- The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Present ed. by T. V. Reed
T. V. Reed
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019; 496 pages. $24.13 (paper), ISBN 9781517906214.
In this substantial new edition of The Art of Protest, T. V. Reed explores the way a variety of social movements used cultural forms to convey their political commitment. The relationship between culture and politics (and political economy) is vital and Reed explores their complex interactions with deftness and verve. Although it is a survey book and operates under the limitations of such a study, it highlights effectively the role that culture has played in and around social movements since the civil rights movement first propelled folk songs to the central stage of political action.
The opening chapter, focused on the tradition of freedom songs of the civil rights struggle, sets the tone for the study of subsequent movements. These social protest movements operate, at least to some extent, on tracks laid out during the battles for civil rights. The civil rights movement itself is indebted to both the labor movement and the spiritual tradition in the African-American community. Freedom songs reverberated with both those traditions. They helped establish harmony (in more than one sense) and solidarity, they inspired commitment and offered utopian visions, they fed into the speeches at rallies and promoted pleasure and joy. Too often, as Reed recognizes, the politics of pleasure that movements can encourage is downplayed, marginalized, or perceived as less than serious. In that context, it is a pity he did not include more of the Dadaist/surrealist side of cultural politics through, for example, the Yippies, who are dealt with only in passing.
Reed goes directly from the songs of civil rights to the dramatic protests of the Black Panthers with additional material on Black Lives Matter. It is interesting that this chapter is one of the weakest, partly because Reed is [End Page 195] ambivalent about the legacy of the Panthers and partly because he is not as good at capturing their cultural style (or that of Black Lives) as he is with most other movements. He chooses to deal specifically with the dramatic style or “theatrical politics” of the Panthers and that is arguably just one of their cultural weapons and, some would suggest, a rather fraught one. Reed is aware of the problems and this is where a certain ambivalence is expressed initially and then becomes amplified. There is no problem with his doubts, his questioning of the Panthers. Yet it does not help construct a particularly coherent account. Throughout the book Reed is mostly aware of complexities, contradictions, and departures from his positive portrayals. He is at times in dialogue with himself, correcting glowing portraits with an acknowledgement of fatal flaws. Yet it somehow weakens his account of the Panthers. Reed ignores the critical contribution of Emory Douglas as graphic artist for The Black Panther. His visual style contributed to the theatre of the Panthers and the newspaper itself had a highly significant role in the international communication underground.
On the subject of absences, the antiwar movement of the 1960s is an obvious missed opportunity. There is, however, a website for the book that includes a splendidly illustrated essay dealing with posters from the Vietnam and Iraq protest movements. Moreover, he does range far and wide, through feminist poetics, Chicano/a/x murals, Hollywood framing of the American Indian Movement, rock music and apartheid, the use of graphic arts by ACT UP, novels dealing with environmental justice, the role of puppetry in the Battle of Seattle, the multimedia nature of the Occupy Wall Street struggle. There is much to intrigue both the general scholar/activist and the specific movement student/activist. Reed’s survey is thorough and usually insightful but the quality of analysis does vary. Moreover, key areas of discussion are text-based but crucial texts themselves (poems, murals, and other graphic representations) are often missing.
What really shines through in this edition is the analysis of Occupy...