back to

"Art, Protest, Riot": Recent books on art and agitation


Writing for Public Books, critic Justin Slaughter reviews three recent books that examine revolts of the past to suggest a way forward: Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition by Yates McKee, Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era Of Uprisings by Joshua Clover, and the novel Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa. While McKee’s book offers a detailed analysis of Occupy to argue that we are in a new era of both agitation and art, Clover’s book posits the historical obsolescence of the strike and the present primacy of the riot. Meanwhile, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, set in and around the Battle of Seattle in 1999, portrays the affective intensities of insurrection. Here’s an excerpt from Slaughter’s review:

Our political positions often have little to do with ideas or justice. A foray into politics can just as likely be spurred by an intense personal experience, a relationship, a sense of loneliness, a search for the divine, or a need for recognition, love, or pleasure. Yapa shows how these personal attachments—in addition to the standard divisions of wealth, power, and indifference—can get in the way of efforts to effect social change. The Seattle police chief Bishop warns his teenage son Victor that worldly idealism drove his mother to suicide. “This is what happens when you care too much,” Bishop tells Victor, after dragging his dead wife’s copies of Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin, and bell hooks into the yard, dousing them with gasoline, and watching them burn. Yet for all this, the novel refuses to give into cynicism. Characters continue trying to do the right thing, even if they fall under a tear gas canister or police baton.

Like McKee and Clover, Yapa is not primarily concerned with the efficacy of protest. He’s concerned with the fact that those of us living at the pinnacle of global wealth and power are somehow incapable of creating a freer and more just society. “Strike art” might not have enough influence to lead us to such a world, and riots might not outlast the stamina of the greatest police and military state in history. But at a time when the con artists campaigning for the highest office in the land pretend to have answers for everything, the questions raised by writers like McKee, Clover, and Yapa feel more and more indispensible.

Image: A protest sign at the Minneapolis City Hall, December 3, 2015. Via Public Books.