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Art, controversy, and community

by Andrew Taylor

Colleague and friend Steven J. Tepper released a rather extraordinary book this August on the dynamics and anatomy of controversy surrounding the arts. Not Here, Not Now, Not That! Protest over art and culture in America is an exhaustive and extensive sociological study of conflict around culture, built on data from 71 cities between 1995 and 1998. But it's also a book about politics, community, identity, expression, and the complex way those elements of our lives interact around art.

Through his sociologist's lens and rigorous analysis, Tepper finds extraordinary examples of community explosions surrounding cultural events or creative works, where other locations engaged the same or similar art with no protest at all. His deconstructions of the examples, and his assessment of the underlying differences, make this book an invaluable record not only of our times, but also of our business in the arts.

In the end, he urges us to push beyond our usual polar and polemic assessment of cultural conflict (hicks versus truth and beauty, for example) and toward a more nuanced view. Specifically (from the book):

  1. communities are changing;
  2. art and other symbols of community life amplify and call attention to growing uncertainty;
  3. people react to art in order to clarify boundaries of permissible expression and to voice concern; and
  4. the dynamics of protest differ based on the trajectory of a community, its rate of social change, and its political and institutional context.

Tepper's approach makes this topic a particularly compelling read, but also a particularly useful one for cultural managers, policy makers, and advocates for arts and culture. Because if part of the role of the arts in communities is to engage ideas, emotions, histories, and perspectives, then controversy will be a natural companion. Not to say that arts organizations should provoke controversy to make a point (although that's certainly within their right). But rather, the seeds of controversy -- passion, identity, fear, distrust, disconnection -- can be an essential part of an organization's calling, rather than a page in their conflict & crisis plan.