In a scene straight out of a Latino "CSI," the Mexican artist Teresa Margolles scrounges for bits of glass and gore following a killing on the streets of Ciudad Juárez, murder capital of the world. Her use of these grisly
"art supplies" at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009 wins her death threats from anonymous parties and de facto excommunication from Mexico's official cultural scene.
The U.S. photographer Nina Berman portrays Iraq War veteran Ty Ziegel and his wife, Renee Kline, in their wedding clothes. Showing a disfigured Ziegel and a dazed Kline, Berman's image exposes the real-life costs of war, and goes viral after appearing in the New York Times in 2007.
An Egyptian artist named Mohamed Fahmy, aka Ganzeer, is picked up by the police on the streets of Cairo in May 2011. His crime: pasting up a sticker featuring a gagged man and an Arabic phrase that translates as "Mask of Freedom." On his release, Ganzeer states his desire to paint a mural for each of the 800-plus martyrs to the 18 days of national revolt that began in January 2011.
The great Chinese rebel Ai Weiwei finally pushes his ongoing criticism of Communist rule too far. The regime demolishes one his studios and later detains him. When the artist emerges 81 days later—following an international pressure campaign that mobilizes the worlds of culture and politics—he shows little sign of quieting his very vocal dissent. As of this writing, he continues to harass the authoritarian rulers of China.
This is today's New Realism. In response to a host of global challenges ranging from political repression to economic crisis to endemic poverty and human rights violations, artists around the world are taking up pencils, brushes, cameras and iPhones to make art that connects with large numbers of people outside the system of galleries and museums. Despite living in far-flung locales and working in different mediums, these artists express a shared belief in the power of art to promote and effect social change. In the age of Facebook and live Twitter feeds, this conviction links them to a global audience that, for the most part, hardly follows the goings-on of the art world.
With precursors in the art and activism of previous decades-for example, the genuine political radicalism of Joseph Beuys (few remember that he helped found the German Green Party in 1979) and the agitprop of the Argentine collective Tucumán Arde (their short-lived activities in the late '60s erased the line between fine art and political militancy)—this international phenomenon appears not merely as an artistic trope. Representing less a movement than a widespread cultural moment, these figures find cohesion in a growing resistance to an increasingly globalized economic and cultural status quo. A mixture of protest, imagination and refusal, facilitated by social technology and frequent air travel, the new esthetic-political ethos shared by these and many other artists centers on the belief that artworks should be part of a larger social or moral terrain.
Consider, for instance, the case of Ganzeer. A 29-year-old multimedia artist and graphic designer whose nom d'artiste means "chain" in Arabic, Ganzeer has rapidly become, according to the English-language Daily News Egypt, one of the most recognizable faces on the Egyptian arts scene-the country's "de facto cultural operator."1 Having participated in commercial exhibitions in his home country, the artist recently said he found his gallery work to be "the least satisfying" as it "is not relevant to life,"2 so he is currently focusing on mural-size public works rather than discrete art objects. As a response to the government's crackdown on political demonstrations in early 2011, Ganzeer took to painting the walls of Cairo with portraits of the uprising's fallen in red, yellow, white and black, the colors of the Egyptian flag.
Ganzeer is reportedly the major player in what London's Guardian newspaper describes as the emergence of a flourishing "counter-culture arts scene on the mainstream radar."3 His popular likenesses function as images of the human costs of authoritarianism, in a country where censorship normally silences political opposition.
They also serve as a portrait of the protest movement itself and—in their being much celebrated, frequently visited, and ardently discussed—as a demonstration of the potential of activist work. Like the protestors' often anonymous radical publications and viral videos, Ganzeer's stenciled street portraits capture key images of the movement and, more importantly, the evolving social possibilities of art.
Despite the obvious similarities, the Egyptian artist-who has also done projects in Holland, Germany, Poland, Jordan and Kuwait and was recently invited to speak before the European Cultural Congress-differs significantly from those who would seem to be his counterparts in the UK and the U.S. Banksy, for instance, has become largely a "profiteer of the village green," as the blog The Radio Paper puts it, and the same could be said of Shepard Fairey. In contrast, Ganzeer remains radically populist and political. The reputed author of an anonymous leaflet called "How to Revolt Cleverly," which contains illustrated advice for confronting riot police and besieging government offices, Ganzeer continues to play the role of artist-as-political-provocateur at great personal risk and for little, if any, financial reward.