friends once said, “Art is only good if it moves you somehow.” I hope that you, the viewer of this exhibit, have been moved in some way and are inspired to send out “ripples of hope” into your communities.


DeWitte, D.J., Larmann, R.M., & Shields, M.K. (2012). Gateways to art.    New York, New York: Thames & Hudson Inc.

Tran, M. (2014). Ancient Babylonian art shows the origins of justice.                   State Press Magazine. Retrieved from                                                                the-origins-of-justice/

Martin, C. (2013). Art with a social conscience. The Lancet, volume 382   (issue 9895). Retrieved from                                                                             

Brody, R. (2012). The inadequacy of Berlin’s “Memorial to the        murdered Jews of Europe.” The New Yorker. Retrieved from   berlins-memorial-to-the-murdered-jews-of-europe


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