Everyone knows art is political. LA-based artist Shepard Fairey’s red, white and blue portrait of Obama, inscribed with the word ‘HOPE’, quickly became the visual battle call of the 2008 campaign. Equally memorable is the 2010 controversy over “A Fire in my Belly,” a silent film by activist and artist David Wojnarowicz; the Secretary of the Smithsonian removed this work from a major exhibition exploring gender and sexual identity after complaints arose over images of ants crawling on a crucifix. An even larger uproar followed the video’s removal, and other museums installed the work in protest at the censorship.

Dissent is at the heart of an article that Anny Shaw and Gareth Harris wrote this month for The Art Newspaper. Chronicling the rise of street art in Egypt, Syria and Libya that followed the explosive events of the Arab Spring, the authors discuss memorial murals dedicated to lives lost in Tahrir Square, portraits of Gaddafi as a rat or vampire, and the simple slogan “the people want the fall of the regime”. The latter, scrawled on a wall in Daraa, Syria, ignited that country’s revolution after its authors were arrested and allegedly tortured.

Street art is defined by its location – public – and by its intent. What Shaw and Harris describe are acts of courage and faith; setting personal safety aside, these artists create ephemeral, impassioned images punctuating and encouraging the revolutions, elections, and repression of their worlds. Pro-government supporters are even responding with art of their own.

Art, by definition, evolves and changes. Contemporary art breaks through boundaries and conceptions, and street art is often found at the frontlines of the struggle. Art in the Streets, MOCA’s recent exhibition devoted to the history of graffiti, proves that street art has become, in some ways, mainstream. The artist-revolutionaries in Tripoli, Cairo and Damascus are anything but.

We might compare their work to the socialist imagery of Leger and maybe, through a small stretch of the imagination, to the moralizing tendencies of Brueghel, expressed in his World of Seven Virtues and World of Seven Sins. We can contrast their murals, stencils and slogans with the a-politicized works of Jasper Johns, in whose hands the American flag becomes a striped and starred object divorced from predetermined connotations. And we can hold them up for admiration, silencing those who grumble that art cannot affect change, or is nothing more than a picture on a wall.

“Well, which wall?” we might ask.

Information for this post was taken from:

Shaw, Anny and Gareth Harris. “Arab protesters put their art on the streets”. The Art Newspaper. Issue 231. January 2012.