Not Here, Not Now, Not That! Protest over Art and Culture in America

Alex Danchev discovers what can be learned about communities from their reactions to artworks

July 7, 2011

"This book explores the social nature of offence," explains the author helpfully, "and the conditions that give rise to public controversies over cultural expression." The focus is on the offence taken rather than the offence given. One of Steven Tepper's strengths lies in clarifying what he is doing, and what he is not doing. His book is about protest over art, he observes, "but it is decidedly not about art and only peripherally about protest". It is really a study of the sociology of community, using culture as the key to get in.

For Tepper, "controversies over art and expression are symptomatic of deeper community struggles. Artworks often serve as lightning rods, bringing forward and giving voice to underlying tension caused by social change." It is the community struggles that interest him; and their testimony to the quality of democracy. "As we debate the permissible boundaries of expression," he concludes, "we also activate and nurture democracy. Protest over art serves as a critical way for citizens to voice concern and confront change. Freedom of expression is indeed at stake in controversies over art, but perhaps the freedom that matters most is not the freedom of artists but rather that of citizens who protest and defend artworks as a way to shape together the cultural life of their communities."

Tepper taps into texture. He is keen to move beyond talk of "culture wars" in order to analyse particular cases in specific communities, and then to see what patterns can be drawn. In Boston, for example, festival organisers cancelled a production of Shakespeare's Dogs because it involved people, dressed as dogs, pretending to urinate on trees (from Piss Christ to "Piss Caesar" in one bound). In Oklahoma City, citizens called for the resignation of a librarian for knowingly making available The Tin Drum, an Academy Award-winning film that features an 11-year-old boy apparently having sex with a teenage girl. These are the sort of cases he is working with, 805 of them, mined from searches of newspapers in 71 US cities from 1995 to 1998.

Local protest is correlated with "social change", defined as perceived threats to lifestyle and values. Social change is measured as the rate of immigration to the community in question (the change in the percentage of foreign-born residents). Tepper admits "this is a relatively blunt instrument for measuring all of the factors that bear down upon how citizens conceive of threats to community life". But he sticks to his guns. He wants to demonstrate that cultural conflict has a structure to it - "that social change, in conjunction with specific community characteristics, can predict levels and intensity of arts conflicts".

He is nothing if not a sophisticated analyst (with a 40-page methodological appendix to prove it). Still, readers may have reservations about the assumptions and the approach. "Because social change is theorized as a disruption to people's perception of community life, and because I see arts protests as reactions to the fear, discomfort, and opportunity caused by such disruptions, these protests are fundamentally struggles to define, defend and shape community life."

There may be an element of circularity here. The strenuous argument strains too much. Has Tepper over-committed? "All men make faults," as the author of Shakespeare's Dogs might have said. Title notwithstanding, this is a deeply serious enquiry into community responsibility and democratic possibility, thought-provoking, morally alert and socially engaged.

Not Here, Not Now, Not That! Protest over Art and Culture in America

By Steven J. Tepper

University of Chicago Press

384pp, £58.00 and £19.50

ISBN 9780226792866 and 792873

Published 29 June 2011

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