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What is art with a meaning called?

What is art with a meaning called?

Art that conveys meaning beyond pure aesthetics has been a central part of human culture for thousands of years. From cave paintings depicting stories and myths, to Renaissance religious works designed to teach biblical lessons, to modern art expressing political and social commentary, art has long served as a vehicle for expressing ideas. But what exactly do we call art that carries meaning and communicates ideas or messages? There are a few common terms used to describe art with meaning.

Symbolic Art

One of the broadest terms for art that signifies something beyond itself is “symbolic art.” Symbolic art uses symbols, imagery, colors, shapes and other visual elements that represent concepts, emotions, political/social issues, spiritual meanings, or other ideas. The symbols used can be fairly universal (like a dove representing peace) or coded to have meaning in certain cultural, religious, or social contexts.

Some examples of symbolic art include:

– Native American totem poles that depict family lineages and myths.

– Hindu and Buddhist mandalas which represent cosmic and divine order.

– Chinese porcelain vases with symbolic decorations like dragons, phoenixes, and floral designs meant to bring good fortune.

– Victorian flower paintings that used different blooms to communicate coded messages (like roses for love, lilies for purity).

Symbolic art asks the viewer to interpret the symbols and connect them to larger meanings, stories, beliefs, or ideas. It relies on a common cultural tradition between artist and audience to convey meaning through shared symbolism.

Allegorical Art

Allegorical art is related to symbolic art, but pushes the meaning-making a step further. Rather than just representing ideas through symbols, allegorical art uses characters, objects, and imagery to tell an entire story or convey a narrative that has significance beyond its literal subject.

Some examples include:

– Ancient Greek amphoras painted with gods and heroes enacting stories from mythology.

– Biblical paintings depicting Old Testament scenes like the Garden of Eden or Moses parting the Red Sea as allegories for humankind’s relationship with God.

– Renaissance paintings like Botticelli’s Primavera that allegorize the seasons or the stages of life.

– Modern political cartoons that represent countries or ideologies as animal mascots or caricatures of politicians to offer commentary.

Allegorical art requires deciphering the symbolic meanings behind the characters, objects, and events depicted to understand the full narrative or conceptual message. It goes beyond single symbols to tell a meaningful story.

Narrative Art

Narrative art also relies on storytelling, but does not necessarily use symbolism and allegory. Instead, narrative art seeks to convey meaning by illustrating real-life stories, historical events, or literary/cultural narratives.

Examples include:

– Ancient Egyptian tomb paintings depicting the story of the pharaoh’s life.

– History paintings like Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat depicting revolutionary scenes.

– Romantic art portraying literary stories and characters from Shakespeare, Dante, and other authors.

– Kara Walker’s dramatic paper silhouettes illustrating scenes of racial injustice and oppression.

While narrative art may use some symbolic conventions, its main purpose is to visually recount stories, whether real or fictional, that have deeper cultural, social, or political meaning. The meaning comes from recognizing the depicted stories, not decoding abstract symbols.

Satirical Art

Satirical art relies on humor, ridicule, and irony to convey messages. It mocks, parodies, or criticizes people, institutions, or ideas to expose flaws and affect change. Satire frequently uses caricature, stereotyping, and absurdity to point out hypocrisy, immorality, or irrationality in a clever, humorous way.

For example:

– William Hogarth’s 18th century prints satirizing English society.

– Honoré Daumier’s caricatures targeting French politicians and the justice system.

– Dadaist photomontages like Hannah Höch’s Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife lampooning bourgeois values.

– Banksy’s irreverent street graffiti skewering establishment culture.

Satirical art differs from allegory in directly targeting specific people and entities. It conveys meaning through humor and exaggeration rather than symbolism and requires knowledge of the satirized subject to appreciate the joke or social commentary.

Propaganda Art

Propaganda art is created explicitly to influence opinions, often by political regimes and governments. It attempts to “propel an agenda” by depicting biased messages through catchy visuals and simplistic symbolism aimed at mass populations.

Examples include:

– Soviet posters promoting communism with bold graphics of workers uniting.

– American wartime posters depicting demonized versions of enemy nations.

– Nazi art reducing Jewish people to ugly stereotypes and caricatures.

– North Korean posters glorifying the country’s authoritarian leaders.

Unlike other symbolic art, propaganda art tends to leave nothing open to interpretation. The biased messages are made as explicit, repeatable, and emotionally charged as possible. The art is a tool of persuasion and manipulation above all.

Interpretive Art

Interpretive art invites consideration about the human condition, existence, morality, the cosmos, or philosophy. Rather than providing decisive messages or stories, interpretive art seeks to raise open-ended questions, probe ambiguous meanings, or encourage a range of thoughts and feelings from the viewer.

Examples include:

– Abstract expressionist works with moods and meanings defined by the viewer.

– Surrealist paintings highlighting dreams, the unconscious, and subjects like love or death.

– Minimalist art exploring themes of time, space, form, and perception.

– Conceptual and performance art focused on process over predefined meaning.

Interpretive art taps into more primal sensations, experiences, and questions beyond concrete politics, history, or symbols. The meaning is not prescribed but fluid, subjective, and often mysterious or metaphysical.

Activist Art

Activist art is created to directly challenge social, political, or cultural beliefs and practices, promote activism, and inspire social change. It provides blunt visual commentary on issues and injustices rather than coded symbols or allegories.

Examples include:

– Protest posters and murals on issues like the Vietnam War, civil rights, feminism, etc.

– Public installation and graffiti art raising awareness about climate change.

– Andres Serrano’s controversial Piss Christ photograph critiquing religious values.

– Ai Weiwei’s refugee crisis-related works calling attention to the global plight of displaced people.

Activist art often provokes strong reactions purposefully to shake viewers out of complacency. By visualizing oppressed or marginalized perspectives, it calls on society to acknowledge and address these problems. The art expresses specific change-oriented messages and goals.


While most art forms can potentially encode meanings beyond their surface aesthetic impact, certain genres like allegorical, narrative, propagandistic, interpretive, and activist art are specifically created to convey ideas, stories, commentaries, questions, and provoke thoughts beyond technical mastery and beauty. These modes intentionally use the power of visual media to communicate, educate, persuade, and enlighten audiences through poignant, imaginative storytelling, symbolism, satire, and unfiltered social/political messages.

Art with meaning provides a channel for sharing diverse perspectives. It acts as a creative catalyst to transmit cultural heritage, gossip, moral lessons, social change initiatives, political ideologies, existential queries, and much more. Beyond mere decoration, art with meaning offers people a vital expressive outlet to process their lived experiences and contribute their voices to the public forum. It plays a central role in human expression, connection, and advancement.