The Social Nature of Offense and Public Protest over Art and Culture

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 23, No 3 (Fall 2012)

Steven J. Tepper
The following is an excerpt from the introduction to the book Not Here, Not Now, Not That! Protest over Art and Culture in America.

In spring 2006 a Vanderbilt University fraternity hosted a themed party, “Pimps and Ho’s.” Women were encouraged to attend dressed like prostitutes, and male students were told to come decked out in gold chains, felted gangster hats, sunglasses, and wide-lapel velvet suits. Posters advertising the party were tacked up on and off campus, even on trees and telephone poles near my home. The event offended me. For one thing, I didn’t like having to explain to my seven-year-old daughter the meaning of “whore,” nor did I think much of the overtly sexual posters that hyped the party. I was also offended by what I considered the demeaning, misogynistic, and probably racist character of the event. I was upset that many of my own students uncritically embraced the theme, attended the party, and never seemed to realize that it endorsed a culture that was antithetical to the university’s core principles. In fact, when I expressed my views, several women in my class politely told me to “lighten up.”

Think about the last time you were offended. Some readers may have to dig deep to come up with an incident. Others might feel routinely surrounded by offensive material, perhaps Sex and the City on television, the Dixie Chicks on the radio, Victoria’s Secret displays at the mall, billboards featuring emaciated models in Ralph Lauren underwear, or books about sex on the shelves of the public library. When it comes to taking offense, we all seem to have different threshold levels or tipping points.

This fact was driven home in a graduate school seminar at Harvard years ago. We were discussing a chapter by political philosopher Joel Feinberg called “A Ride on the Bus” (1985). Feinberg presents a series of thirty-one possible scenarios. You are riding a bus and can’t get off. Passengers get on, sit near you, and start acting out in ways that might be upsetting, beginning with the banal, such as singing off key, belching, or scratching on a metallic surface, and escalating to the more shocking, such as farting, copulating in the adjacent seat, or even eating feces out of a bag. The tipping point at which an action was so offensive as to be prohibited was different for every student. In fact, one — a marine fresh from six months at sea — claimed that none of the actions would bother him; he’d seen it all! Most students in the seminar had different tipping points at which they felt that the activity was so offensive it should not be allowed.

Offense is clearly personal and idiosyncratic; but offense can also be the shared property of a community. After all, the US Supreme Court has defined obscenity as an act of expression that merits government regulation because it is considered patently offensive based on “community standards.” Whether or not such standards can, in practice, be ascertained is an open question. Nonetheless, our legal system tells us that the “community” — rather than just individuals — represents the appropriate level of analysis at which to determine levels of offensiveness. Steven Dubin, who has written about arts conflicts in the 1980s, has described this as the “social construction of acceptability,” the notion that “offense” is a property of social life and collective definitions — not just individual tastes and preferences (1992). This communal, social aspect to offense emerges clearly when there is public conflict over words and images.

Throughout America personal offense spills out into the public square when citizens object to some form of expression — books, songs, sculpture, holiday displays, and flags. This book explores the social nature of offense and the conditions that give rise to public controversies over cultural expression. What is it about where we live, how we relate to our neighbors, our collective hopes and fears, and our local politics that combine to foment disagreement and protest over art? By examining hundreds of disputes in dozens of US cities, I argue that cultural conflict has a distinctive local profile. Cities exhibit different profiles of contention based, in part, on the demographic, institutional, and political make-up of the city. Fights over art and culture are not just the result of clashing personalities or contending values; they also represent the democratic outcome of citizens negotiating the consequences of social change within their communities.

In Boston, festival organizers canceled a play — Shakespeare’s Dogs — by a local theater group because it featured people, dressed as dogs, pretending to urinate on trees. In Oklahoma City, citizens demanded the resignation of a city librarian for knowingly making available the Academy Award–winning film The Tin Drum, which features a scene of a nine-year-old boy having sex with a teenage girl. In Kansas City, students organized a petition to stop what they considered to be sexually provocative dance moves and practice outfits worn by girls on the school’s drill team. In Tampa, school board officials banned the government report by Kenneth Starr, US special prosecutor, that described the details of President Clinton’s sexual relations with a White House intern. In Miami, several hundred Haitians gathered in front of city hall to protest the Hollywood film How Stella Got Her Groove Back because a scene in the film associates them with the AIDS virus. In Denver, a Christian group demanded that gargoyles be removed from a public library because the winged creatures were satanic and evil. In Salt Lake City, a Jewish family sued the school district because their tenth-grade daughter was forced to sing “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” in a Christmas choir concert.

While many of these incidents seem to reflect individual judgments about taste and propriety, I will argue that they are fundamentally social in nature. Claims against cultural expression are social because grievances arise out of particular social contexts; get articulated through conversation with others; mobilized by organizations or groups; reported on by the press; and defended, attacked, amplified, or deflected by fellow citizens.

My premise is straightforward. I believe 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. When communities experience an influx of new populations, new institutions, new types of families, new patterns of leisure, and new technologies, community members fight over symbols such as art and culture as a way to assert themselves. When everything feels “up for grabs,” people grab onto symbols as a way to make sense of change and affirm their identity and place in the world. A protest against a Halloween party at a local bookstore in Denver may, on the surface, reflect concerns about paganism and blasphemy. But it most likely also expresses deeper anxieties about whether Denver is becoming more or less Christian; whether tradi-tionalists in the community feel like they are losing ground to newcomers who hold different beliefs.

Speaking out or joining in a protest over art is determined, in part, by the prevailing political, institutional, and public opinion climate. You are more likely to make a public claim against an artwork if you feel there is sufficient support for your opinion among your neighbors, colleagues, and public officials. And the political culture of a community — the nature of civic activism, the history of protest, and the style of politics — helps determine the intensity and frequency of conflict. In some communities protest activity is routine; in others it is rare.

So while every conflict is unique and every offense is rooted in personal reactions, the public expression of grievances against art and culture, in the aggregate, reflects patterns influenced by social change, political culture, and the institutional make-up of a community. These patterns are what I refer to as the structure of cultural conflict.

Theories of Conflict

This book is about public disagreements over music, parades, visual art, books, and other forms of expressive life. These cultural objects function as powerful symbols — images, words, and sounds — evoking approbation, bewilderment, indifference, or antagonism. I am interested in the latter, and more specifically the conditions that give rise to overt antagonism over cultural expression. But why should we care about conflict over art and culture? And more specifically, why should sociologists care? What do these conflicts tell us about social life?

Theories of conflict have provided social scientists with a rich set of intellectual tools to explain a vast array of social arrangements, processes, and outcomes. “Conflict” is as central to sociology as “survival” is to evolutionary biology. Understanding conflict — its forms, incidences, and consequences — is critical for studying disruptive events like war, rebellion, strife, and civil unrest. Conflict, or competition between groups, also explains the creation and maintenance of stable institutions and routine aspects of social life (political parties, laws and regulations, schools and cultural institutions). Social groups may create these institutions to advance collective aims; but more often than not, they create them as a way to pursue their own interests — power, wealth, status — at the expense of competing groups, whether the competition comes from another economic class or a different ethnic or racial group.

Historically, sociologists, influenced by Karl Marx, have been most interested in conflict and competition over economic resources — such as wages and capital. These conflicts might take the shape of rebellions, strikes, and riots, or they might appear as social movements that attempt to influence government through a variety of political tactics and repertoires. Ultimately, understanding the dynamics of social conflict reveals a great deal about the potential for equity and economic justice.

Sociologists have paid increasing attention to symbolic and moral conflicts that are not overtly related to economic struggles but rather revolve around differences in values and lifestyles, such as conflicts over clothing (for example, sumptuary laws), campaigns against vice, temperance crusades, abortion, and disputes over art and entertainment. Sociologist Lewis Coser recognized early on that symbolic and economic conflicts are cut from the same cloth; both, in his words, are “struggles over values or claims to status, power, and scarce resources, in which the aims of the conflicting groups are not only to gain the desired values, but also to neutralize, injure, or eliminate rivals” (in Oberschall 1978, 291). Like fights over land and jobs, symbolic conflicts over such things as clothing, music, food and drink, books, and visual art have significant repercussions for power and social inequality. Nicola Beisel (1997), for example, writes that moral politics, especially campaigns to protect children from obscenity and other harmful culture, constitute “real politics” (202). They are “real politics” because, as in the case of anti-vice campaigns in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they represent an attempt by upper classes to designate “good” and “bad” culture, thereby providing a road map for class reproduction. Children who consume “good” culture, socialize with other children who consume this culture, and avoid the “harmful” culture of immigrants and those in the lower classes will be assured of finding appropriate mates, good jobs, and a secure place in the upper echelons.

Cultural conflict surfaces such questions as: Will drunkenness or temperance prevail as a dominant value? Abstinence or promiscuity? Respect for parents and teachers or rebellion and disrespect? Fidelity or divorce? Patriarchy or women’s liberation? Religious or secular values? Traditional family structure or tolerance for gay and lesbian lifestyles? Citizens compete with one another in an effort to define and control the symbols and cultural expression that communicate the values of their community. They compete over whose message is seen and heard in the press, whose books are available in schools and libraries, whose monuments are in the public park, whose flag flies over the county courthouse, and whose language appears on traffic signs. Securing scarce symbolic resources brings many advantages to the winners, such as prestige and status. If temperance emerges as a cherished value in a community, then those who are temperate will be more highly regarded than those who are not. And as Joseph Gusfield (1963) shows, this was precisely the strategy used by middle-class reformers in the nineteenth century to distinguish themselves from the behavior and lifestyle of newly arrived Catholic immigrants. Similarly, if opponents of pornography successfully portray allegedly obscene materials as pernicious, then those who consume and sell such material become pariahs in a community, while those who fight against obscenity become heroes and honored citizens (Zurcher and Kirkpatrick 1976). Status and prestige convert into social inclusion and exclusion, acceptance and rejection — a fact that most of us have known, even if not acknowledged, since grade school. And there is incontrovertible evidence that such social “sorting” — abetted by cultural cues — is critical for social mobility and economic advantage.

So we should care about cultural conflict because it is pervasive and shapes social life. As James Davison Hunter writes, “Culture, by its very constitution in social life, is contested. As always, the stakes are not, at least first, material but rather symbolic: the power of culture to name things, to define reality, to create and shape worlds of meaning” (Hunter and Wolfe 2006, 33). Winning the battle over symbols can earn for its victors both social prestige and economic advantage.

Culture Wars

Another reason for studying cultural conflict is that clashes over values and symbols, according to some, are becoming more prominent and more strident. James Davison Hunter (1991) is one of the first academic scholars to bring sustained attention to contemporary cultural conflict. According to Hunter we are witnessing the rise of a “culture war” — a momentous struggle between orthodox and progressive forces to define the meaning of America. He writes, “In a society as pluralistic as ours, the tendencies toward cultural conflict are inevitably intensified as the diversity of actors and institutions in competition has increased” (33). In these accounts cultural conflict includes “hot-button” issues like abortion, prayer in schools, gay marriage, English only, and government funding of the arts. While scholars disagree as to whether most Americans are truly split over fundamental values and beliefs, it is generally accepted that cultural and moral disputes have come to dominate public discourse. Since the early 1990s the rhetoric of a “culture war” has been the subject of numerous academic articles and books, and it has become accepted wisdom among pundits and journalists that Americans are divided over values. In fact, following the 2000 presidential election in the United States, the media was quick to point out that the election hinged on the “value chasm separating the blue states from the red ones” (Fiorina 2004, 3).

Fights over art and cultural expression, the subject of this book, have been commandeered by the culture warriors and are increasingly attracting national headlines. Organizations like the Family Research Council, the American Family Association, and the Christian Coalition have protested allegedly blasphemous and obscene content in publicly funded art, media, and commercial entertainment in order to mobilize constituents, raise money, and influence elections. These groups assert that America is in the midst of a serious moral decline and have targeted artists, entertainment executives, journalists, librarians, and institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) as both cause and symptom of this decline. Former senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole entered the fray in 1995 when he scolded the entertainment industry for promoting sex and violence, proclaiming that “a line has been crossed — not just of taste, but of human dignity and decency” (Hendricks 1995, 1). In 1997 the Southern Baptist Convention launched a nationwide boycott of the Walt Disney Company, attacking the animated film Pocahontas for promoting paganism, the film Lion King for containing obscene subliminal messages, and the ABC television network comedy Ellen for undermining family values. And in addition to traditional conservative voices, such critics as Tipper Gore and former Democratic Party activist, Delores Tucker, have attacked gangsta rap and punk music for promoting antisocial behavior, violence, racism, and sexism.

On the left, civil libertarians, arts advocates, and scholars have responded by labeling critics as philistines and arguing that the First Amendment is being threatened as never before. Groups such as the People for the American Way (PFAW) and the American Library Association regularly publish reports calling attention to the “alarming” and growing number of attacks on artistic and intellectual freedom. The 1995 PFAW report “Artistic Freedom under Attack” claims that “after years of attacks from religious and political extremists, Americans’ sensitivity to freedom of expression seems to have been numbed” (People for the American Way and Artsave 1995, 11). The report concludes that the “explosion of censorship and other challenges to artistic expression shows no signs of abating . . . rather, the culture wars will only continue to heat up” (21).

Not only have journalists and social activist organizations linked arts conflicts with the larger culture wars, but scholars have also made the connection. Hunter discusses conflicts over two widely publicized art cases in the late 1980s — Andres Serrano’s photograph titled “Piss Christ” and a show of homoerotic images by Robert Mapplethorpe — as part of the culture wars. He also discusses fights over films (Last Temptation of Christ), music (2 Live Crew), and television (Saturday Night Live). Elaine Sharp (1999) begins her book about morality politics with the controversy that erupted over the exhibition Sensation at the Brooklyn Museum. And both James Nolan (1996) and Rhys Williams (1997), who edited books on the culture wars, begin their introductions with examples of arts conflicts. In short, social scientists have begun to recognize that any study of social conflict at the dawn of the twenty-first century, especially conflict involving culture and morality, must take fights over art and cultural expression seriously.

Explaining Conflicts over Art and Culture

Explanations of conflict over art and culture fall roughly into the following categories: (1) offensive art offends, (2) fights over art reflect deep moral disagreements and value clashes, (3) art is simply a hot-button issue strategically deployed by enterprising politicians and moral reformers, and (4) artistic conflict is the product of anxiety and unease caused by social change.

Purveyors of the “offensive art offends” explanation often blame the cultural establishment — from the avant-garde to Hollywood — for producing images that challenge middle-class values. For example, in Arresting Images, Steven Dubin (1992) claims that controversies over cultural expression depend, in part, on the extent to which a work challenges established norms (see also Bolton 1992; Carver 1994; Steiner 1995). In the spirit of Mary Douglas’s (1966) ideas of purity and danger, others contend that when art mixes categories that are normally distinct (religion and sex, children and nudity, politics and race), it is more likely to provoke the ire of censors (Carmilly-Weinberger 1986; Dubin 1992; Heins 1993). And notions of contemporary art and the avant-garde often place the artist in contraposition to the preferences of the average citizen; artists in the twentieth century have looked for ever-new ways to overturn conventions and shock their audiences with innovative work (Adler 1975; Crane 1987). As Daniel Bell writes, “the legacy of modernism is that of the free, creative spirit at war with bourgeois society” (1996, 40).

Following this line of reasoning we should not be surprised by the controversy engendered by a female artist who pours chocolate over her naked body on stage while carrying on a discussion about human excrement, or the self-portrait of a photographer with a bullwhip inserted in his anus. Unfortunately, explanations of conflict that focus on the unnerving content and style of modern and postmodern art tend to be tautological, concluding that “provocative art leads to provocation.” This formulation is neither interesting nor theoretically useful. Moreover, such a theory cannot account for the fact that many seemingly benign artistic projects still raise unexpected controversy (Tepper 2000; Senie 1998). As Harriet Senie (1998) notes, “Time and time again, well-meaning individuals involved with a public art commission are shocked that their carefully considered projects are so glaringly misunderstood by a hostile audience” (237). Thus while intentionally “provocative” cultural expression certainly increases the likelihood of conflict, it is neither a sufficient nor necessary feature of controversy.

Furthermore, focusing on controversial artwork cannot explain why the same art event that causes uproar in one community is often met with indifference or rousing acceptance in another. For example, the infamous Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective, The Perfect Moment, was exhibited in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Hartford without any controversy. When the exhibit arrived in Cincinnati, a storm of outrage descended on the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, leading to the indictment of the center’s director on charges of obscenity.

The epic play Angels in America, by Tony Kushner, which deals with homosexual themes and contains frontal nudity, traveled to dozens of cities and communities between 1995 and 1999 but only generated conflict in a handful of places. In Charlotte, North Carolina, the controversy began with a threat from the district attorney’s office that the play would likely bring indecent exposure charges against the Charlotte Repertory Theatre. With a court injunction protecting the theater, the play was eventually performed in the midst of demonstrations and protests in the street, both for and against the show. A year later, at a city council meeting attended by seven hundred people, officials voted to cut all funding to the Arts and Science Council, which had supported the Angels presentation. The controversy consumed the city’s attention for more than two years, leading to over 150 newspaper articles and opinion letters in the Charlotte Observer. In Austin, Albuquerque, Baton Rouge, Memphis, and dozens of other cities, the same show was celebrated as one of the season’s most important works. A columnist for the Commercial Appeal contrasted the different public reactions to the play in both Charlotte and Memphis when he wrote, “It still fascinates me that Memphis — which has its share of ardent churchgoers — has not protested local funding of the same play causing an uproar in Jesse Helms country” (Smith 1997).

It appears, then, that unless the conditions for controversy are ripe, even the most rabble-rousing artist will sometimes fail to ignite a conflict. Perhaps the best example is artist Jim Richardson’s attempt to draw attention to the issue of the flag burning amendment in 1989. Starting with one small charred American flag, Richardson escalated his protest by burning more and bigger flags and then by contacting veterans associations, newspapers, the US Attorney’s office, and the ACLU. But to Richardson’s dismay, after six weeks of flag burning, nobody seemed to care (Meyer 1989, 1). In contrast, an exhibit in Phoenix, Arizona, that focused on the iconography of the US flag in American art and included a presentation of the flag on the museum floor was greeted with hostility, protest, vandalism, and threats from the city council, along with private patrons, to withdraw funds from the sponsoring museum (Van Der Werf 1996). Given this variation from one city to another in the public response to virtually identical cultural presentations, it is reasonable to conclude that the inflammatory content of an artwork is not the singular cause of conflict.

The second line of argument claims that fights over art reflect deep and fundamental value clashes. Here again I evoke Hunter and his argument about the struggle between progressive and orthodox views. He claims that progressives view art as a celebration of individuality, a medium to challenge prevailing norms, and a symbol of unfettered expression. They see opponents of art as “know-nothing,” bigoted, intolerant censors. On the other side, conservatives and traditionalists accuse progressives, entertainment executives, and avant-garde artists of nihilism, a disregard for “community standards,” hostility toward the sublime and the beautiful, excessive decadence, and the degradation of public decency. While such rhetoric certainly surfaces in high-profile debates over art, like other culture war issues, there is ample evidence that the vast majority of Americans share a common, positive attitude about the arts — they think the arts are important, they want more arts in the schools, and they think the government should continue to fund the arts. Moreover, there is evidence that the vast majority of conservatives and liberals, while not sitting together in the same living room, are in fact watching the same television shows. Audiences in conservative areas of the country are no less likely to watch violent and sexually explicit shows than audiences in more progressive markets (Carter 2004; Rich 2004). So it is unlikely that arts conflicts are rooted in broad-based disagreement over the purpose and value of art in society.

Yet another common explanation is that enterprising politicians, religious leaders, and moral reformers use arts conflicts as a way to attract media attention, raise money, and mobilize voters. Controversial art has proven to be an issue around which groups like the American Family Association, Parents Television Council, and numerous televangelists could rally the troops and enlist new supporters. Art has become a steroid used by the Christian right to build its organizational muscle. As reported in the US News and World Report, “these groups lost their anger and energy during the Reagan era and need new causes to raise money and membership” (Roberts and Friedman 1990). And learning from the successes of these groups, mainstream politicians — from former senators Jesse Helms and Bob Dole to former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani — have lashed out against obscenity, blasphemy, and violence in art and media. As E. J. Dionne Jr. wrote for the Washington Post, “the current drives against obscenity are simply successful ventures at political entrepreneurship promoted by a few conservative leaders worried as much about polls and election returns as smut” (1990). Larry Rothfield, editor of a collection of essays about the controversial Sensation exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, argues that ultimately arts conflicts can be explained by political interests — in this case, a museum that used controversy to boost attendance, a mayor that used it to secure support from his base, and free expression advocates that used it to draw attention to their cause (2001).

Paul DiMaggio and colleagues studied arts conflicts in Philadelphia between 1965 and 2001 and found strong evidence that cultural conflict is connected to election cycles, with politicians using art and culture to appeal to voters and mobilize constituents. They write: “We hypothesize that the rhythm of local elections induces city officials to play cultural politics — which often focuses appeals on particular constituencies — during the run-up to local elections” (1999, 43). While some politicians and moral entrepreneurs clearly use arts conflicts to stoke passions and influence supporters, these actors are only involved in a relatively small proportion of all conflicts, especially local conflicts. A comprehensive study of attempts to censor cultural expression in the 1980s found that the vast majority of protests did not originate with politicians, moral reform organizations, or even church leaders and ministers (Harer and Harris 1994). Of the 2,818 complaints identified by John Harer and Steven Harris, 611 came from individual parents, 224 from citizens, 149 from local organizations, and 103 from students. Government officials were the source of 103 complaints. So the actions of enterprising political leaders do not account for most conflicts. Furthermore, even when such political activity is relevant, scholars still must examine where it occurs and where it doesn’t — why was the mayor of Raleigh, North Carolina, in the news over and over again for attacking art and culture in the 1990s, while not a single politician joined in a protest in Seattle during the same time period?

Scholars argue that current battles over art and culture are not simply political diversions, but rather reflect underlying tensions in a community. In the foreword to The Cultural Battlefield, Jill Bond writes that cultural battles “are becoming proxies for political differences and social conflicts that should be discussed openly” (in Peter and Crosier 1995, 3). And Dubin contends that arts conflicts are likely to occur in communities that are fractured, polarized, and suffering low collective morale (1992). Similarly, the 1994 volume of Artistic Freedom under Attack confidently asserts that as America becomes more diverse, the “resulting tensions lead to the removal or alteration of artistic works” (People for the American Way and Artsave 1994, 11).

In City against Suburb, Joseph Rodriguez (1999) explores conflict over a public art sculpture dubbed the Spirit Poles erected in Concord, California, in 1989. Citizens, politicians, and a local fundamentalist preacher protested the artwork, featuring ninety-one aluminum poles with pointed tips, an abstract statement about modern technology, because the sculpture didn’t fit the town’s “sleepy suburban” image. The backlash stemmed from a growing concern that recent urbanization placed the interests of outsiders above those of locals in the community. Erika Doss (1995) recounts an incident in 1989 when the Japanese American community in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, erupted over a proposed mural by Barbara Krueger that featured the words from the Pledge of Allegiance. The community felt that the mural evoked memories of American acts of cultural repression in World War II internment camps. Like Rodriguez, Doss links the conflict to underlying tensions in the community. She argues that changing economic conditions — for example, the rise of Japanese investment in South Los Angeles — along with growing racial strife created the conditions that led to the mural controversy (Doss 1995).

And using historical accounts of anti-vice crusades in the late nineteenth century in the United States, Nicola Beisel (1990) finds that attempts to censor or suppress art and cultural expression found greater support in New York and Boston than in Philadelphia. She explains the difference by showing that elites in the first two cities were facing a greater threat, both politically and socially, from arriving immigrant communities than elites in Philadelphia. Beisel is interested in what makes moral claims — such as protests against art — potent. She concludes that changes in gender roles and the social meaning of sexuality combined with concerns about rising rates of immigration led to anxiety for middle-class and upper-class parents who were concerned about the future prospects for their children.

These last three examples suggest a rather broad and far-reaching theory of cultural conflict — urbanization, immigration, and changing economic and social conditions lead to disputes over art and cultural expression. Such claims, like those that link conflict to ethnic tensions or religious cleavages, cry out for the type of comparative research that has been the staple of macro-level theory building in the social sciences since Émile Durkheim’s analysis of suicide in the nineteenth century (Durkheim 1951). How could Durkheim test his proposition that a country’s suicide rate can be explained by the degree of social integration of its citizens without comparing dozens of countries and looking for broader patterns? Nor could we imagine a convincing theory explaining the prevalence of political upheaval without Charles Tilly’s pathbreaking comparative work looking at revolutions and protest activity in Europe both across time and across countries (Tilly 1978, 1986, 1995; Tilly, Tilly, and Tilly 1975). Research on art and cultural conflict has reached the stage of theory building and testing that requires scholars to assemble the necessary evidence to evaluate claims about the relationship between such conflict and social conditions. This study aims to do just that: assemble and analyze evidence about hundreds of conflict events in dozens of American cities during the 1990s. Like Durkheim’s study of suicide, such evidence can help us examine whether the causes of cultural conflict are linked to underlying social conditions rather than merely the result of the individual actions of artists, religious leaders, and politicians.

The Structure of Cultural Conflict

When I refer to “underlying social conditions,” I am suggesting that cultural conflict has a structure to it — incidences of protest over art and culture are strongly correlated with distinguishing sets of community characteristics. This notion of structure has its roots in the Chicago School research tradition, especially the work of criminologists who argued that economic conditions, social diversity, and residential mobility led to different crime rates across communities and cities. Adding to demographic and economic factors, James Coleman’s seminal work on community conflict identified additional structural variables such as the number, density, and types of community organizations and the local levels of activism and civic engagement. These structural elements have been linked with a wide range of conflict events — from Ku Klux Klan membership (McVeigh 1999), to lynching (Olzak 1990), urban riots (DiPasquale and Glaeser 1998), and strikes (Olzak 1989).

Like these earlier studies of racial and economic conflict, my approach in this book is also structural. By marshaling a significant amount of data, I demonstrate that social change, in conjunction with specific community characteristics, can predict levels and intensity of arts conflicts. I go beyond case studies in order to examine 805 cases of conflict across seventy-one cities in the 1990s. Like Elaine Sharp’s recent work on morality politics (2005), my work will show that arts conflicts exhibit patterns of variation across cities that, as Sharp writes, either “challenge or support existing social and political theories about cultural conflict” (7).

My approach also brings a much-needed local emphasis to the study of cultural conflict. Most of the writing and discussion about art and cultural conflict has focused on the most visible and strident battles at the national level (the Sensation exhibit, Mapplethorpe’s photographs, Annie Sprinkle’s performance art, Janet Jackson’s exposed breast during the 2004 Super Bowl telecast). For obvious reasons, the media has focused disproportionately on these high drama spectacles. But scholarly articles and books have also arrived at their conclusions — whether it is the notion of a culture war, political mobilization, or the consequences of social change — by examining these well-publicized cases (Dubin 1992; Halle 2001; Hunter 1991; Nolan 1996; Pally 1994; Peter and Crosier 1995; Steiner 1995). However, it remains unclear whether these well-known battles are related to deeper tensions and concerns among the larger American public or whether they simply reflect political posturing and issue entrepreneurship among the nation’s elite.

Much needed progress can be made in understanding cultural conflict by getting beyond the big stories and the national debates. When we scratch below the surface, we find ample evidence that conflicts are percolating daily in cities and communities across America. Harer and Harris (1994) report that there were close to two thousand attempts to censor books, magazines, films, plays, and music in American communities during the 1980s. Judith Dobrzynski reported in the New York Times that brush fires over the arts were spreading across the country to towns and cities, which have become “the new battle grounds” for cultural conflict (1997). If this is indeed correct, then we must begin to ask questions about the nature of these conflicts. Who initiates conflict at the local level? What is the nature of the grievances against cultural works? What is the role of religious and national actors? How are controversies resolved? Do authentic local conflicts — those dealing exclusively with local art and local actors — differ from conflicts involving national actors and organizations? And what explains why some communities are more contentious than others when it comes to fighting over art and culture? While scholars have provided colorful and insightful case studies of local conflicts (Dubin 1992; Halle 2001), it is the assembly and systematic comparison of these local protests that distinguishes this study and makes it an important contribution to a broader, sociologically informed and rigorously tested theory of cultural conflict.

Clarifying the Approach

In this book social change is presented as the main, but not only, “protagonist” in the story of protest over art and culture. But social change is a slippery concept and has come to mean many different things in sociological analysis. Broad, incremental, and epochal changes such as urbanization, modernization, the rise of bureaucracy, industrialization, and globalization certainly have implications for arts protests. We could, for example, ask how protest over art and culture differs between urban and less urban societies, how capitalism has influenced protest over art and media, how protest differs between premodern and modern societies, and whether the forces of globalization and postmodernity have fundamentally altered how citizens engage cultural difference and disagreement. This book takes a different approach. I am less interested in how protest over art fits into large macro-theories of change than in the proximate causes of protest. In particular, what forms of social change lead individuals and groups to get involved in public disputes over art and media? In answering this question I focus almost exclusively on change at the community or city level. What is the relationship between protest over art and culture and real and perceived changes in the types of people, institutions, lifestyles, norms, and values that comprise a community? My theory of social change follows in the tradition of Joseph Gusfield, who believed that symbolic protest emerges from social threat and group competition. Essentially, according to Gusfield, when established high-status groups (political, economic, and social elites) feel threatened by incoming groups (for example, immigrants), they will attack the “lifestyle” of these emerging groups as a way to reestablish their own social and moral virtue.

Like Gusfield I conceptualize social change as perceived threats to lifestyle and values. But rather than focus directly on a zero-sum game of status competition between groups and individuals (that is, the degradation of one group’s lifestyle serves to elevate the lifestyle and status of another group), I see protest emerging from differing understandings of community life. The opening of a Walmart on Main Street may challenge citizens to reassess a particular vision of their community. Increasing numbers of teen mothers or the presence of adult bookstores may be perceived as threats to certain family values or notions of a morally decent city. The unfamiliar sound of foreign languages spoken at the bus stop, in the grocery store, or at a public park might make some residents feel uncomfortable interacting with and around strangers and raise difficult questions about what binds their community together. Witnessing a parade that celebrates different lifestyles or cultural traditions may raise questions about which community traditions and values are worth celebrating. In short, social change is characterized as local-level disruptions that call into question established notions of community life. Such disruptions precipitate symbolic politics — in particular, protest over art and media.

In most of the book I measure social change as the rate of immigration (percentage change in the percentage of foreign-born residents in a city). I recognize that this is a relatively blunt instrument for measuring all of the factors that bear down upon how citizens conceive of threats to community life. For some the underlying social strain or threat has to do with changes in local schools; for others, concerns are rooted in changes in the look and feel of downtown; still others will focus on teen pregnancy, youth crime, or the increased visibility of alternative lifestyles. What is important about immigration as a source of disruption is that it is highly visible. Other city-level changes — education levels, occupational shifts, physical alterations, family structure — are incremental and hard to detect in the short term. Changes in immigration, in contrast, even when relatively small, are tractable and noticeable on a day-to-day basis. First-generation, foreign-born residents, especially those who immigrated during the 1980s and 1990s, not only look and sound different from native-born citizens, but they also dress differently, drive different types of cars, and embrace cultural traditions and lifestyles that are unfamiliar. Of all the measurable sources of social change at the city level, rates of immigration capture best the most visible “threat” to community life and community identity in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Furthermore, in focus-group conversations with activists across the country immigration was raised time and again by parents as the source of disconcerting community change and as an important context for wanting greater restrictions on media content.

Not all protests can be linked to a “fear” of social change at the local level. Some protests emerge in places where there is very little local disruption and change. But places experiencing more change and disruption have a higher frequency of protest over art, and their disagreements over culture are strongly linked to competing notions of community life. Moreover, disruptions to stable conceptions of community life can lead not only to attempts to defend the “old ways” but also to efforts to establish new discourses and new ideals. Thus, previously disadvantaged groups might protest art and culture to assert their own notions of community — and their place within it — during times of social change and disruption.

In sum, for the purposes of this book I am only interested in local social change — in particular, changes that disrupt people’s conception of community life and challenge their own role and relevance in the social life of their city. I am not interested in explaining social change. Rather, I see social change as an independent predictor or condition that influences how often people fight over art and culture as well as the nature and dynamics of these disputes. I focus on rates of immigration as the manifestation of the types of local changes that challenge conceptions of community life and make a city or community ripe for protest. 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.

It is important to clarify what this book is not. First and foremost, this is not a book about censorship. There have been many good books and scholarly articles dealing with the legal rights of artists, the evolving legal framework of censorship, and philosophical and political theories of free expression and democracy. While philosophers and legal scholars might consider many of the cases in my study censorship, I will refrain from passing judgment about whether an offending art object should or should not have been restricted, banned, or removed. The book is not intended to advance the case of advocates on the right and left of the free expression debate. Rather, it is intended to shed light on community dynamics that give rise to the impulse to censor, whether or not that impulse is morally justifiable or legally defensible.

Debates over censorship often center on whether an offending object is truly “art.” Again, I will sidestep these debates in this book. I will not defend the artistic purpose or merit of a piece of art — whether it is the music played by an ice cream truck, a clown show on cable access television, or a play by a well-known New York playwright. In fact, I am equally interested in conflicts over “cultural expression” with little artistic intent — the costume of a school mascot, the cover of a city phone book, a photograph in the newspaper. While discourse and debate around these offending objects often centers on whether or not it is “art” or “literature,” again the conditions that give rise to such conflicts, I believe, are not primarily about clashes over aesthetics.

Related to this point, most previous scholarship on arts conflicts focuses heavily on discourse. Scholars are particularly interested in how debates get framed and articulated by critics and defenders of artworks. Such debates are thought to reveal the “cultural frames” used by citizens and moral entrepreneurs to understand the meaning of a cultural object or event: Is this art or is it obscenity and pornography? Is it an expression of community or something foreign and unfamiliar? Is it harmful to children or just fun and games? These rhetorical labels help connect potentially offending objects with deeper social concerns, thereby mobilizing and crystallizing sentiment in support of a course of action — acceptance, protest, violence. So discourse is extremely important in the study of cultural conflict. In this book I will occasionally discuss differences in how communities talk about offending objects and I will draw on quotes, both from newspaper accounts and focus groups, about the purpose of protest and the relationship between an arts conflict and ideas about community life. But analyzing discourse is of secondary importance to me. I am less interested in how discourse or rhetoric provokes, sustains, and mobilizes citizens over the course of a conflict and more interested in what explains why citizens and local leaders initiate conflict in the first place.

As already mentioned, a great deal of the book relies on statistical evidence. I argue that protest events that may seem idiosyncratic, such as a fight over a school mascot or as obvious as public outcry over nudity on television, can be explained, in its most simple formulation, by numbers; albeit numbers that represent profound social patterns. This approach might make the reader nervous. It certainly worries the author a great deal. It is natural to question whether broad, community-level indicators — like demographic change, voter turnout rates, numbers of Evangelical churches in a city — could possibly predict what appears to be irregular outbursts of conflict over art and cultural expression. My response is that this study and the theories that motivate it do not claim to be able to predict any single case of conflict; rather, community-level variables can predict overall patterns — for example, whether one community is more or less contentious than another when you examine multiple conflicts over several years.

By way of example, Nashville, Tennessee, my current hometown, shows up in my data as a relatively contentious city. Between 1995 and 1998 the city witnessed eighteen conflicts over art and culture — well over the national average of ten. So in 2003, when a private donor, with approval of the mayor and the arts council, installed in a prominent city location a forty-foot sculpture featuring nine enormous naked men and women dancing together in a circle, we might have predicted a fiery episode of protest and recrimination. But as it turns out the sculpture, titled Musica (because it sits at the entrance to music row, Nashville’s famous block of recording studios and record labels), generated only a few letters to the editor and no official protest activity. The specifics of the case are relevant. The sculptor hired a public relations firm to help educate the community before the piece was installed; the mayor, who approved the project, was extremely popular at the time, later becoming governor of Tennessee; and the artist, who was personable, engaged the community and worked with the arts council to change parts of the design before installation. So when I look closely at the case, I begin to doubt whether my “model” of conflict can really tell me anything. Nashville is a contentious city, but Musica was not a contentious piece of art — in spite of its in-your-face nudity.

Let me try to make sense of this puzzle by way of analogy. Imagine a person who has an autoimmune deficiency. Such a person, when the disease is active, is highly likely to catch a common cold. A particular cold might be traced to some specific circumstance — being in the room with someone who was sick, for instance. Now consider another person without an autoimmune disorder. Faced with the same circumstance (for example, exposure to germs), this person might also come down with a common cold. Thus the cold itself is not an indication of the underlying autoimmune disease. We could look at both people — sniffling and coughing — and have no evidence as to who was seriously sick and who simply had a cold. In fact the person with the autoimmune disease might have caught the cold even when the disease was in remission. But if we were to look at a chart that tracked the number of colds that each of the two people caught over four or five years, we would certainly see a big discrepancy between the two, and we might be clued into the fact that one of our patients likely has an underlying condition. So I am interested in overall patterns, not particular events.

As I argue in this book, we must look beyond individual citizens and beyond individual artworks to understand the social conditions that produce conflict. What conditions help turn offense into action, dissatisfaction into public voice, private grievance into bearing witness publicly? It is sometimes about the particular piece of art; it is sometimes about particularly loud and vociferous critics. But, I contend, there is a deeper social pattern that appears even after we iron out the particular personalities, politics, and impolitic art. There is, in short, a topography of conflict — a discernible frequency, intensity, and scope of conflict that characterize cities and that can be seen from a bird’s-eye view — high up and well beyond the glare and heat of the fire.

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