The boundary between art and politics has always been porous — if, in fact, one has ever existed. Throughout history, artists have utilized various media to protest injustice, and activists have worked all kinds of artistic practices into their movements. Entire artistic movements have been borne out of political programs, and political groups have used artistic representations to hold “the mirror up to nature.”
We put together a short list of books on the culture of politics and vice versa. While this list is by no means comprehensive, we believe the titles below could serve as a useful primer on this subject.
“Sister Outsider” is a book of essays and speeches by poet, academic and activist Audre Lorde. Writing from a very personal place as a Black lesbian living in the United States, this selection of Lorde’s highly poetic prose traverses a wide range of topics, from poetry itself to “the erotic as power” and the connections between sexism and racism. Her final essay, titled “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” is often quoted in academic and activist circles today and outlines the formation of one of Lorde’s most famous political slogans.
Lorde’s essays and speeches collected in “Sister Outsider” offer biting critiques of the mainstream feminist movement and academia in the United States, as well as a political program based on “difference as a crucial strength.”
Artist and professor E. Patrick Johnson’s book “Appropriating Blackness” analyzes a wide array of artistic performances, as well as everyday life, in order to theorize about living as a Black person in the United States and what it means to perform Blackness.
Johnson’s text deals with always-changing perceptions of “authentic” Blackness, the politics of appropriation and the role of ethnographers and teachers like himself in presenting Black narratives. Thinking critically about representations in music, film, oral histories, political writing and rhetoric, “Appropriating Blackness” deals with the political significance of Black identity in expressions of all kinds.
‘Among Others: Blackness at MoMA,’ edited by Darby English and Charlotte Barat. Text by Mabel Wilson
“Among Others” is a collection of writing and images on Black artists, audiences and identity at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. This book features essays on more than 200 works either created by Black artists or dealing with the subject of racial injustice, as well as pieces on the museum’s history and collection as the topics relate to the inclusion and exclusion of Blackness.
The book covers an extensive range of artistic styles, movements, genres and perspectives by Black artists and poses questions about the politics of curation, representation and Blackness in the museum context.
‘Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America,’ by Saidiya V. Hartman
Saidiya V. Hartman’s “Scenes of Subjection” is essential reading in many university humanities courses. Looking back to the 19th century, the text provides crucial historical context for Black oppression — as well as resistance — today. Hartman’s analyses of plantation life, slave auctions and minstrel shows are discussed alongside slave performances, dance and other entertainment that served slave masters or the enslaved themselves. This book both acknowledges and complicates the terror, pain and misery that many associate with Black enslavement in the United States by weaving in moments of joy that the enslaved fought to create through dance, song and other cultural expressions.
Focusing on one particular direct-action movement, Deborah B. Gould’s “Moving Politics” studies the use of emotion by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and its role in protest. On top of providing a history of the U.S. AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, along with interviews from those who took to the streets in response, Gould’s book gives readers insights into the high-stakes tactics that activists in ACT UP used to stage their demands. This is an exceedingly well-researched book that will have you thinking about the theatricality of protest and the creative methods employed by demonstrators past.
This selection of some of German theater director and playwright Bertolt Brecht’s writings remains one of the most influential texts of the past century on the topic of performance and politics. Featuring Brecht’s essays and other materials on his theories of “epic theater” and the “Verfremdungseffekt,” the book is essential background reading for many of the other texts on our list.
Brecht employed theatrical techniques that reminded his audiences that they were seeing a play rather than “real life,” producing a distancing effect between spectators and the characters on stage that Brecht hoped would motivate audiences to look at theater (and life) through a critical lens so that they may better recognize exploitation.
A response to major debates about theater and politics going all the way back to Aristotle, Augusto Boal’s magnum opus “Theatre of the Oppressed” presents his own performance theory. In this book, Boal attempts not only to observe society through the lens of theater, but to change it. Inspired in part by Brecht and Paulo Freire, Boal’s approach is as practical as it is philosophical as he develops a new dramatic form that reimagines the role of actors and viewers alike.
Boal encourages those who are spectators in life (the oppressed) to practice becoming actors — not just on the stage, but as people who speak up and act to change their own circumstances. A series of exercises such as “forum theater,” “invisible theater,” “newspaper theater” and “trial theater” guide readers towards this goal.
A treatise on participatory art of all kinds (including Brecht and Boal’s practices), Claire Bishop’s “Artificial Hells” provides an overview and critique of participatory art as activism. Questioning whether well-known participatory art techniques are truly liberating — and if they are, to what extent — Bishop takes readers through movements like Dadaism, the Situationist International, Happenings, Community Arts and more, giving her own analysis and proposing a new approach to participatory art.