[Solved] artists and artifacts depicting repressiveness

Pieter Brughel the Elder (1525 – 1569) was one of the earliest painters to include strong political and social commentary.  While best known for his paintings of landscapes that feature images of peasant life – in itself a reaction against the more common, “accepted” subjects, namely religion – paintings such as The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, The Ass In School and Strongboxes Battling Piggy Banks contain scathingly satirical images that target the issues of his time – particularly the Reformation struggle between the Catholic Church and various Protestant sects, both of which sought power and both of which could be, and often were highly repressive. With the publication in 1560 of John Calvin’s Institutes of The Christian Religion, early Puritan ideals became very popular with the middle classes of the Netherlands because of its glorification of work and the accumulation of wealth and its defiance of Catholicism (Metropolitan Museum, 2002). Brughel’s Strongboxes Battling Piggy Banks is a satire on the preoccupation with accumulation of wealth for its own sake, while Big Fish That Eat Little Fish presents a picture of corporate capitalism that resonates in today’s era of uncontrolled mergers and acquisitions.

            Pablo Picasso’s well-known Guernica, painted during the Spanish Civil War, depicts what is considered by many historians to be a terrorist bombing by fascist forces under command of Franco’s Nationalists.  In Picasso’s unique style, the large mural depicts graphic scenes of violence, bloodshed, death and chaos. The painting contains a great deal in the way of subliminal images that include a human skull motif overlaying the prominent figure of a horse. There are symbolic figures as well, including the powerful image of a severed arm, grasping a broken sword from which a flower appears to grow.

            Picasso himself said, “If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously.”  He himself never attempted to explain the painting (Larrea, 1947), but the entire painting serves as an apt metaphor, not only for the twentieth century, but the “New World Order” that the current U.S. Administration and its corporate allies in the oil and defense industries seem determined to create.

            Ben Shahn, son of Lithuanian immigrants to the U.S., had been interested in “flamboyant” personalities which he “recorded with imaginative rather than literal precision” (Soby, 1963). He is best known for The Passion of Sacco & Vanzetti, but over the course of the Republican Great Depression (1929-1940), his attention turned increasingly to the plight of the American worker who bore the consequences of ten years of unregulated capitalism and uncontrolled excess of the corporate aristocracy. Between 1935 and 1938, he worked as a staff photographer for the Farm Security Administration, taking photos that “cried out to be taken” (“Passion For Justice,” 2002). These photos became the basis of a number of his paintings, including Scotts Run, West Virginia, a starkly grim picture of striking miners. The weather beaten houses, the dead grass and the hollow expressions on the men’s faces were a perfect reflection of their time – and may be just as appropriate for today’s American laborers in devastated communities such as Flint, Michigan, where jobs have been taken away in the name of corporate “free trade” and sent to Asians and Latin Americans willing to work for .20 cents an hour without any concern for the effect on the nation.

            Oppression can be political, it can be in the form of violence, it can be religious, or economic. In the U.S. today, people experience all of the above, and these historic paintings – products of their respective times – still speak to the same issues.

Works Cited

Ben Shahn: Passion For Justice. (2002, 2006). Retrieved 16 March, 2007, from http://www.njn.net/artsculture/shahn/photography.html

Timeline of Art History. (2002, 2006). Retrieved March 16, 2007, from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/08/euwl/ht08euwl.htm

Larrea, J. (1947). Guernica: Pablo Picasso. New York: Curt Valentin.

Soby, J. T. (1963). Ben Shahn Paintings. New York: George Braziller, Inc.

Essay on Adams and Montessori


“Feeding a machine with a material of which [a person] has no knowledge, producing a product, totally unrelated to the rest of his life, without in the least knowing what becomes of it, or it’s connection with the community, is of course unquestionably deadening to his intellectual and moral life. To make the moral connection, it would be necessary to give him a social consciousness of the value of his work, and at least a sense of participation and a certain joy in its ultimate use; to make the intellectual connection, it would be essential to create in him some historic conception of the development of industry and the relation of his individual work to it.” (Addams 165).

            This statement, made by educator, feminist and social worker Jane Addams over one hundred years ago, appears to be a commentary on the dehumanization of the industrial workplace, and how it slowly kills those intellectual and spiritual qualities that that make one human. Addams seems to be saying that the remedy for this is for one to understand where the materials come from and how they are produced, how they the product will be ultimately used and by whom and how this will actually make a positive contribution to society.

Addams shows a keen insight into one of the main problems of the industrial system and by extension, the modern capitalist system. People perform various jobs and consume a plethora of products, but rarely think of how what they produce and with what materials or their choices as consumers affects the world beyond their own immediate experience. An excellent example is oil; many people in the U.S. complain of gasoline prices that now approach $3.00 per gallon, but precious few of them consider the true cost; environmental degradation, illnesses caused by the poisoning of the air and water as well as the huge military budget currently going toward protecting oil supplies are factors not thought about by the vast majority of Americans, and issues such as these are virtually never taught in today’s schools.

            Maria Montessori, a leader in early childhood education, wrote: “Those who are conversant with the chief problems of the school know that today, much attention is given to a great principle, one that is ideal and almost beyond realization – the union of the family and the school in the matter of educational aims. But…the home is often closed not only to pedagogical progress, but often to social progress.” (Montessori, 184-85).

            Sadly, too many parents today have abdicated all responsibility for their children’s education – and discipline, for that matter. To exacerbate matters, these same parents – out of a misguided and blindly ignorant conservatism that equates “morality” with sexual behavior (and little else) are also the first to protest and even stand in the way of innovative instruction methods and/or materials. They may do this directly by carrying their protests to local school boards, or indirectly, withholding funding by failing to support school levies. Today, sex education consists of little more than abstinence lectures, and science teachers are still pressured in many places to present a creation myth as science.

            This situation is exacerbated by our compartmentalized society of life that (among other things) separates the home from the educational environment.  There is a stark difference between the two. The home is (ideally) a warm, comfortable place where children are free to explore as they wish, on their own time schedule, in ways that are comfortable and appropriate for them. In contrast, today’s public schools focus on regimentation, conformity and rigid scheduling – all in a sterile, institutionalized setting that stifles creativity and ultimately, the love of learning (particularly with today’s fixation on standardized testing). This corporate assembly-line model of education is also completely at odds with the nature and inclinations of children and youth.

Montessori spent a great deal of time actually studying children, gaining a deep understanding of their habits and motivations that even many parents lack. The classrooms that bear her name attempt to recreate that ideal home environment where a child is able to retain his/her innate curiosity and wonder.  Unfortunately, with today’s social, political and economic climate and priorities, it seems very unlikely that Montessori’s ideas will find their way into the public schools on a wide scale anytime soon.

Works Cited

Addams, J. (1905). Democracy and Social Ethics. New York: Macmillan.

Montessori, M. (1912). The Montessori Method (A. E. George, Trans.). New York: Frederick A. Stokes.


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