What is conscious art and why is it so important? It covers topics ranging from gender equality and the civil rights movement to ecology. Artists' practice of being socially aware is recorded in their subject matter, but it can also show through the media and materials they use.

Everything goes back to the 19th century, when Social Realism - an art movement that originated in the USA between the two world wars - was a reaction to the increasing hardship for ordinary people. It was influenced by the social realist tradition in France which had existed for decades. At this moment, art creation began to assume a more evident social conscience role reflecting the plight of the poor and criticizing the government. Painters, printmakers, photographers, writers, and filmmakers aiming to draw attention to the real social-political conditions of the working class as a means to critique the power structures behind them. For example, this work “Liberty Leading the People” is a painting by the artist Eugène Delacroix in 1830.

Eugène Delacroix - “Liberty Leading the People”
King Charles X of France had suppressed parliament by decree and intended to restrict freedom of the press. The initial riots escalated into an uprising that led to a revolution by French citizens. Delacroix represents liberty as a guide that leads the people, which is shown as multiform, that is, with members of the middle and lower social classes. Likewise, liberty is allegorized as a woman of great beauty. The spectator has only two possibilities, to join the mass, or to be swept away by it.

The rise in popularity of photography propelled the message to an even wider audience, often fluctuating between the concept of photography as art / journalism. This opened the door to cinema, where artists such as André Bazin, a French film theorist and critic, argued that neo-realism portrays; truth, naturalism, authenticity, and is a cinema of duration.

For Bazin, the  characteristics of neo-realism in film include: A definite social context, a sense of historical actuality and a portrail of political commitment to the progressive social change, authentic on-location shooting as opposed to the artificial studio, and a rejection of classical Hollywood acting styles and the extensive use of non-professional actors as much as possible. A documentary style of cinematography.

While some art projects have a social conscience without rhetorical hype, others are brazen in their critique of reality. Some simply register what it is, and the impulse to react is left to society. Either way, we see our world reflected in us through the artist's interpretation. From the 19th century to the contemporary, these artists adopt a socially conscious attitude towards creating art.

This doesn’t die there, it just evolves. When we observe the surrealist works with attention we can appreciate that consciousness is still present through the years, it is simply expressed in a different way.

Max Ernst - “Europe After the Rain” (1940-1942)

For example, in this scene we can see a surrealistic landscape of a dystopian Europe. It creates awareness regarding the disruption brought by World War II, and allows the artist to speak about his own turmoil connected with the Nazi abuse of power. Ernst’s canvas provokes feelings of emotional solitude and desolation, physical exhaustion and deep fear.   

 The late 1960’s and early 1970’s is seen as the breaking point in traditional art culture, offering a fresh definition for creative production. This time marks the birth of the term contemporary art, also referenced as post-modernism art. In a period of such change, much is owed to the “hippie movement” and the student protests of 1968, which have pushed forward for the most thought provoking concepts.

Many influential themes such as, conceptual, minimalist, performance, and installation art were expanded and developed by figures such as Barbara Kruger, and Robert Smithson. Artists such as Vito Acconci, Marina Abramovic, Ulay, and Ana Mendieta pushed the boundries of these concepts to the limit and deconstructed some of the most important values in creativity as we knew it. With such strong figures, the major movements that followed were born or re-defined.

Creativity has often been used as a reflection of the artists interpretation of society, and society could no longer accept the predisposed idea which placed a woman solely as an object within a piece. Until this time, only a few female artists were acknowledged. This all changed thanks to Judy Chicago and the famous question - Why Have There Been No Greater Women Artists? The 1970’s sought change in the definition of a subject matter, offering a concept of a female protagonist. Feminism art shook the very ground it stood on.

Judy Chicago - “The Last Dinner”, 1974 -1979.

An artists use of nature within their creative form has been a common presence throughout history. The major development in painting occurred when Impressionist painters took their easels en plein air. Furthermore, with the birth of land art, nature was no longer just a setting for a canvas but yet another surface that creativly embedded the concerns of formal art.

“Spiral Jetty” Image © Nancy Holt

In 1970, with his stone construction “Spiral Jetty” implanted into a salt lake in Utah, Robert Smithson changed not only the face of art but its relationship to usual exhibition setting and the market. The fixed outside location, use of materials, and the fact that the visibility of the work depended on the water level of the lake, pushed away from the notion of the art object as an artifact.

Barbara Kruger - “We don't need another hero”, 1987.
Moving forward to the 80’s, and leaving behind the wild and free philosophy, we found a more serious aesthetic style in the form of Agitprop. Agitprop had a use of black and white photography, solid color banners and a single bold font with a clear intentional message. Conceptual artist like Barbara Kruger, are best known by subversive design work concerning consumerism, feminism and the female identity that floursihed with this direct style of artistic and political expression.
On the other hand, we can see works like “The Kiss” by Dimitri Vrubel. The world famous graffiti at the Berlin wall, originally named “My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love”, but also known as “The Kiss”, “The Kiss of Death” or the “Fraternal Kiss”. This depiction of a historical kiss between Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker at the ceremony of the Foundation of the German Democratic Republic after the Berlin wall was down, reflects the continuation of the political dysfunction during the cold war. This satirical approach expands on Kruger’s plain and simple asthetic by introducing bold and controversial imagery.

We can’t say conscious art is something new. In fact, consciousness has been deeply present in the minds of the most revolutionary artists through generations. They saw the functional side of art and documented history in an honest way, no matter the consequences, mediums or materials. Their work demostrates their feeling of a responsibility that was bigger than themselves.

Look around you.

Essay: Dani Rodriguez
Edit: Jonathan Bate