Art Lesson Plan - Social and Political Issues in Art

Social and Political Issues in Art

Submitted by: Sara Gant, North Carolina
UNIT: Social and/or Political Issues in Art
Lesson: Choice of media - on social and or political issues
Grade level: High School (adaptable to middle school)
Political Art for Younger Students: Constructing a President



Choose an issue you care deeply about, and would want to try and do something about. This issue should be something that is a general issue or concern in society somewhere in the world. Be sure you are picking a general issue, not simply one of your pet peeves! Some ideas of things you might be interested in depicting/standing up for or against: pollution/environmental concerns, abortion rights, pro-life, racism, big government, homelessness, AIDS, (Creationism vs Evolution for private schools) religious wars, the war in Iraq, poverty, verbal abuse, bullying, depression, teen suicide, discrimination, gay rights…What do you CARE about? Talk to people- has anyone in your family been affected by any of these? How? Why? How did it affect them?

by Heidi Winner - See Heidi's Concentration - by Marissa Kent


social and political art      social and political art


Work above is by students from Leigh High School, San Jose CA - art teacher Ken Schwab. Heidi used a collage of her drawings done in pencil and colored pencils and antiqued with Oil Paint. stains. Marissa's is pencil and colored pencil. Heidi's work won first place in the Art Olympiad for high school students. It is about her grandfather who was interned and lived through Auschwitz; it uses images of Hitler, skeleton arm with her grandfather's number on it and images of prisoners in mixed media. Marissa's work is her anti-war statement. (Click images for larger views)


social and political art      social and political art      social and political art

Work shown above is by Sergio Hernandez (Click image for larger size - Newest work, Dia de los Muertos 2004). Work is copyrighted and used here with permission. Work on the left shows the Decline of California. The work in the center is the incompetence and uncaring attitude of Mexican officials to the 300 plus deaths of young women in Cuidad Juarez. Right shows war in Iraq - a very different Dia de los Muertos. See what inspires Sergio Hernandez - how he gets his ideas. Questions and answers - from Littlerock High School Littlerock, California


social and political art      social and political art      social and political art

Work shown above is by Steve Shepard His work is very political in nature - and anti-Bush. Do a search on eBay to see his current offerings. Work is copyrighted and used here with permission. You do have permission to show students his work in PowerPoint presentations. Use caution when it comes to political bashing - you know how your school officials will react. Deb Mortl recommended Steve Shepard to Getty TeacherArtExchange list.



Student choice. This would be a culminating lesson after many techniques have been explored. Prismacolor Colored Pencils., Oil Pastels., soft Pastels. might want to be considered on dark paper (try quality Tru-Ray Black Construction Paper.). Maybe even try a middle school/elementary favorite - outlining with black glue or black Puffy Paint.. Combine with newspaper text collage - or text printed from Internet or Word file. Acrylic Paint. combined with collage would be interesting. Some may want to consider all collage using magazines and newspaper.


Project Description:

Depict your social statement on a large sheet of paper.  You may choose your media: paint, collage, Oil Pastels., Prismacolor Double-Ended Markers. or mixed media (paint and oil pastel, or newspaper and oil pastel etc.)  Your image should be an "in your face" style; the image should be large and possibly cropped, going off the edge of the paper or depicting an unusual angle or scene…Think about what point of view you want to depict (An unborn fetus, for example, if you are against abortion. How would you depict abortion rights? How would you depict Pro-Life? Do the desires of the mother trump the right to life for the unborn child? An example of a racist episode/event in history.) Add minimal text (See art of Barbara Kruger) – or make it all about the words (see Jenny Holzer). Choose your color scheme carefully. You may want to choose a monochromatic color scheme (all blues, all reds, etc.) Be sure all white space on your paper is filled in. Take care of and clean all art materials appropriately!



Spend your Internet time researching the issue you have chosen to speak out about. Keep your sketchbook next to you, and jot down quotes or words that jump out at you or speak to you. Use any images you may see to sketch out some ‘thumbnail sketches.’  Be sure to document the sites you visit. Your sketchbook should be a visual record of the research and documentation that you have done.


Written Assignment: 

Write about your poster. Answer a number of these questions in your writing. What are some other questions that come to mind? Why do you feel the way you do? What are your arguments for or against?  What – or who – has influenced your decisions.  What is the "flip side" of your issue? What might the other side have to say? Can you see their point of view?  What is your reasoning for choosing your stand?  Is your artwork intended to offend? Who would be offended? Does the artist have a right to offend? Critique your project. Does it get your point across? How? Is there a focal point (center of interest)? Does it show effective use of Principles of Design? How?

Optional Written Assignment: Critique one of Sergio Hernandez or Steve Shepard's works. What questions do you have for the artist about his work? OR - find another contemporary artist for a work to critique.



Sergio Hernandez - Los Angeles artist who got his start as a cartoonist. See Death Takes Frida (Archive). Many powerful images!  See email interview with Sergio Hernandez.

Soraida Martinez - Latino artist of Puerto Rican heritage - known as the creator of "Verdadism", a form of hard-edge abstraction in which paintings are juxtaposed with social commentaries. Many women's issues - and about minorities. Must see site.

Steve Shepard - Work inspired by Edward Hicks. Bold colorful compositions with text borders. Powerful messages. Steve's work is black ink and Prismacolor on paper darkened with alizarin crimson watercolor - with text borders inspired by the Peaceable Kingdom (and others) by Hicks. His work may inspire a lesson using pastels, Prismacolor Double-Ended Markers., Oil Pastels. or Construction Paper Crayons. on Black Construction Paper.. Steve is fine artist from Mississippi - his work just has a "folk" appeal - his statements are political in nature.

Marcia Yerman Don't be stopped by the image on her home page - her work is AMAZING! Drawing, gouache, collage, mixed-media, or large-scale oil paintings, the themes are powerful - dealing with world issues - family and more. Work is both narrative and symbolic in nature. See my favorite! If I Don't Do It - A great tie in for Renaissance units (playing cards).

Locus Media Gallery Marcia Yerman is curator for this gallery. Gallery artists and art changes on the site. Browse at your leisure. Select example appropriate for your unit. Use "Fair Use" guidelines - cite your source and artist properly in you PowerPoint presentations.

Protest and Persuasion: A Unit on Printmaking or Mural Making (Archive) - Students look for visual signs of protest and persuasion in the world around them.


Optional: View Movie Fahrenheit 9/11.. This lesson would be excellent as a follow up to this type of movie. Gives one plenty to think about. You can then follow it up with the rebuttal movie, Fahrenhype 9/11.. It's always good to show both sides of the argument. Moore covers the liberal point of view while the other is the conservative point of view. (suggestion from Donna Pauler)



The Art of Ill Will: The Story of American Political Cartoons. - Dewey explores the evolution of American political cartooning from its origins in the 18th century through its proliferation in the 19th and up to its current state, beleaguered by, among others, litigation and political correctness.

The Best Political Cartoons of the Year for 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010 - The best cartoonists in the world contributed to this collection of the best cartoons, from Daryl Cagle's Political Cartoonists Index. More than 600 cartoons cover the major topics of the year. He puts these out every year so look up the related books for the year that you want.

Killed Cartoons: Casualties from the War on Free Expression. - Some of the cartoons in this book might bring about a great discussion among students. Functioning as both a compendium and history of political cartooning, the book is full of cartoons, each accompanied by a brief narrative describing why it was killed, and though some cartoons seem fairly innocuous, the background provides intriguing context.

Resources through time suggested by Getty ArtsEdNet Members:


Gericault, Theodore
The Raft of the Medusa, 1819
Oil on canvas
491 x 716 cm
Musee du Louvre, Paris

Death of Marat, 1793
Jaques Louis David:
Also see this link

Execution of Rebels of the 3rd of May 1808., 1814
Francisco Goya
Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

The Futurists:
Marinetti, the poet and ideological father of the Futurists wrote recommending that poetry should henceforth sing only of "the multicolored and polyphonic surf of revolution in modern capitols: the nocturnal vibrations of arsenals and docks beneath their glaring electric moons... factories hanging from the clouds by their threads of smoke."

The most famous of the artists were Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carra, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Balla, and Gino Severini.

Arthur Szyk –Illustrator - Holocaust museums' exhibition (Archive - A starting point for Ben Shahn) (Holocaust artist) (National Coalition against Censorship)


For Political Cartoons:

Try Gary Trudeau of Doonesbury and Walt Kelly of Pogo fame. They're both quite loaded with political and social commentary. (From Kathy- TeacherArtExchange)

Daryl Cagle has the most extensive political cartoon website on the internet.

Kings Syndicate- This is their editorial cartoonists' page.

United Feature Syndicate- This is their comics and editorial cartoonists' page.


Conservative Cartoons

Liberal Cartoons

From Donna Pauler – post to Getty TeacherArtExchange List:

We need to understand how policies put forth by our President and Congress have a direct impact on our lives and in this case art education specifically. There needs to be a dialogue about this throughout the election cycle on this list (Getty TeacherArtExchange).


It is true that the funding of "No Child Left Behind" has had a direct impact against the arts in education.

Art images have been used to influence politics throughout history. Hitler used 'art' to great advantage to influence. And our current political campaigns are using visual imagery to the hilt. The Media, and all visual images--cartoons, color of clothes we wear, icons in advertisements, slogans and more all influence our perception and our perceptions are our "truths". We need to understand how images influence our thinking. How it creates a "perception of truth" that isn't the truth!

Good art projects might include not only making art but also dissecting some of these visual images and discuss how they influence how you feel about the topic.

I hope we can discuss this in our art classes. It is very scary to think that in a democracy we are told we can't talk about "political" issues in our classrooms. I may understand how we may not advocate for a particular party to our students, but we should certainly be able to have a debate about issues and ideas. If not, I'd be real scared.


Many artists we celebrate were the political activists of their time... artists who created artwork that celebrated heroes and/or made social commentary on the horrors of war or the injustices of society.

As educators we must be educated about legislation that effects our curriculum, our budgets, our certification requirements - our classroom sizes, the number of classes we teach a day, the number of days we work a year, etc. All are affected by who is in office, and who holds the power –and who writes the check.

As artists, we must continue the debate about who has the right to choose what art we view, what is art and should/can content of art be legislated.


Article below from Michael Gerrish - Why Art Newsletter (on becoming an ART Neighbor - Authentic Relational Transformative)


Two "Moore" ART Neighbors - a liberal point of view
If you are going to be an ART neighbor, you’ve got to be ready to make some noise! Pablo Picasso may have been self centered and sometimes nasty, but creating Guernica made him a noisy, and great, ART neighbor. In one brazenly political image, Picasso stepped into the gap between cultures in conflict, using his talents to portray the horror of Hitler's air attack on a Spanish village. His painting offers each viewer a fictionalized yet authentic glimpse into the eyes of the villagers, revealing truth about mechanized warfare, our relationship to the suffering of others and a transformative moment after which we must say, "Enough" to war (Archive). Even after completing the work, Picasso continued to be noisy about the politics of war when he refused to allow Guernica to enter Spain until the fascist government was replaced. All this is even more remarkable when we remember that what we view as a masterpiece today was denounced by politicians from the left and right when it was first exhibited in Paris in 1937. In a challenging time, he was willing to take the heat to speak out (Archive) through his work.


Michael Moore is making noise now, this time with his politically inspired film Fahrenheit 9/11. I’ve been amused by comments from some viewers who challenged his film because it isn’t "balanced" or is somehow unpatriotic. (See the rebuttal movie, Fahrenhype 9/11) Of course it’s not balanced! Opinions don’t have to be balanced…but they ought to be honest and earnestly held…and Mr. Moore’s opinion is surely that. For those who believe documentaries should not express a point of view, I suggest a visit to the POV website. Independent, non-fiction film artists do have opinions, and express them freely in their work. If viewers are inspired to improve a situation, that's great!


As for Mr. Moore being unpatriotic, was Picasso being unpatriotic in 1937 when he took a stand against fascism? If patriotism is defined by the winners, I guess he was; when Picasso died in 1973, Franco and fascism still ruled Spain. And yet, when Picasso’s sobering masterpiece arrived in a free and democratic Spain in 1981, did its long delayed arrival transform Picasso from angry rebel to posthumous patriot?  Perhaps labels that change with change aren't proper labels after all.


I'm less concerned about debating the past and more concerned about the improving the present. I don't want to wait 40 years for truth to be freed from the bankruptcy of one sided patriotism and two dimensional intellect. If you don’t want to wait, make some Authentic Relational Transformative noise now. There are lots of options! (Archive) -  © 2010


Add Aesthetic Lesson - Is it Art? - Meet the World Flags.

View the flags designed by Brazilian artist Icaro Doria. Read about the campaign. Do we call this art? Why or why not?


"The magazine Grande Reportagem in Lisbon, Portugal, is running a sobering ad campaign that adds a color-coded legend to the flags of various countries to comment on the cultural and social conditions there. The mastermind behind the effort is a 25-year-old Brazilian graphic designer named Icaro Doria. 'We started to research relevant, global and current facts and thus came up with the idea to put new meanings to the colors of the flags,' Doria tells 'We used real data taken from the Web sites of Amnesty International and the UNO.' The tagline is, 'Meet the world'." (copied from a blog).


Have students design a work of art dealing with similar world issues.



Submitted by: Jill Swedlow - Chicago
UNIT: Social Comment - Political Art - Heroes  - Leadership
Grade level: Middle school (adaptable to elementary)


This lesson came from an workshop at Art Institute of Chicago for educators called "Looking Critically at Political Art." Jill is using this idea with her 7th and 8th graders.


Students will be introduced to artwork and other forms of visual culture that address issues of representational politics and political campaigns.


Discussion questions:

  • What images of political candidates are we currently exposed to in visual culture?

  • What do we learn from these images?

  • What do the images teach us?

Students can use journal writing to describe the political and social issues that are important to them as individuals and as part of a larger group. Students also begin to describe how they would like their political candidate to look. They can focus on underrepresented individuals (women or minorities).


Students will look at various artists political and social issues. Students will answer specific questions that relate to ideas they have written in their journals.


Students will begin to construct their presidential candidate by looking through magazines and finding images that relate to the ideas that they have written about in their journals.


The class is broken up into groups, the groups will function like political campaign consultants.


Each group is expected to produce the following:

  1. A SLOGAN: No more than 3 words: has to relate to the issues that the group decides are important. (You can also discuss why the limit is three words)

  2. IMAGE: The image must consist of a full body. Each body part has to stand for something: the body parts have to represent the issue that the students decide on.
    Head: Arms: Torso: Legs: Context: Example: The head could stand for intelligence, Arms: Power or strength, Legs: Energy, etc.

Resources: (Archive)



Add to or Comment on this Page:

More To Explore