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Provoking Democracy: Why We Need the Arts



Provoking Democracy: Why We Need the Arts

Caroline Levine

ISBN: 978-0-470-76625-5 April 2008 Wiley-Blackwell 256 Pages


A provocative and compelling book that explores the complex relationship between democracy and avant-garde art, offering a surprising new perspective on the critical role that the arts play in democratic governance at home and abroad.
  • Covers a broad range of topics, from disputes over public art, copyright, and obscenity, to the operations of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Cold War
  • Highlights detailed and at times shocking debates over the role of the rebellious artist within society

1. Democracy Meets the Avant-Garde.

2. The People v. the Arts.

3. Propaganda for Democracy: The Avant-Garde Goes to War.

4. Obscenity and the Democratization of Culture.

5. Originality on Trial.

Conclusion: Artists, Academic Writing, and the Classroom.




“In a highly original work that is itself often provocative, Levine explores the mutual interactions between democracy and provocative art. The book's strength lies in its insightful reading of these debates in terms of their underlying democratic-theoretical premises. Recommended.” Choice<!--end-->

"Yes, democracies need art, especially art they don't like or understand and Caroline Levine's shrewd, eloquent and often entertaining Provoking Democracy tells us why. From the controversies swirling around the defacement of Jacob Epstein’s “Rima” and the demolition of Serra’s “Tilted Arc” to the obscenity trials of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and 2 Live Crew, Levine shows how the avant garde helps defend democracies from its worse excesses--the muting of marginal voices, the oppression of majority rule, and the blind conformism of consensus politics. Indeed Levine is to be commended for negotiating an honorable truce in the culture wars. Her important new work recognizes not just the right but also the obligations of the avant garde to act as a permanent minority working within democratic institutions to ensure a more open and genuinely plural society."
Maria DiBattista, Princeton University

"Provoking Democracy should be mandatory reading… certainly in college, if not in high school. I think every educator, every superintendent, every school board, should have a copy of this book by their side, should read it, should understand it, should have dialogues about it, should debate it - because ultimately we’re talking about engaging the creative minds of those yet to come."
Tony Trupiano (“The Tony Trupiano Show”)

"In these increasingly barbarous times, it is good and refreshing to see work that stands up for the provocative - and potentially emancipatory - powers of the arts. Caroline Levine's wide-ranging and serious engagement with the question of how the arts might provoke or even promote democracy, and her realisation that this question is itself fundamental for us, is a timely and much-needed rejoinder to the brutish dimensions of contemporary polities."
Thomas Docherty, University of Warwick (author of Aesthetic Democracy)

"Caroline Levine’s Provoking Democracy gives an extremely compelling account of how Anglo-American law has, in counterintuitive ways, supported “avant garde” art, and why Anglo-American democracies depend, in turn, upon such art, which provides a dissident voice that pluralism and an orientation towards the future demand. Covering a broad range of topics, from public involvement in decisions about whether particular pieces of art should be displayed, to the operations of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Cold War, to the role of originality in judicial determinations of what counts as art, Levine’s book furnishes ingenious readings of the dynamic interplay between particular figures and events. In the course of reading Provoking Democracy, one is shocked at how the CIA secretly funded the work of Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock to promote the ideal of American freedom internationally at the same time as American publics and media reviled his painting, but one also laughs at how customs officials categorized Constantin Brancusi’s sculpture “Bird” as a kitchen implement. All of these revelations are conveyed in a pellucid and gripping narrative style. Provoking Democracy is a book that anyone interested in democracy or the arts simply must read."
Bernadette Meyler, Cornell University Law School

“Levine is adept at selecting eye-catching instances revealing of the paradoxes that she argues are at the heart of liberal democracy itself.”
Times Higher Education

"This is an impressively researched and well-referenced book."
Arts Professional

Impressively researched and well-referenced … .Connects grand theories … to everyday experiences of the arts. Valuable for both policy-makers, and more general readerships."

  • A provocative and compelling exploration of the complex relationship between democracy and the arts
  • Argues that democracies require art - challenging art - to ensure that they are acting as free societies
  • Analyses the roles of dissenting and unpopular artists, such as Jackson Pollock, Bertolt Brecht, D. H. Lawrence, and 2 Live Crew in twentieth century society
  • Shows how artists in the tradition of the avant-garde may once again prove to be effective catalysts for contemporary change
  • Covers a broad range of topics, including disputes over obscenity, public funding, and censorship
  • Forms part of the Blackwell Manifestos series, in which top scholars offer lively interventions into current debates