- The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle
In The Art of Protest, author T.V. Reed calls for and delivers a more nuanced, complex way of thinking about the relationship between culture and social movements. While collective action scholars typically address culture by focusing on issues of collective identity and cognitive framing, this book looks at the aesthetic cultural artifacts (such as poetry, murals and music) that are created by and deployed within movements. To explore how activists create distinct subcultures, which in turn shape the dynamics of their movements and mainstream culture, Reed examines the artistry of nine social movements in the United States.
There are many positive aspects to this book. The array of cases that Reed covers is both interesting and impressive – from the Black Panthers to ACT-UP and environmental justice groups. This in itself is a tribute to the rich history of protest that has occurred in the United States over the past 50 years. Additionally, Reed's background is in English and American Studies, so he uses the techniques of cultural studies and humanities to offer a [End Page 877] novel close reading of the art and texts that activists create. In one chapter he traces the progression of songs in the civil rights movement to indicate what ideas were central at various points in the movement's development and the purposes that music served – from fighting fears or calming a tense situation, to conveying a message of resolve to outsiders. The writing is also very clear, free from the heavy jargon that often characterizes the field of collective action. Moreover, the author brings humor to his analysis. For example, in a chapter that focuses on the relationship between the American Indian Movement and Hollywood filmmakers, Reed states that, "Perhaps the most unambiguously positive thing I can say about the films in which AIM is represented is that Kevin Costner (also known as "Dances with Wolves") was not involved in any of them."(137).
Yet Reed's accessible writing style and humor do not detract from the serious criticisms that he raises. Analyzing the 1980s' Live Aid concerts for famine relief in Africa, the author discusses how some pop musicians reinforced Western ethnocentric racism that masked the neocolonial sources of famine by portraying the African situation as a natural disaster rather than a political problem. Although the musicians had good intentions, Reed notes that the project reflected a patronizing attitude of charity in which Europeans and North Americans helped Africans overcome their primitive conditions. Yet the author does not believe that U.S. pop culture is inherently conservative or inevitably a contributor to cultural imperialism. To illustrate how rock music can promote social change, he offers the example of Artists United Against Apartheid, who produced a record and video, and held a benefit concert in honor of Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday. In this project, musicians highlighted the roots of South Africa's suffering, indicted U.S. policy, and raised funds for the families of political prisoners and African National Congress education centers. But even as the author applauds this initiative, he notes the limitations of using pop culture to generate political resistance. In this case, when the FOX network televised the anti-apartheid concert, it cut most of the political speeches that occurred between musical performances. Although corporate sponsorship will likely undermine the political message of such events, Reed still believes that they have a capacity to mobilize political sentiments that support activist agendas.
In short, The Art of Protest is an engaging book that generates appreciation for the numerous cultural contributions that movements have made while simultaneously exploring the limitations of using the arts to convey political meanings. My only critique is that Reed's conceptualization of culture is not fully articulated until the concluding chapter. As a result, readers may wonder how some of the case studies relate to the book...