Social Contexts

Art in Canada
FFAR 250

Social Contexts
presented to Mark Mullin
on December 3, 1999

written by
Marguerite Gravelle
1. When analysing an artwork what is to be gained from considering the social context in which it was created? Are there possible drawbacks to this methodology? Provide clear examples to substantiate your argument.

When analysing artwork, in any form, there are often times social contexts in which can be interpreted. Not always does the history behind the painting need to be revealed to fully understand the concept of the artwork, yet it is helpful in determining if the artwork is truthful in its representation. Although in analysing artwork it is likely that there are drawbacks to considering the social context. To illustrate this point, I\'m going to use the visual arts as my medium of choice.
Understanding the social context can be an important tool. An advantage of knowing the history of the painting or sculpture can really enrich our knowledge, being in the 20th (soon to be 21st) century, about some of the social periods from previous times. It can demonstrate how traditions were carried out, how they had an impact on the different social classes. It\'s a visual teaching aid of a sort. Even in the time period of which the artwork was created can be used as a tool to show how the life was in different parts of the world. It was also used as a hammer in the realist movement to show the upper classes that life for the poor was horrible.
The visual arts is the only medium in which the pictorial image creates a universal language in which anyone, regardless of nationality or social class can interpret. The text which is created by this language often creates a context which is left open to interpretation. Contexts are created by the artist, critics, judges, the public, essentially, any one who views the work and forms an opinion relating to it. The contexts stem from subject or content of an artwork, and are usually facts regarding the content. Yet, the contexts almost always have backgrounds themselves, therefore making the original contexts, texts. This will be more clearly illustrated later. The chain is seeming to be a never ending process. There are always more conditions to the previous ones. All context, therefore, is in itself, textual.
This concept of all context in itself textual is a post-structuralist strategy. A man named Derrida is a man who has developed this idea that the post-structuralist concept of every statement made, can be interpreted in infinite ways, with each interpretation triggering a range of subjective associations. Every statement has an association, therefore it\'s a sort of domino effect. He also says that no matter how precise a work strives to be, the absolute meaning can never be found due to this never ending sequence.
To better illustrate this concept, I have chosen a painting from the mid-nineteenth century. It was painted by a french artist in 1854 named Jules Breton. It is called "The Gleaners"(figure 1). The gleaners were impoverished women who picked the left-over wheat from the farmers\' fields after they had been ploughed to bake bread for their families. In this painting there are numerous women who\'s arms are brimming with wheat. The women are beautiful, healthy looking. The children even seem happy running around playing next to their mothers.
There are many contexts which can be extracted from The Gleaners. A major influence would be the revolution in France in 1848. Perhaps the gleaning laws enforced in 1851, even the physical health of the gleaners. For arguments sake, let\'s take the physical health of the gleaners to show how a statement can trigger other associations. The physical health of the gleaners in the 1850\'s could be researched in the reports from the army conscripts. The conscripts were usually poor men who wanted a secure and stable job. These reports showed that most of the men were of poor health and diseased. These reports can be associated with who was writing the reports, officers? The associations never cease. We can never fully determine what the health was of the gleaners because every context we take will lead to another context.
The key point in this image is the womens\' arms being full of wheat. If I were a