It is often said that ‘art is a language’—a language that everyone has the potential to speak and understand. As Mary Mothersill, a professor of philosophy, wrote, ‘the phrase ‘Language of Art’ has been a commonplace in the literature of criticism for at least two hundred years’ (The Journal of Philosophy, 1965). Although every language can be understood and spoken, the ability of art to promote relevant themes of cultural, racial and social import, to a universal audience, is truly special, and should be further embraced in contemporary society. Where mainstream media provide a forceful means of advocacy, the messages of the artworks I will discuss are more subtle and nuanced. After a thorough analysis of several bodies of work, it is clear that this subtlety is what makes art a more expressive medium, and that increased consideration for artworks would immensely benefit society.
Australian artist Anne Zahalka appropriates well-known historical Australian paintings to create new meanings, reflecting on gender ideology and Australian history. Zahalka explores and questions the way in which ideas about Australian national identity have been constructed through visual imagery. Her interest in appropriating iconic, nationalistic, historical Australian images of male dominance, to contest the historical exclusion of women, demonstrates her advocacy of this cause.
One of Zahalka’s best known works, The Breakaway (1985), addresses the masculine, hegemonic culture of Australia that permeates the past and present. In this work, Zahalka ‘re-interprets’ the well-known A Break Away! (1891) by Tom Roberts, to expose the historical discrimination of women (National Gallery of Victoria). The original piece by Roberts depicts a man on horseback attempting to redirect a mob of thirsty, stampeding sheep before they drown or crush each other in their desire to reach a dam. Zahalka’s photographic interpretation is essentially the same, except for one critical detail—the protagonist is a female, indicated by the long, feminine plait swinging from the horse-rider’s head. Undoubtedly, women are culturally repositioned in the photograph to be at the centre of attention. The subject is portrayed performing a restricted ‘manly’ task, which is a profound contrast with the fact that, at that time, women were socially oppressed and were advocating for equality, and that they continue to be violently oppressed in many cultural contexts today. Also, in this work, the subject can be seen to be riding against the sheep, which could resemble her lack of conformity and her ‘riding against’ the dominant culture. Furthermore, the title is a significant element in Zahalka’s piece, where the female subject can be seen to ‘break away’ from the male nationalistic preoccupations constructed, arguably unfairly, by Tom Roberts in his work as an artist.
This artwork not only acts as a reminder of the global history of female exclusion and passivity in many cultures, but communicates the issues that societies of many nations confront today. Women are still marginalised from executive positions and continue to earn less than men in upper management positions (The White House). Also, one in four women will experience domestic violence during her lifetime (Amnesty International). Thus, increased public appreciation of artworks such as Anne Zahalka’s The Breakaway, would provide, not only an easy history lesson, but would raise awareness of Australian social issues, both past and present.
Artist advocacy can be also seen in Chinese artist Ah Xian’s Metaphysica (2007), where he not only demonstrates his expertise in the art of sculpture, but establishes himself as a globally focussed artist. His work can be seen as a fine example of artist advocacy to a global audience. In Metaphysica he combines the human torso with traditional Chinese iconography to explore the experience of living between two cultures, and the importance of ethically maintaining individuality and culture through economic partnerships (QAGOMA). This work shares many qualities with perhaps the better known Sunflower Seeds (2010), by Ai Weiwei. For his installation, Ai Weiwei got people in his community to paint over one billion porcelain seeds to look like sunflower seeds. Despite looking real on the outside, the fake porcelain seeds allude to the loss of culture caused by mass production, which is a similar message to that in Metaphysica.
Metaphysica asserts that, while international trade and global partnership are fundamental elements in the functioning of human communities across the globe, society has to shape such partnerships so as not to destroy either side’s spiritual independence or their prosperity as a nation. The relationship between individuality and trade can be further seen through the title of the installation. Meta not only suggests metallurgy or the mining industry, but is used as a prefix to ‘further analyse the subject but in a more abstract way’ (American Psychology Association). Hence, the work could be interpreted as an abstract representation of the psychology of the individual being, the psyche.
To further emphasise the importance of individuality, each figure is subtly different in facial expression, and has a unique object placed on it; each a symbol of spiritual and cultural health. Ranging from Buddhist motifs, to symbols of Chinese mythology, Ah Xian stated that these objects are ‘auspicious symbolic objects which reflect what people believe, love, appreciate and enjoy’ (QAGOMA). Additionally, the obscurity and uniqueness of each object invites viewers to interpret each as a single nation, and to see how the controlled collaboration of nations can benefit civilisation. Hence, this sculptural series not only becomes relevant to developing auspicious global partnerships through international trade, but advocates a non-discriminatory financial system which maintains individuality and culture.
Increased consideration and appreciation for art as a means of advocacy in society is a tough goal, particularly in this generation of touch-screens and remote controls. However, as can be seen, connecting with socially-engaged art would indeed be rewarding, as it would enrich, and possibly change, the views of the public for the better. The reflective nature and the lack of bombast of the artworks mentioned above are what distinguish them from other forms of advocacy, and their intelligent means of promoting change make them true examples of artist advocacy. One must note that these are merely examples of the many fine bodies of work waiting to be appreciated amongst a wider audience, waiting to influence and embed knowledge into people beyond just those who visit art galleries.
Ah Xian, Metaphysica: Maitreya, 2007. Bronze and brass, 58.5 x 42.7 x 24cm. Gift of the artist through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2010. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery.