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Conversation: Why Do Americans Protest Art?

Art can soothe, it can inspire, but it also stirs heated passions and outright protest. Why does that happen, and why in some cases but not others? That’s the subject of the new book, “Not Here, Not Now, Not That! Protest Over Art and Culture in America.” Its author is Steven Tepper, a sociologist and associate director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University.

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Art can soothe, it can inspire, but it also at times stirs heated passions and outright protest. Why does that happen and why in some cases but not others? That’s the subject of the new book, “Not Here, Not Now, Not That!” Its author is Steven Tepper, a sociologist and associate director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University. Welcome.

STEVEN TEPPER: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let’s define our terms. What do you mean by a protest over arts and culture?

STEVEN TEPPER: A protest involves any public protest, anytime a citizen complains about the contents of some form of cultural expression. This could include books in the library, books in schools, films, films in local cinema houses, plays, statutes, memorials, music on the radio, non-profit, for-profit, commercial, high, low. Pretty much time anytime that someone tries to creatively express themselves and someone else reacts to it and asks that something be done about it, that’s a public protest.

JEFFREY BROWN: And your inquiry was why in some cases and why not in others.

STEVEN TEPPER: Right. Typically when we think about arts conflicts, we think there’s two reasons why people might fight over this. One is that enterprising politicians or religious leaders are sort of like birds of prey that are looking around for something smoldering that they can pounce on, inflame passions, mobilize constituents, raise money, win elections

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the narratives of the culture war.

STEVEN TEPPER: That’s the narrative of the culture war. And the other one is that as John Ruskin once wrote about James Whistler in the 19th century, Artists just fling pots of paint in the public space. And so if artists are trying to be provocative, then we shouldn’t be surprised to see that people get upset, but more interestingly is the fact that the same piece of art or the same presentation gets a very different response and reaction in different places.

JEFFREY BROWN: And one example you gave early on here is “Angels in America,” Tony Kushner’s play going around the country, some places accepted and hailed and other places not.

STEVEN TEPPER: Right. Hundreds of theaters presented the work. In Knoxville, Tennessee, no problem. In Charlotte, North Carolina, a few hundred miles away, also a Southern midsized city, a huge controversy. In Charlotte, the city initially threatened to close down the theater on indecency charges. They decided not to pursue that route. The theater went forward with the play. Four council members with leadership in the religious community basically succeeded in defunding the entire arts commission of the county because the theater presented that. What’s fascinating about this story is that the arts community and the business community rallied around the arts and said, What kind of city do we want to have as we move forward in Charlotte? Do we want a city that supports the arts or do we not? They organized a pact, they voted out of office the four aldermen that defunded the arts, and they ended up returning a higher budget to the arts counsel and a stronger arts community as a result of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: What you conclude and then go into in great detail is that it’s always local concerns, local issues that determine this. What does that mean? What kind of local concerns would distinguish one reaction versus another?

STEVEN TEPPER: I looked at 805 cases of conflict across 71 mid- to large-sized cities in America. When all was said and done, and I looked at all the various things that might correlate with the cities that the highest rates of protest over a four year period in the 1990s, it was the rate of immigration in the decade prior that most strongly determined whether a city was a high city or a low city in terms of its protests levels. Cities that had experienced rapid population changes, in particular if the percent of foreign born had grown significantly, those cities were the most contentious in the late 1990s. And the argument in the book is that when people feel unsettled by the rate of social change, when the things around them are changing fast — economics, demographics, technology — art becomes something that they fight over as a way to reassert their values, reassert a sense of who their community is and where they fit into their community, who’s values still matter, what does a community look like going forward, and art becomes this amazing arena in which people negotiate their differences of opinions around the contours of their expressive lives together.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s interesting because, as you said, one of the narratives or the way we think about art is that sometimes, in some cases, it is intended to provoke, to raise questions, to stir up debate among the citizenry about itself and its values.

STEVEN TEPPER: Yes, that is absolutely one of the ways we think about art’s role in society. What’s interesting is even things that weren’t intended to be controversial sometimes raised the ire of the public, if the conditions are right in that community. Lots of library books, which have been on the shelves for years, like “Huckleberry Finn” every year becomes controversial in some community and not others. And it’s not as if that book was put there at that moment to cause controversy, but there was something that was happening in the community which produced the concern over the themes of that book in that moment, at that time, at that place.

JEFFREY BROWN: You looked at many cities, as you said. Atlanta is one where you went into detail. Vibrant cultural life there, and yet what did you see that stirred up?

STEVEN TEPPER: Atlanta was by far the most contentious city in my sample. Atlanta was the poster child for population changes in the 1980s and throughout much of the 1990s. They had huge numbers of migrants coming in from other cities, they had huge immigration, they had the most number of housing starts of any city in the country. And Atlantans were unsure about what this meant. They were struggling with a city that was, under one slogan, too busy to hate, a progressive city, a city that was organized by the Vision Group, Mayor Young and his Vision Group, thinking, This a dynamic cosmopolitan city. And on the other hand, a city that was still quite traditional, had many traditional members of the community that valued its history, its history as a Southern city and frankly hadn’t resolved a lot of the racial issues that were still undermining many of the neighborhoods and many of the public issues in the Atlanta. So you on the one hand had a city that was trying to look forward, be something new, be cosmopolitan, and also a city that had to deal with and confront a legacy, both a proud and a humbling legacy, and on top of that you had the 1996 Olympics. The time I was studying, which was the late 1990s, you had the world looking at Atlanta. And Atlantans were saying, Who are we, who are we going to be, how are we going to project ourselves?

JEFFREY BROWN: And art played right into it.

STEVEN TEPPER: Art played right into it. Whether it was the decision to not renovate Margaret Mitchell’s house, which was a big contentious issue, author of “Gone with the Wind” — what was that going to say about us if we celebrated Margaret Mitchell? — to a decision to not go forward with a public art project to honor the first black property owner in Atlanta, to debates over whether gay books should be allowed in the libraries in Cobb County. So a range of things that involved race, involved gender, involved sexuality, but ultimately involved Atlantans trying to figure how they wanted to be perceived by the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you, finally, where does the research lead? Does it have applications for mayors in cities today or does it lead you into further work?

STEVEN TEPPER: No, I think it does. My conclusion is that these fights are not just knee-jerk reactions, it’s not just about personal offense and it’s not just about politics, that these are so deeply meaningful and important for communities that are trying to figure out and work through these social changes together. I think our communities are under assault in many ways by forces of globalization, by economic change, that people need to return to a sense that they belong some place. And I think in the future, going forward, as our cultural world gets noisier, as there are more things to offend more people, that there will be more opportunities for people to work together to figure out which forms of expressions are good representations of our community and which ones we don’t feel we’re ready for or represent us well. And importantly for the arts community, in particular, we have had a history of silencing our critics by saying either, First amendment trumps everything, or we say we say, We’re professionals, we know what we are doing, your opinion doesn’t matter, or we say, The artists has to be free and above society, not accountable to society. And all those tactics silence critics, and I don’t think we can afford to silence critics in the 21st century if we want our communities and our arts to thrive together.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The book is “Not Here, Not Now, Not That! Protest Over Art and Culture in America.” Steven Tepper, thanks for talking with us.

STEVEN TEPPER: Thanks for having me.

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