Society’s Canvass: On Art as a Projection of Social Values

I’m no artist. I’m rather prosaic. But it is difficult to deny the strength of art as a means of self-expression, political resistance, therapy, or as a projection of social values. The blank canvass holds endless possibilities; from ink to paint, surreal to abstract, dusky or vibrant, art provides an unparalleled mode of expression. What is on the canvass is the heart, emotions and dreams of the artist, manifest in a symphony of dexterous strokes and shades. It is the individual projected on the canvass.

And thus art can never be separated from the individual. And the individual can never be separated from the society in which they live. Society irreversibly influences them, and in turn, they irreversibly influence society. So, we find the individual on the canvass, but since the individual is shaped by their society, we see part of society on the canvass. That means that if a retrospective is taken of a culture’s art, we see society’s canvass; a milieu of art bound together by a common thread of values, concerns and hopes.

I have coincidentally stumbled upon different pieces of modern art, including having once visited the Tate Modern. From my limited exposure, it seems that modern western art seems to be an expression of individualism and liberty, which is held in such high esteem in the West. This is evident in the considerable diversity found in contemporary art; it shows individuals expressing themselves entirely how they want to, in line with individualism. It also seems to be centred around people, either an individual or a group; this also seems to relate to the centrality of the human, as opposed to grander structures, or group identity.

Perhaps a comparison against Islamic art will be a better example. One of the most notable types of Islamic art is geometry; an intricate pattern containing stunning mathematical treasures. This alludes to the theme of structural harmony and balance in Islam. We find in Surah Baqarah, it the middle of the chapter, the verse in which God says; ‘And thus we have made you a middle nation’. Some chapters of the Quran also feature a ring like structure, with the themes at the start of the chapter corresponding to the themes at the end, then the second mentioned theme matches the second last theme, and so on. This structure also operates in a super-chapter way, with exegetes noting the similarity between the first chapter of the Quran, Surah Fatiha, and the final chapter, Surah Naas.

More broadly, the Quran contains vivid descriptions of natural phenomenon, citing them as part of God’s signs and dominion; the entire universe is a harmonious structure built around praising God. Thus the theme of structural balance and harmony found in Islamic scripture seems to be very much present in geometry. Another feature of Islamic art is to include one deliberate flaw, as a reminder of humanity’s imperfection, and God’s perfection. This is quite a clear example of art reflecting a societal value.

Thus far, we’ve grappled with sweeping and crude group identities, namely the West and Islam. I have no intention of reinforcing this dichotomy, because it implies some degree of mutual exclusivity, and seems to make a hard and fast divide between religion and culture, one that I believe does not clearly exist (a discussion for another day).

If we abandon this crude categorisation, and consider the mixing of cultures, fascinating possibilities emerge. What I mean by mixing of cultures are British born Muslims, both Caucasian and of other ethnicities. The postmodern world in which we live can no longer be so easily truncated; just recently, the first female Muslim minister spoke in Parliament. This means that individuals, particularly those of religious and ethnic minorities, have a previously unheard-of set of social pressures influencing them. For example, the British Muslim is influenced by; their faith; contemporary British sentiments; ethnic sentiments; international political events and happenings; post-colonial sentiments, inter alia. And consequently, each one of these finds it’s way onto the canvas. The canvas of a British Muslim contains a plethora of influences, which would differ from, for example, the canvas of a British Japanese Muslim-turned-Atheist-Vegan-Social-Justice-Warrior.

So in the crucible of culture that is contemporary Britain, the canvas becomes even more exciting than it already is; it projects a sundry of global influences, made possible only by the deep mixing of cultures. Art becomes a projection of society. The ambiguous white of a blank canvass is bombarded with the artist’s eloquence, which in turn is their heart and soul.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Alina says:

    Art is a tangible representation of society of a particular time manifested through the lenses of individual creating the artwork.

    While I do agree with you that modern, western art exemplifies ideals of individualism and a ‘single person-centred’ vision, it wasn’t always like this. Public art does demonstrates this far more conspicuously than gallery art. Consider Trafalgar Square. It is a place of monuments and statues which celebrate kings and military leaders of the past. The neck-cranning height of Nelson’s Column flanked by four lions illustrates how the public of the 19th century felt awe at the military prowess of Britain. The presence of the navel hero it was modeled after, commemorated in stone almost fifty years after his accomplishment at the Battle of Trafalgar indicates how society then was inspired by ideals of courage, bravery, patriotism.

    In comparison, the Fourth Plinth on Trafalgar Square which has a new artwork every few years neatly embodies the mood of today. For instance, recently it displayed a bronze hand in a thumbs up gesture, titled “Really Good”. The thumbs up hand gesture commonly associated with approval and also on Facebook to indicate a ‘like’ preference for something. The artwork indicated that the ideals of today’s society are individual preference and individual opinion.

    This is a stark difference of focus in Western artwork that indicates the ever-changing, evolving nature of society through time. Islamic artwork, however, lacks this ‘self-consciousness’ of evolution of a changing style and lacks a focus of singular aspect on frame. Islamic art is characteristically mostly geometrical patterns and clean lines separating them. Geometrical patterns are something that is being seen in Islamic art since the 7th century and is still present, whereas Western art has constantly been changing with time indicating a lack of evolution in Islamic art. Furthermore, the heavy detailing of Islamic art, especially architecture makes it lack a focus. Alhambra (Granada, Spain) rings as an example. It has exquisitely detailed ornate arches and it’s arabesques style. But despite the delightful scene, it’s heavy detailing makes it lack a singular view. I suppose the characteristically geometric Islamic art and everchanging Western art as you put it is a reflection of societal values.That being said, art is an elegant expression of the artist’s “heart and soul”. I couldn’t have put it better myself!.


    1. Thank you for your well-informed response Alina.

      Public artwork is a very good point – I didn’t consider that. It’s very interesting that Western art varies so much. I suspect this may have to do with the West having loosely and vaguely defined itself around Liberalism. Maybe the flexibility of Liberalism as a concept has facilitated a varying artistic style. Islamic art conversely, would always be rooted in Islamic discourse, which is comparatively more well-defined and stable.

      How fascinating! Thank you for taking the time to write such an informative and well-written comment. 🙂


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