Art plays an important role as a cultural signifier, acting as a reference to show the mind set of populations or groups at the time of creation. It often highlights wider themes of that era, such as economic uncertainty or political unrest, offering a glimpse into the past and the challenges those living in the time faced.

Art Basel has worked to connect the art community since 1970, holding three successful fairs in Basel, Hong Kong and Miami Beach every year. This year’s fair in Basel clearly demonstrated how art bares such culture significance, with pieces reflecting news stories on mass migration, political uncertainty and terrorism to name but a few of the broad issues established and emerging artists highlighted in various mediums.

Exhibiting suffering through art

Art has long been used to show the despair and violence ordinary people have suffered as a result of war, unrest or famine throughout the ages. It turns news stories into a visual account of what happened and connects with the audience on another level.

For example, English artist L.S. Lowry depicted urban landscapes that hid evidence of human suffering in the background. His work shows people feeling isolated, being evicted and committing suicide when you look closer at his paintings. Perhaps the most striking thing about his work is that the other people depicted in the work are going about their lives, ignorant to the pain around them.

The 20’s and 30’s, when many of Lowry’s created, was a time when, in general, living standards were rising but two million British people were also unemployed and many industries went on strike, with the effects of this been felt particularly harshly in the north of England. Lowry’s work perhaps reflects these two emerging different economies during a transition period.

Another example is Bengali artist Somnath Hore, who was profoundly affected by the Bengal famine in the 1940’s and showcased the struggles of his life through his work. During the famine over three million people died of starvation and malnutrition, and throughout his life Somnath also experienced World War II, the partition of India and violent political conflicts in the 1970’s. His series of work entitled ‘Wounds’ aims to explore the accumulated effects of many years of violence and unrest that was experienced at his home.

Hore’s work comes from cement moulds that that been damaged themselves using knives and other tools, resulting in prints that resemble human wounds and scars and aim to act as a reminder of how vulnerable people can be and how difficult it can be for some wounds to heal.

Art faces censorship too

Whilst artists often turn to their art to show political unrest and the horrors they have experienced, it isn’t always an accurate representation. Paul Nash, who served briefly in World War I before being invalided out, found that the shocking scenes he witnessed were not represented in the work he was commissioned to create by a government scheme.

All of the commissioned work had to go through an approval process, resulting in his depictions of British fatalities not being deemed as acceptable. Nash creatively painted devastated landscapes instead in an attempt to demonstrate the true horrors.

Continuing a trend in the modern world

The modern world has continued the trend of using art to reflect the society we live in today and the challenges we face, often acting as thought provoking material.

Abdul Rahman Katanani’s ‘Kite’ was inspired by the tragic events during the Gaza war. The hostile situation saw densely populated cities being attacked, resulting in hundreds of civilians being killed, including children. The artwork aims to reflect the children who lost their lives playing in the sky as well as the optimism Gazan people felt when they considered a resolution.

Politically motivated art doesn’t just focus on human consequences either, environmentalism has become a huge issue in today’s modern world, with much of the global population supporting the movement. Yet, while many people support reducing waste and helping to protect the natural world some fail to make the connection between their actions and consequences.

Joshua Allen Harris’s Installations in 2012 saw the artist fashion plastic waste into animal forms, which then came to life when they were installed over ventilated grates of subways. His work not only reflects the impact that modern urban life has on the environment but also shows how it is often considered ‘out of sight and out of mind’.

Next time you browse our online art gallery full of contemporary paintings for sale, or visit a museum with historic pieces, why not take the time to really consider each piece of artwork to learn more about the current affairs, thoughts and news stories that were affecting the artist when they made it. You will never look at a piece of artwork in the same way again!