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The rise of radicalism during the early 19th century often inclined towards progressive social change whereby various social movements of the era including antislavery, national, regional, political and religious movements are perceived to be core drivers of radicalism. Reed (56) considers such a view of radicalism as flawed and asserts that there are different types of radicalism coexisting together with their tensions and implications.

Conventionally, radicalism is perceived in four domains, which focus on the radical movements in the course of the 20th century: they include the peace movements, the women’s rights, and liberation movements, the civil rights and black liberation movement, and the labor movement. According to Calhoun (147), this view of radicalism takes into account the goals of various radical movements but fails to analyze the tactics and medium that these movements used to achieve their goals and objectives. In the light of this view, this paper analyses the qualities and principles that can be used to define or recognize radicalism, which acts as the medium through which various radical movements used to achieve their goals. Specifically, this paper focuses on radicalism and discusses the characteristics that apply to radical culture, art and politics and their common features.

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Radicalism in Culture and Art

Art and culture are those mediums through which radical movements used to achieve their objectives. In the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, the art was prevalently used as a tool for analyzing and penetrating the underlying social and political situations. During this time, progressive modernism was a common phenomenon in the art scene in various parts of the world, and especially in Europe. Progressive modernism was extremely radical to an extent that conservative modernism was disregarded despite the fact that conservative modernists such as the academic painters of the 19th and 20th centuries hold the view that they played an instrumental role in improving the world. On the contrary to progressive modernism, the art of the conservative modernism put emphasis on the works of art that reflected the existing conservative moral values. Progressive modernists perceived this approach by supporting the status quo arguing that the conservatives portrayed the future by offering too little compared to them nowadays. It was the goal of the conservatives to ensure that they maintained the existing institutions and that change should be introduced in a gradual manner. At the same time, progressive modernists wanted radical change and used radical art to criticize the existing political and religious institutions on the grounds that these institutions impose substantial limitations on individual liberty. Examples how Jean-Paul Lauren (conservative) and Edouard Manet depicted Emperor Maximilian in their paintings are shown below. Manet’s painting portrays the emperor as non-heroic; it is criticizing the foreign policy of Napoleon III whereas Lauren depicts the emperor as a noble hero.

Édouard Manet - Execution of the Emperor Maximilian

Figure 1: Édouard Manet- Execution of the Emperor Maximilian

Jean-Paul Laurens- Last Moments of Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico

Figure 2: Jean-Paul Laurens- Last Moments of Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico

Progressive artists had their faith in the goodness of humanity; an ideal example is Rousseau obsession with the growth of cities. The underlying argument is that progressive modernists through radical art managed to adopt an antagonistic position that criticized the established institutions in society. Fundamentally, progressive modernists criticized the established authority in terms of freedom and challenged the conservative middle-class values. Radicalism in art manifested itself through the concern that postmodernists had for socio-political issues and other problems in contemporary society. Using radical art, progressive modernists regularly painted their political and social ills in society. The outcome of this radical art was that progressives managed to educate the community and champion for the enlightenment ideals. They were associated with equality and freedom and were aimed at making the world a better place. The achieved freedom paved a way for visual arts and music to become more evocative and represented by real-world themes, events, and people. Reed (125) argues that art played an instrumental role in ensuring that the ideals of progressive modernism conquered the forces of conservative modernists who saw progressive modernism as dominating radicalism in both American and European history. A few decades ago, a new form of art in radicalism emerged, which was the use of graffiti in portraying the socio-political ills in the postmodern discourse.

Radicalism in Politics

According to Calhoun (147), political radicalism refers to political principles that emphasized on changing the existing social structures by using revolutionary methods and altering the value systems on the basis of fundamental means. Calhoun (145) argues that revolutionary social change is fundamental to the definition of political radicalism. In the same regard, radicalism in politics is viewed in the spectrum of radicals and conservatives, which is somewhat similar to the case of radicalism in art and culture. At the same time, radicalism is viewed in the spectrum of progressives and conservatives. According to Calhoun (152), radicalism in art paved a way for radicalism in politics through such aspects as equality, freedom, and belief in progress. Progressive artists such as Pablo Picasso were instrumental in supporting the political revolution. Another manifestation of radicalism through politics is the Marxism communism, which strived to establish a better society by advocating for economic democracy instead of political one in order to achieve economic equality. Communism envisioned universal freedom including the freedom of ideas, which was exemplified by the works of progressive modernist artists.

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Reed (54) perceives various radical movements observed in the course of American history through the lens of political radicalism. Almost all radical movements were established with the aim of addressing a particular socio-political concern associated with the existing political system by then. For instance, the civil rights movement aimed at fighting for the civil liberties of African Americas and ensured the equality of treatment; this was a socio-political gap that needed to be addressed, and resulted in the creation of a radical movement. The goal was to change the mainstream American politics that guaranteed an equal treatment between African Americans and White Americans, which results in the enactment of landmark legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1968.


This paper has discussed radicalism from three perspectives: art, culture, and politics. It is apparent from the above discussion that radicalism in art paved a way for the beginning of radicalism in politics through the ideals of freedom. For that reason, it is evident that radicalism is a progressive social change, and can never end provided that socio-political ills are still existent. Another relationship that can be derived from the above observation is that radicalism in both art and politics; it is typified by one group aiming at maintaining the status quo while the other challenges the existing that status towards a progressive future. In either case, radical movements challenged the existing norms and emerged victoriously. The only difference between the two is that in radicalism through art and culture, art serves as the medium to be used to criticize the existing status quo; therefore, the outcome of the radical movement has minimal effect on art and culture. On the contrary, radicalism through politics implies that politics is both a medium and a beneficiary of the outcome of the radicalism.