10 Points of Learning from Social Realism

Title image, Royal wedding street party, England 2011. Photo by Shaun Fynn
Second image, American Gothic by Grant Wood, 1930
Third image, Oakland, California grocery store with sign placed by the Japanese American store owner the day after Pearl Harbor, Dec 1941. Photo by Dorothea Lange
Fourth image, Lead character in Shane Meadows 'This is England' 2006 (set in 1983) Through adversity and loss of his father in the Falklands War, the innocent youth turns to violence, subculture and nationalism
Fifth image, Danny Boyle's 'Slumdog Millionaire' 2008. The brutality of everyday life and suffering juxtaposed with fantasy narratives

Social realism is an art form or movement concerning itself with realistic reflections or interpretations of simple, everyday occasions or current political or socio economic events. Often considered a reaction to the earlier movement of romanticism, social realism confronts the truths underlying our ordinary existences in contemporary society.

Early examples of the genre include Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ communicating the austerity and hard work associated with the settlement of a new land and the intrinsic religious values or codes of belief. The movement gained great momentum particularly with the development of photographic and communication media in conjunction with events such as the Great Depression. Dorothea Lange, the American photographer very much pioneered this art form through her iconic images that brought home the realities of the era’s economic struggles and raised questions of who we are in terms of our national identity and the healthfulness of our patriotism.

Social realism confronts the truths underlying our ordinary existences in contemporary society.

In recent times, film directors such as Shane Meadows (This is England) and Danny Boyle (Train Spotting and Slumdog Millionaire) continue to use this art form to reveal our world to us in ways that force a degree of reflection or introspection. Danny Boyle, one of the current leading proponents of this art form succeeds in weaving elements of apparent fantasy into a narrative without losing the central message that is founded in a realism or often brutal reflection of life’s hardships. Shane Meadows explores the realities of contemporary working class conditions, the ignorance of nationalism and grit of youth culture. Social realism has different manifestations across different cultures and has emerged as a strong component in the British cinematic landscape; where as contemporary US culture may concern itself with more idealistic narratives in artistic media.

In a world where messaging is now extremely complex and we value distraction possibly more than introspection it is difficult to find truths or ‘get to the bone’ so to speak. Of course, distraction and entertainment have their welcome place and the perceptions and myths surrounding brands can connect with our values and aspirations but maybe we should give a few moments to consider what we can still learn from this movement.

Below are 10 points of learning from social realism.

1. The power of the ordinary

Observe the ordinary, it posses the clues and messages that form the foundations or truths behind how we perceive things and how we evolve our    own form of original thinking and commentary.

2.The best insights and solutions are derived from understanding what people really struggle with

A true response and genuine solution requires an understanding of where the struggle lies from a small everyday task to a global movement.

3. Understand the human condition, ‘getting to the bone’

The world is about people before it is about consumers and users. Users have needs, consumers may have aspirations, and people have beliefs, rituals   consciousness etc…….and bills to pay.

4. Keep connected to the big picture

As Charles Eames said, “Eventually everything connects, people, ideas, objects, the quality of the connections is the key to quality per se”. Social realism can offer a perspective, or ‘piece of the puzzle’ to attain a deeper comprehension.

5. Know your place and role in things

 Where do we fit in the scheme of things around us? Social realists may encourage a healthful level of introspection.

6. Understand values and patterns of identification

Culture has many codes and identities, often very difficult to decipher and made additional complex by the proliferation of types of media. Social realism has historically been a good decoder or barometer of a complex  situation.

7. The differences between everyday life, brands and media

Many people may not make a distinction or care to see the differences between what is real, imaginary or myth. Social realists are firmly in the camp of disassembling these elements.

8. See your culture for what it is

Not all is holy about our cultures, social realists have always been good at calling out and describing our deficiencies, hypocrisies and areas for improvement, as uncomfortable as these maybe.

9. Getting to the point quickly

Understanding the power of a single image to communicate a big message.  Social realists are masters of this discourse, something many other domains could learn from.

10. It’s hard to avoid politics

Unfortunately, the best critical and creative commentaries or solutions to issues may at some point require a confrontation with the political ideals governing a situation.