Home » Rigor and RelevanceSpring 2012

Come Out Swingin’

by Nelson Bryan, BA'73 No Comment


Nothing stirs the ol’ juices like a good fight. Whether it’s the Thrilla in Manila, the ’Dores vs. Kentucky or a heated election, people come together over fights and contests. And that’s good. According to Steven Tepper, so it is with the arts.

Tepper is an associate professor of sociology and associate director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt. In his book, Not Here, Not Now, Not That! Protests over Art and Culture in America, he makes the case that art is most relevant when people care enough to fight over it. Tepper did not come by his conclusion idly. He examined more than 800 conflicts across 71 U.S. cities, studying fights over visual art, film, music, theater, history exhibits and books.

In an interview on PBS NewsHour’s “Art Beat,” he noted a correlation between social change and protest. “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,” he said. “Art becomes this amazing arena in which people negotiate their differences of opinions around the contours of their expressive lives together.”

A good scrap over art can be good for the community. “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,” Tepper told PBS.

Touch gloves and come out of your corners fighting.

photo credit: Steve Green

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