This key point in US history urgently calls for peaceful, art-filled protest.

Teachers strike in Oakland. Photo credit: Brooke Anderson
Photography. Published on Common Dreams.
Used with permission.

Buchanan Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Washington State University

As Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth has carefully documented, throughout modern history large-scale civil disobedience has been the most effective way to bring about significant social change—including overthrowing authoritarian regimes. If only 3.5% of the population engages in such protests, they have almost invariably been enough to topple even the most repressive systems.

The United States is at a major turning point in history. If the country is to remain a democracy committed to being a nation of immigrants and a multi-ethnic society, it will take active involvement of citizens in political action of all kinds, including engagement in the “art of protest.”

My book The Art of Protest traces the last sixty years of cultural creativity in and around the social movements that have sought to make America live up to its promise as a land where all people have an equal chance to pursue their vision of a happy, productive life.

The title has a dual meaning: the arts are important to protest movements, and all protest needs to be artful in the sense of thoughtful and carefully crafted. Especially in this era of information overload from both old and new media, it is difficult to get messages of positive change through the fog of fake news and useless blather. In such a context, art can dramatically embody the hopes, concerns, and values of change movements.

The premise of The Art of Protest is a simple one: that the arts and cultural expressive forms have been at least as important a part of social and political change as legislation and other forms of governmental action. That truth continues to be enacted every day in this era of reactionary, right-wing reassertions of white supremacy, misogyny, and war on the poor.

My book offers a prism to examine the history of key moments of social change over the last several decades and to serve as a guide to strategies that can prove vital to the current, increasingly widespread Resistance movement against the new authoritarianism. Each chapter looks at a different movement and highlights a particular art form, asking what special force each art from can bring. I look at traditional forms like posters, painting, poetry, music, and theater, as well as newer forms like virtual reality and augmented reality digital art, and discuss the digital dissemination of these other forms. They all continue to contribute massively to positive social change.

Anti-globalization protesters in Seattle, 1999.
Photograph credit: Eric Draper/AP.
Used with permission.

Just a couple of weeks after The Art of Protest‘s second edition was released earlier this year, thousands of teachers around the country went on strike to help our schools fulfill their promise of giving all children a fair start in life. That movement quickly became centered on the use of art to embody the teachers’ values and goals. In both Los Angeles and Oakland, the strikes were highly successful—in no small part because of the artful forms of non-violent protest they employed. Kids, parents, teachers, local artists and supporters of all kinds contributed to visual representations whose creation strengthened the group’s unity, and were then suffused throughout the community via old and new forms of mass media.

The groups involved used a new set of techniques called an “art build” that is spreading to social change workers all around the country. These folks are themselves building on a long tradition of art that includes the use of freedom songs in the Civil Rights movement, murals in the Chicano/a/x movement, poetry as a tool of feminist consciousness raising, graphic and performance art in the fight against HIV/AIDS, rap songs and videos in the Black Lives Matter movement, digital art and giant puppets that spread the word that neoliberal globalization was increasing the gap between the rich few and the many struggling to survive, and hundreds of other example of art-infused progressive social change.

In the context of the US at present, protests need to work in tandem with electoral politics. Done well, each reinforces the other, with movements assuring that elected politicians follow through on their promises to enact significant change. We need artful non-violent protest more than ever as part of the massive effort underway on hundreds of fronts to restore democracy, truthfulness, and something approaching “liberty and justice for all.”

T. V. Reed is Buchanan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Washington State University. His recent books include The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Present, Second Edition; Digitized Lives: Culture, Power, and Social Change in the Internet Era; and Robert Cantwell and the Literary Left. More information about past and present art-filled movements and The Art of Protest, is available on Reed’s website.

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