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Social commentary art – commenting on the world we live in

Art. What is it? Is it just something ‘pretty’ hanging on your wall? Or, can art be more than that?

For many artists, art is their soapbox. It’s their mouthpiece to voice how they feel about their world. Their work shouts, and even screams, about the unjust absurdities that occur. These artists become the unsung heroes of the voiceless, hoping the world will sit up and take notice of what is really going on.

Look at social commentary art, for example. This type of art not only looks great, but also has something to say. There are five artists, in particular, whose work stands out in this field. Below, we discuss these artists and their artwork.

Peter Kennard
Now we aren’t going to say that Peter Kennard is the godfather of social commentary art. That would be an outlandish claim. Social commentary art, or protest art as it is sometimes referred to, has been around for decades. But for us, Kennard was one of the first artists who made us realise that you can use art to make a point succinctly.

They say a picture can say a thousand words, and this piece does exactly that.

Tony Blair taking a selfie in front of burning oil fields. 'Photo Op' by Peter Kennard and Cat Phillips.
‘Photo Op’ by Peter Kennard and Cat Phillips

This powerful photo montage entitled ‘Photo Op’ was created by Peter Kennard and Cat Phillips. The striking image shows former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair taking a menacing selfie in front of burning oil fields. We think this piece is pure genius, and sums up the madness of the Iraq War and Blair’s part in the fiasco perfectly.

Ron English
Ron English has spent his art career creating incredible pieces around the topic of advertising – what he refers to as ‘popaganda’. He uses recognisable popular icons, English twists as well as distorting brand images and logos to reveal the truth and evil power of consumerism.

Texas born English’s work is a powerful demonstration of how artists can express their opinion on popular culture.

Consumerism piece by Ron English features many popular and cultural icons
Popaganda Guernica by Ron English

Ai Weiwei
If there is one artist who has dared to stand up and voice their opinions, no matter what the cost, it’s Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. His outspoken opinions on human rights violations in China landed him in prison for 81 days.

'Law of the Journey' installation by Ai Weiwei
‘Law of the Journey’ by Ai Weiwei

‘Law of the Journey’ by Ai Weiwei features a 196-foot inflatable dinghy installation, highlighting the plight of the refugee crisis. His artist statement aptly pointed out that “there’s no refugee crisis, only a human crisis”. We totally agree. This incredible piece is powerful and thought-provoking.

Ai Weiwei also covered the columns of Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt concert house with lifejackets that had been worn by refugees, again to highlight this terrible issue.

Barbara Kruger
Born in New Jersey in 1945, Barbara Kruger is regarded as one of the leaders in conceptual social commentary art. Her red, white and black manipulated graphic-based pieces discuss our desire for consumer goods.

The bold statements and text add to the absurdity of how, as consumers, we constantly strive to have everything – whatever the cost.

'I shop therefore I am' by Barbara Kruger features her iconic black, white and red graphic style.
‘I shop therefore I am’ by Barbara Kruger

Kruger’s work, although appearing simple, is incredibly effective at getting a point across. It makes you question yourself, your values and begs the question – what is really important to you?

Unless you’ve been living on another planet for the last 15 or so years, this last artist needs no introduction. Responsible for putting street art firmly on the map, Banksy has had an incredible meteoric rise through the art ranks. His often controversial work has gone from the streets into some of the most prestigious galleries in the world.

'Slave Labour' by Banksy depicts a young child seing a row of Union Jack flags.
‘Slave Labour’ by Banksy

What we love about Banksy is because of his fame, his opinions on important issues is seen by the masses, not just art lovers. This has created a powerful platform for him (or her, or them, who really knows?) to create awareness of the unjust problems within our society.

What all these artists have in common is a passion and urge to point out, through their work, the imbalances and problems that go on in today’s world. As we carry on with our lives, it’s easy to forget what others are going through. Yet artists such as these allow us, even for a brief moment, to stop, think and reflect.

If you want to find out more about these amazing artists, here’s some great links for you:


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