As the global economic crisis deepens, one may ask how the artist can play any role in social, economic and political change?
Visual artists have been commenting on society since William Hogarth, a pictorial satirist and during the early 1700s, used art to comment on the politics and customs of his time.
The same challenge still exists today - how can the visual artist make images that have a profound effect on people and their view of society and so hope to contribute to making a better society for all?
A painting may be just physical pigments of colour applied to a canvas but how the image is constructed in terms of composition, tone, colour and line is a very particular process that contrasts sharply with music and literature.
Unlike music its pictorial symbols are very directly 'read', and unlike literature it must summarise its images and ideas as parts of one composition, telling a whole story whereas in literature the story can be developed over time.
Thus, in visual art the politics of representation is just as important as the representation of politics. How the people, the political and economic system, work, demonstrations, social structures, oppression, poverty etc. are represented depends on the individual artist's use of style and composition to make an image. What stylistic choices does the politically conscious figurative artist have today to create art that comments on society?
If we look to the past, we can see that over the centuries artists have developed different visual strategies to encompass the 'stories' of their subjects. Four different approaches will be examined here: Allegory, Realism, Expressionism, and Mexicanidad.
One could argue that Allegory and Expressionism have been used as distancing devices while Realism and Mexicanidad draw people in to empathise with the subjects of the composition (usually a reflection of themselves or their own history).
Some artists depict a negative view of society, some keep a neutral perspective (out of a fear of the art becoming 'propaganda') and some take a positive view by consciously depicting action and change. There is also an important aspect that, as we shall see, sometimes the artists themselves see the strategies as temporary and that in an ideal world they would make different kinds of art. This reveals itself as a tension between the present and the future, the implicit and the explicit, the necessary and the ideal.
Allegory can be described as "a figurative mode of representation conveying meaning other than the literal. Allegory communicates its message by means of symbolic figures, actions or symbolic representation." 
In visual art there is a long history of using symbols to represent ideas, desirable qualities, political and social issues etc. and in some political regimes allegory has been used as one form of comment that was not vulnerable to immediate censorship.
The Irish artist Seán Keating (1889 – 1977) was one socially conscious artist who used allegory in his paintings to explore the turbulent times of the early twentieth century. Keating made many paintings documenting the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War.  In one of his allegorical paintings, Night's Candles are Burnt Out, Keating depicts the construction of a hydroelectric power plant on the river Shannon in a realistic style but incorporating many allegorical elements to comment on past, present and future aspects of Irish society at that time.
Night's Candles are Burnt Out (1927-28) by Seán Keating 
Keating himself describes what he was trying to achieve thus:
The power of the allegorical style consists in its ability to convey many different aspects of a contemporary issue using multiple elements that would not normally appear in a straightforward realist composition. It allows one to integrate one's philosophical outlook into the composition and give the painting a symbolic significance beyond the sum of its parts. Allegory allowed Keating to put forward his views of society which were prophetic considering the very recent economic and political turbulence in Ireland. He noted that:
From the Social Realism of the nineteenth century to the Socialist Realism of the twentieth century, Realism as a movement in art has been a sturdy vehicle for the depiction of socio-political causes the world over.
John French Sloan (1871 – 1951), an American artist and a leading figure of the Ashcan School of realist artists "concerned himself with what we call genre: street scenes, restaurant life, paintings of saloons, ferry boats, roof tops, back yards, and so on through a whole catalogue of commonplace subjects." 
Sloan was active in American left wing politics but refused to make overtly political art which he saw as 'propaganda'. He tried to keep some distance between his art and his political ideas which were more implicit than explicit in his paintings.
McSorley's Bar (1912) by John Sloan 
Sloan commented on this problem when he stated that:
While highlighting the lives of the poor and the oppressed were implicit in his art, he rejected the implication that this was the only reason why he painted. As if to emphasise the importance of making art as a process in itself he told his students "I have nothing to teach you that will help you to make a living". 
Expressionism was "a cultural movement, initially in poetry and painting, originating in Germany at the start of the 20th century. Its typical trait is to present the world in an utterly subjective perspective, radically distorting it for emotional effect, to evoke moods or ideas." 
Expressionism is an ideal style for political art in that it allows the artist to pour out his/her anger at an oppressive system/government/political party in a very dramatic way. However, as a style it can also sink into an almost Swiftian misanthropism. A good example of this is the German artist George Grosz (1893 – 1959) whose work was described by Robert Hughes thus:
The Funeral (Dedicated to Oskar Panizza) (1917 – 1918) by George Grosz 
Even for Grosz himself, Expressionism had its limits:
Thus, Grosz hoped that one day the need for such extreme art would not be necessary and that the artist would eventually be integrated into an egalitarian society where he/she would become like the artisan/craft worker of earlier times, a worker without the ego of the contemporary artist.
Mexicanidad is an art style which mixes Mexican culture and heritage and was exemplified by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886 – 1957). His art was based on large figures using bold colours and Aztec influences. This style allowed him to incorporate contemporary political struggle with depictions of the Aztec past. He painted many murals in public places which he saw as a democratic art form that all people could have access to regardless of race and social class. 
History of Mexico from the Conquest to 1930 (1929 –1931) by Diego Rivera 
Rivera's influences ranged from the Italian masters to the political warfare on the streets:
Rivera's style is a consciously and overtly political style (which Sloan would have seen as 'propaganda') covering everything from childbirth and education to political demonstrations and revolutionary activity. This style celebrates political activity as a core activity of social life, now and into the future.
The global economic crisis demands a response from artists just as it demands a response from other types of social commentators. The above four visual strategies show starting points that can be used and developed by artists today looking for ways to explore contemporary problems.
 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Se%C3%A1n_Keating
 Seán Keating: In Focus, Eimear O'Connor (Associated Editions, 2009) p. 20/1
 Seán Keating: In Focus, Eimear O'Connor (Associated Editions, 2009) p27
 My Art, My Life:An Autobiography Diego Rivera (Dover Publications, Inc. New York, 1991) p.72
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is a prominent Irish artist who has exhibited widely around Ireland. His work consists of drawings and paintings and features cityscapes of Dublin, images based on Irish history and other work with social/political themes (http://gaelart.net/).