The Body Politic: How Artists Politicize the Human Form

The Body Politic: How Artists Politicize the Human Form

Creating a political artwork doesn’t necessarily mean depicting a political event or figure. Compositional choices such as color, shape, and technique can be equally effective tools in expressing cultural critique. When it comes to the human form, artists have frequently found creative ways to portray the body in order to convey social commentary. Whether it be using a monochromatic palette, isolating figures against a stark, contextless background, or even reimagining the body as a landscape, artists have taken many approaches to emphasizing—or subverting—political statements through portraiture.

Image depicts two waitresses, wearing black dresses and white aprons, walking arm-in-arm on a dirt road away from the resort of Sparhawk. Dark clouds hang above, and a red wall is immediately behind the two waitresses.

Working Bodies: Labor, Politics, and Perspective

In these compositions, the human body is shown from a variety of vantage points: close-up and far away, frontally and obliquely, in a landscape and ensconced in claustrophobic spaces.
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Shirin Neshat (March 26, 1957, Qazvin, Iran; lives and works in New York) Ghada, 2013 Digital C-print and ink 26 x 17 ½ in., each (unframed)

Mapped Bodies: The Human Body as Battleground

In 1989, Barbara Kruger made her famous statement: “Your body is a battleground,” capturing the susceptibility of the human body. In many ways, our bodies are a vulnerable landscape—a space where private and public are negotiated, emotions and experiences registered, pleasure enjoyed and pain endured, and identities asserted.
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Byron Kim (La Jolla, California, 1961–Brooklyn, present) Synecdoche, 1998 Oil and wax on twenty panels Michener Acquisitions Fund, 1998 1998.77.1/20-20/20

Gridded Bodies: Rationalizing the Human Form

This selection of artworks shows how artists have attempted to render the human body—a constantly evolving, organic form—in a strictly rational structure: the grid.
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Vincent Valdez Untitled, from The Strangest Fruit Oil on canvas Promised gift of Jeanne and Michael Klein, 2015 PA2015.58, PA2015.59

Context Clue-less: Isolating the Human Body

In these works, artists such as Tavares Strachan, Vincent Valdez, and Catherine Opie isolate their figures in space so as to emphasize their enduring significance, independent from the sometimes-brutal histories from which they came.
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