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Art Through Time: A Global View

Conflict and Resistance Compare: What Makes Art an Effective Form of Social Commentary or Political Criticism?

The Legislative Belly

The Legislative Belly
Artist / Origin: Honoré Daumier (French, 1808–1879)
Region: Europe
Date: 1834
Period: 1800 CE – 1900 CE
Material: Lithograph
Medium: Prints, Drawings, and Photography
Dimensions: (Image) H: 11 1/8 in. (28.2 cm.), W: 17 1/8 in. (43.5 cm.); (Sheet) H: 13 11/16 in. (34.8 cm.), W: 20 3/16 in. (51.3 cm.)
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rogers Fund.

The Earth Spider Creating Monsters in the Mansion of Minamoto no Yorimitsu

The Earth Spider Creating Monsters in the Mansion of Minamoto no Yorimitsu
Artist / Origin Utagawa Kuniyoshi (Japanese, 1797–1861)
Region: East Asia
Date: 1843
Period: 1800 CE – 1900 CE
Material: Woodblock print
Medium: Prints, Drawings, and Photography
Dimensions: H: 13 3/5 in. (34.6 cm.), W: 28 3/5 in. (72.7 cm.)
Location: Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK
Credit: Courtesy of Bridgeman Art Library

What makes art an effective form of social commentary or political criticism?

Art has long been a forum for expressing opinions about the state of politics and society. Through caricature, satire, symbolism, and allegory, artists have commented both explicitly and subversively on everything from vanity and excess to corruption and greed, and poked fun at everyone from the anonymous masses to the privileged elite. Often widely disseminated through prints and other reproducible media, the ability of such images to strike a meaningful chord and leave a lasting impression has at times made political satire dangerous terrain for artists, especially those living under the governance of repressive regimes.

Questions to Consider

  • One of these works was clearly intended as a satiric look at the government, the other is ambiguous. How do we know when we are looking art that is satirical or otherwise critical of the status quo?
  • There is no concrete evidence that Kuniyoshi intended his Earth Spider print as a commentary on the Tokugawa government, and yet it was widely interpreted as a critique of contemporary leaders. What role does the audience play in creating meaning in such instances?
  • The mockery in Daumier’s print is blatant. Is it fair to assume, then, that the artist was anticipating an audience whose views about the government were close to his own? Do you think that prints like this or Kuniyoshi’s Earth Spider were ever intended to sway popular opinion? What other functions might they serve? Why do you think works like these came under the scrutiny of government censors?

Series Directory

Art Through Time: A Global View


Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2