The Way Art Changes, Even Politics

Rachel Le Grellier

Art is a piece of society that has been prevalent since we were first developing. Cave paintings dating back thousands of years have been discovered proving that a trait that we as humans possess is the need to create. Visual art is not the only art form, music is important too, the earliest song we have discovered is four thousand years old and was written on a clay tablet. “Hurrian Hymn No. 6. Art”, the song, is a part of the human experience and is everywhere, from the streets of Manhattan to the little towns of South Africa.

The need to create goes in hand with the message to be presented. Meaningless or powerful, art can portray that message. Take for example “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” by Jacques-Louis David. This piece is quite spectacular, portraying Napoleon as a hero: strong and masculine; a war hero. The truth is he was a short man with a temper that matched his stature. Why would you want to portray him in a manner that was not real? To send a message of power and hope to the people of France: this was the need and that message was portrayed. In centuries gone by, art was only accessed by the powerful; they were the only people portrayed. This was until the Realism Movement began in France. This movement was based on the idea to portray the average life of a person living in the industrial revolution. The dead, the workers, the homeless, and the plain old person on the street were depicted. This now gives us a better understanding of what was happening in the lives of the general person on the street. The Realism Movement strived to portray a message that was not filtered through unrealistic life conditions.


What is mentioned above is intriguing history, but it focuses on the long-deceased people of Europe. Art is not exclusive to the Europeans but is humanity’s own. In times of struggle, humanity uses art and music to portray a message. Graffiti is considered an annoyance by many and illegal at worst, but it is its illegality that makes it what it is. Without the rebellion against the law, graffiti would not have its touch. Graffiti is the word of the oppressed, the word of those who cannot afford to buy an art gallery. Graffiti talks about injustice, it talks about police brutality, the bills that cannot be paid. It was developed in places suffering under conditions of immense poverty and remains there today. Graffiti has been prevalent ever since we started building cities and towns. Examples of graffiti can be found in ancient Greece over a thousand years ago.

The graffiti that we know today has become a part of or connected to the genre of hip hop. This genre has mainly been based in the United States of America but has become widespread. Graffiti is still relatively new to South Africa but even so, the art has lightened up cities around the country. Graffiti has shaped the way social justice movements act; an example of this is the phrase “be gay, do crime”. This phrase was spread across the internet in 2016 and you can still hear it being said by a lot by queer folk all over the place. The phrase came from a picture of some graffiti in which the phrase was spray-painted on a sidewalk. The tongue-in-cheek phrase holds a deeper meaning too, reminding us that being queer in many places is a punishable offence.

In the current global climate of politics, a big focus has been on the Black Lives Matter movement. With the recent killings of people by the police in the United States of America, many people are furious. There is also push-back against this movement. Graffiti has expressed the emotions felt by both sides, some painting murals of George Floyd, others spray painting the phrase “all lives matter" as a direct response to the phrase “black lives matter”. The expression of a feeling of injustice by both sides has influenced the Graffiti around their areas, now portraying the artists’ feelings towards the different movements.


Graffiti is one thing, but even fine art can be influenced and influence. An example of this is the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama: her art expresses anti-war, feminist, and other political and social ideologies. Her work is vibrant and pops out at the viewer, using sculptures and paint of fluorescent hues. She expresses her experiences with sexism, mental illness, war, life, and death. She is not only a sculptor but a poet, a painter, and an activist (usually organizing protest art) as well. The work that she creates is influenced not only by her surroundings but by politics too.

An example of an artist on the other end of the political spectrum is John McNaughton, an American artist who paints scenes that can be described as extremely patriotic. His paintings depict figures such as American presidents and Jesus and symbols such as the American flag. Former President Donald Trump is in a lot of his paintings. He is anti-Democrat, and his work portrays his feelings towards the party. In one of his pieces called National Emergency, he depicts Democrats standing on the American flag holding other countries’ flags. In this piece, Trump is standing to the side, while in the distance, a group of people reflected as a mob, likely wanting to immigrate to the United States, are depicted. His art is influenced by his reaction to the political landscape and his feelings towards the various current issues.

Art is an influencer, sharing ideas and feelings, but also it can be influenced, encouraged and used to send a message. Artists may be overlooked, underpaid, and told that such a career is not sustainable, but without them, our society's backbone would be gone, and we would crumble.

Rachel Le Grellier, currently in grade 8 at Parktown High School for Girls, is an aspiring artist and illustrator. She finds great joy in literature, especially poetry. Rachel, a saxophonist, also finds joy in music.