The Social Functions of Art

Art performs a social function when:

(1) It influences a human group: for instance, what products sell well because of their package design?

(2) It is made to be seen or used in public situations.  Look at the Murals of Diego Rivera.

(3) It describes aspects of life shared by all as opposed to personal kinds of experience.  Examine the works of Norman Rockwell.  What is it about his work that makes it endearing to most Americans?

In all these cases, viewers respond with the awareness that they are members of a group. Artists may try to make us laugh at the same things; to accept certain religious, economic, or social ideologies; to identify with a particular class or ethnic interest; or to see our social situation in new ways. The visual arts can function as languages of praise and celebration, anger and protest, satire and ridicule. Advertising art is a common illustration.

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Detail from: "100 Cans" by Andy Warhol

Some people think that art designed to influence social behavior is corrupt, impure, "mere" propaganda, and so on. We could not present a complete or accurate picture of art if we ignored its role as propaganda, for example; the history of art offers many examples. It also shows that the excellence of an artwork is often unrelated to its purpose.

Political and Ideological Expression

Some artists are interested in the freedom to solve special problems of style or technique. Others use style and technique to express their social and political views. They may speak of their artistic responsibility: art does not exist merely to entertain, it must guide and instruct; it must improve our collective existence.

Eugene Delacroix "Liberty Leading the People" is one of the early monuments of revolutionary art.

Artistic Expressions of Humanitarian Concern

Perhaps the most monumental painting of social protest in our time is Picasso's Guernica.

   Schindler's List is considered to be the most pertinent film regarding humanitarian concern.  Rent and watch as much of this Steven Spielberg film as you can stand.  Be warned that it graphically portrays the horrors of the holocaust!  Why would a film this horrific win numerous Academy Awards including best picture during the year of its production?  Why did Spielberg feel so compelled to create this work?  Will it be remembered as well as the work of Norman Rockwell fifty years from now?


The social function of satire is to ridicule people and institutions so that they will change. Or, at least, stop what they are doing. Satire has roots in our fascination with the grotesque, and making grotesque images of real or imagined people is a universal practice.  William Hogarth and Duane Hanson are two examples of satirical artists.  A good classroom project for satire is to have your students collect and discuss political cartoons from various newspapers.  Are they art?

Hogarth: Includes Microsoft® Encarta's biography and several color reproductions of Hogarth's paintings.-
Prints by William Hogarth, The Philadelphia Print Shop, Ltd.: These prints, available or purchase, are reproduced from The Original Works of William Hogarth. London: John & Josiah Boydell, 1790.  A number of them may be viewed as JPEG's.
William Hogarth and Eighteenth-Century Print Culture, Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University: This exhibition "commemorates the 300th anniversary of one of Britain's most influential artists."  This impressive exhibition, organized by topic, includes many of Hogarth's prints, each accompanied by brief scholarly commentary.
William Hogarth (1697-1764), Haley and Steele: This "comprehensive" exhibition includes some ninety Hogarth works with extensive commentary.  A fine collection.-MJM
William Hogarth Prints: Includes Gin Lane, Beer Street, Harlot's Progress. Rake's Progress, and Marriage à la Mode, among others

Graphic Communication

Art can also be and inexpensive public language. Cheaply reproduced visual images communicate with amazing persuasiveness, and , combined with words, their meaning is clear and unmistakable. Art plays a crucial role in carrying information from government, business, and industry to every social group or subgroup we can imagine.  What is your favorite poster or package design?  Discuss and explain why.  Do you think it is accidental that Campbell Soup labels have basically remained unchanged for 80 years?

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