Sample Reflection Paper: The Most Relevant Art Theme Today
Art has played a unique role in narrating the history of humans. Each artist; whether a painter, a sculptor, or a writer; has utilized their mediums to describe significant events and send messages that transcend their period. They do this by incorporating themes in their artworks which further enhances the quality of their work. Most of the relevant themes include “conflict and adversity”, “freedom and social change”, “heroes and leaders”, “humans and the environment”, “identity”, “immigration and migration”, and “industry, invention, and progress” (Explore Themes in Art). These themes became relevant due to the current events that occurred in human history. During wartimes, conflict and adversity became a main topic in the literary and visual art world which led to artworks that depict the monstrosity of warfare. In the early industrial period, men became fascinated with machines and innovation which inspired paintings and stories that represented new ideas. As the world surpasses these portions of history, some of the themes become less relevant while others, like identity, acquire new meanings. Today, the theme of identity has become a significant aspect of artistic expression that is always present alongside other themes.
The concept of identity refers to an individual’s personality, opinions, culture , beliefs, and values. The Smithsonian American Art Museum defined the concept of identity as a set of qualities, behaviors, and characteristics that categorize them into a particular group. While these qualities and characteristics make an individual part of a group, they also distinguish them from other members of society. Each individual possesses different characteristics making them part of different circles. A U.S.-born individual shares the characteristic of a U.S. citizen, however, they can also be part of an elite class that possesses great wealth or value. This makes identity a complex theme that only the individual himself can fully understand.
This abstract characteristic of identity contributed to its value as an artistic theme. Popular artists like Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Frida Kahlo utilized the theme of identity to create marvelous artistic works that the industry still celebrates today. Van Gogh embodied the misery and pain of his agonizing life into colorful landscapes; Picasso created reflections of himself and his experiences into abstract pictures; Kahlo expressed the tragedies of her young life through portraits that scream of pain and brutality. While these types of artworks directly express the theme of identity, keen observers may argue that all forms of art carry the theme of identity. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888) expresses the story of the artist’s optimism; Picasso’s Bull’s Head (1941) exhibits the artist’s childlike imagination; Kahlo’s Sun and Life (1947) shares the emotion of despair. These artworks do not necessarily portray identity but within their context and outlying themes, they are the manifestations of artistic expression that roots from an individual’s identity.
This fact is most prevalent today, as artists embrace a more abstract approach to art. They understand that art is a medium of self-expression that grants absolute freedom to any individual. Take for example Ai Weiwei’s Template (2007), S.A.C.R.E.D. (2009), and Ye Haiyan’s Belongings (2013). These artworks represent the themes of conflict and adversity as Ai Weiwei utilizes them to criticize the Chinese government’s rule. These art pieces directly illustrate the conflicts and adversity present in China. To the ordinary observer, the art pieces are visual representations of the events that unfold in the country. However, a closer look will allow an individual to glance into the artist’s identity. The final form of the Template (2007) is a result of wind exposure and rain which Ai Weiwei welcomed as an added component to the art; S.A.C.R.E.D. (2009) is a direct image of Ai Weiwei and his experience within a government detention facility; Ye Haiyan’s Belongings (2013) is a collection of an activist possession which the artist turned into an art installation. The context around these art pieces illustrates Ai Weiwei’s identity as an artist that willingly accepts change, consequences, and overcoming adversity.
Another good example of identity within other themes is in Mary Mattingly’s Swale (2016). This 5,000 square foot barge is an art installation that utilizes the theme of humans and the environment. Aside from being an artwork, it serves as a food source for some New York citizens since the barge acts as a landscape for vegetables to grow. While many see Swale (2016) as a testament against pollution in the city and the policy that prohibits growing food in New York’s public land, it is also a representation of the artist’s vision where any individual can pick an apple from a tree and gain access to clean water. The floating barge in New York City is the result of Mattingly’s childhood experience and observation of the environment. As it tackles the theme of humans and the environment, it strongly portrays the artist’s identity as a passionate individual capable of great effort that disregards senseless old-aged rules for the benefit of the people.
Aside from environmental issues, the theme of immigration and migration is another socially significant topic that also contains the concept of identity. In 2020, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services commissioned anonymous artists to create the No Kids in Cages statues. The organization scattered multiple statues in the streets of Manhattan as a testament against the separation of immigrant children and parents. The art installations were blatant and disturbing as they depicted small children curled within small steel cages. The statues’ overt characteristic illustrates the silent screams of children as they are separated from their parents. It also describes the intense emotions that the organization has against the separation practice. The No Kids in Cages manifests the identities of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, immigrant children, and immigrant parents.
Even in more modern forms of art with themes about heroes and leaders, the concept of identity persists. In modern media; the popularity of superheroes and other characters can strongly relate to the identity of their creators or source. Characters like Black Widow, Doctor Strange, and Thanos were only popular among comic book fans until the Marvel Cinematic Universe entered mainstream media and every individual became a fan of the franchise. During the release of the Avengers movies , even individuals that do not know the difference between Marvel and DC lined up in movie theaters to watch the popular title. This explicitly showcased that despite the theme of the movie, the viewers based their interests on its identity as a “Marvel movie”. This illustrates that it is not only artists that put great importance on identity but also the audience of an artwork.
Identity has become the most relevant art theme today due to its wide application in any form and theme of art. The concept of identity is present within the themes of “conflict and adversity”, “freedom and social change”, “heroes and leaders”, “humans and the environment”, “immigration and migration”, and “industry, invention, and progress”. Various art forms, such as sculptures, paintings, movies, and art installations, contain a part of their creator’s identity. Art, as a medium for self-expression, innately possesses the theme of identity—turning the concept into an inherently relevant idea that encompasses every topic, issue, and message.
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Baker, Harriet. “Ai Weiwei: 13 Works to Know”. Royal Academy. 2015. https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/ai-weiwei-13-works-to-know
Lee, Shannon. “These 10 Artists Are Making Urgent Work About the Environment”. Artsy. 2020. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-10-artists-making-urgent-work-environment
Lescaze, Zoe. “13 Artists On: Immigration”. The New York Times Style Magazine. 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/19/t-magazine/immigration-art.html
Smithsonian American Art Museum. “Explore Themes in Art”. Smithsonian American Art Museum. https://americanexperience.si.edu/themes/