The Center for Artistic Activism Reading List

Update: We wrote a book!

The Art of Activism: Your All Purpose Guide to Making the Impossible Possible

Here, in dazzling red and black words and pictures, is an all-purpose guide that shows how to bring about effective social change by combining the emotional power of the arts with the strategic planning of activism. Join the co-founders of the Center for Artistic Activism as they draw lessons from pop culture and mainstream marketing, delve into explorative teachings on ethics and evaluation, and set out the promises and pitfalls of the creative process and utopian thinking.

The Art of Activism brings together the authors’ extensive practical knowledge—gleaned from over a decade’s experience training activists around the world—with theoretical insights from fields as far-ranging as cultural studies and cognitive science.

From the United Farm Workers’ boycott movement in sixties’ California to a canal-side beach in present-day Saint Petersburg, these pages are packed with contemporary and historical case studies that have been shown to work in practice.

In addition, the accompanying workbook contains fifty expertly crafted exercises to help you flex your creative imagination and hone your political tactics, taking you step-by-step toward becoming the most persuasive and impactful artistic activist you can possibly be.

The Art of Activism Book

The Reading List:

These texts helped influence our perspectives, curriculum, and approach. We share them with you so you can dig deeper into some of the concepts, histories, and theories we draw from.

Please Note: At the Center for Artistic Activism we’ve examined a wide range of field. Some of these books we adore from cover to cover, while others we disagree with entirely. With some we admire the ideas, but not the subject matter or the author. However all the research material we seek out has challenged us to make better work and we found these texts to be a useful starting point.

If you have suggestions you’d like us to consider adding to the list, contact us.

Poetry is Not a Luxury

from Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

A non-poem by the great poet about the importance of culture and creativity in allowing us to reach places that our socialized minds tell us we can’t.

Download PDF

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Resistance Through Rituals cover

Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain

Edited by Tony Jefferson and Jamaican sociologist Stuart Hall. Looking for rebellion in unlikely places: punk rock, reggae, skinhead culture.


Beyond a Boundary

by C.L.R. James

Memoir of the great Caribbean intellectual on his love for cricket: an Imperialist game that, ironically, made James an anti-Imperialist.

PDF via

Beyond a Boundary Book Cover
prison notebooks book cover

Prison Notebooks

by Antonio Gramsci

Stuck in a fascist prison, Gramsci thought and wrote about organizing and the role of culture in politics. A bit cryptic, but full of invaluable insights.


The Politics of Aesthetics

by Jacques Ranciere

Useful discussion from a contemporary philosopher on the different ways that art can be political, from reflecting the world to rearranging our very sense of it.


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Lucy Lippard portrait

Trojan Horses: Activist Art and Power

by Lucy Lippard.

Now more than 3o years old, this is still the most concise and articulate argument for what activist art can do and why it matters. free PDF

The Cultural Resistance Reader

Edited by Center for Artistic Activism’s Stephen Duncombe

All you’ll ever want to read about Cultural Resistance in one convenient place.

free PDF

Cultural Resistance Reader
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Emphasis on Sport

by Bertolt Brecht

from Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic.

The radical playwright’s advice to his fellow artists that if they want to have an impact they they need to make their art more fun… like soccer.

free PDF

“Introduction” from Rabelais and His World

by Mikhail Bakhtin.

What does a Soviet literary scholar writing about a medieval French writer have to do with activism? One word: Carnival! A great meditation on the subversive quality of laughter and spectacle.

Download Book

combahee river collective portriat

Combahee River Collective Statement

A manifesto written by a black feminist collective in the mid-1970s. Classic articulation of the specificity of ones opression and identity. Useful to remind us that we are always dealing with particular people in particular contexts, not abstractions.


A People’s History of the United States

by Howard Zinn.

Classic overview of US history from the perspective of those fighting the powers-that-be.


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PR! A Social History of Spin

by Stuart Ewen.

Ewen, an historian of advertising and Duncombe’s mentor, looks at how story, spectacle, and performance was used by corporations and marketers, as well as progressives, in the early 20th centrury. We can learn from them all.


Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970

by Doug McAdam.

A great history of the Civil Rights movement, making the point, among many others, that the movement understood the power of performance.

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Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics

by Frederic Spotts.

A sobering reminder that arguably the most successful artistic activists of the 20th Century were the Nazis. Arts and activism is a powerful combination, and ethics are always important.


Re/Search: Pranks

Edited by V. Vale and Andrea Juno

Entertaining, and often inspiring even if the examples don’t apply directly or are… let’s just say unethical.


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Only Joking  by Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves Book cover

Only Joking

by Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves

If there is a book on comedy theory (that you’d actually want to read) this might be it. Analysis of the history of comedy, different theories about what makes us laugh, and lots of jokes.



Edited by Paul Provenza and Dan Dion

First hand interviews with comedians of all kinds. Many valuable insights that, with a little creativity, you can apply to your practice.

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Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation

by Charna Halpern, Del Close, et al

If you take a class in improv, they’ll probably tell you to read this. Or they should. Covers some key ideas that can be helpful: agreement, building a scene, working at the top of your intelligence, and “truth in comedy” – a grounding in the truth is more conducive to comedy than entirely fabricated material.


Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany

by Rudolph Herzog

There were jokes in Hitler’s Germany – Nazi jokes, resister jokes, Jewish jokes. This book provokes us with the question; as many subversive jokes as there were in Nazi Germany, what impact did they have?


Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany Book Cover
Open Utopia Book Cover

Open Utopia

by Thomas More, edited and introduced by Stephen Duncombe.

The book that named the practice — much more interesting and politically useful than you might remember from High School.

free pdf

companion website


Hope in the Dark

by Rebecca Solnit

Keep handy for when you’re feeling negative about your work. This got Steve Lambert through the disappointment of the 2004 election.

Download Foreword to the Third Edition (2015)

Hope In The Dark, Solnit book cover
Promoting Nutrition and Physical Activity Through Social Marketing cover page

Promoting Nutrition and Physical Activity Through Social Marketing

by Rina Alcalay and Robert A. Bell

Dry, but loaded with information.

free pdf

Getting Things Done

by David Allen

Yes, it’s aimed at a business demographic. Yes it’s a sort of self-help book. But damn are there ever good ideas in it.


Getting Things Done by David Allen book cover
The Now Habit by Neal Fiore book cover

The Now Habit

by Neal Fiore

If you have even the slightest tendencies of a perfectionism or procrastination (and who doesn’t?) the insights in this book are incredibly helpful.


Oblique Strategies

by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt.

A deck of cards, each card offering an aphorism intended to help artists (particularly musicians) break creative blocks by encouraging lateral think

view them online

Oblique Strategies  by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt box
Dream or Nightmare by Stephen Duncombe book cover

Dream or nightmare: reimagining politics in an age of fantasy

by Center for Artistic Activism’s Stephen Duncombe

What can artistic activists learn from Las Vegas, video games, celebrity magazines and advertising? A lot. Center for Artistic Activism’s co-founder teaches how to create an “ethical spectacle”


free PDF

How to Be an Explorer of the World

by Center for Artistic Activism board member, Keri Smith

Written to help cultivate creativity in people of all ages. No pretenses and a low barrier to entry.

How to Be an Explorer of the World Keri Smith book cover
Image of David Raney's "You are now less dumb" book cover.

You Are Not So Smart -and- You Are Now Less Dumb

by David McRaney

David McRaney’s books on self-delusion called “You Are Not So Smart” and “You Are Now Less Dumb” both offer a very accessible introduction to “discover the wonderful ways you delude yourself every day and enjoy a healthy dose of humility.”


Thinking Fast and Slow

by Daniel Kahneman

An international best seller and winner of several awards, this book helps get clarity on how humans think, make decisions, and evaluate change. Kahneman is the scientist behind the research, and does a great job at explaining the concepts and staying engaging.


Thinking fast and slow book cover
Don’t Think Of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives book cover

Don’t Think Of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives

by George Lakoff

How morals and values guide even our most “rational” political decisions. An accessible introduction to this important field.


The Conservative Psyche: How Ordinary People Come to Embrace Paul Ryan’s Cruelty

by Joshua Holland

A good, quick interview of cognitive theory and its importance in understanding why people hold the political ideas that they do.

free link

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The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science

by Will Storr

Very readable overview on why facts don’t work. Storr covers how “the stories we tell ourselves about the world invisibly shape our beliefs, and how the neurological ‘hero maker’ inside us all can so easily lead to self-deception, toxic partisanship and science denial.”


The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of a Nation

by Drew Westen

A psychologists look into how emotions guide our political beliefs and decisions. Useful in thinking about and directing the affective power of creative activism.


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Pedagogy of the Oppressed 

by Paulo Freire.

A book that changed the game by insisting that educators (and organizers) need to meet people where they are.


The Strategic Questioning Manual 

by Fran Peavey

A great shift in perspective on how we approach audiences, and how we can use respect and questions (instead of providing answers or challenges) to be more effective.

free PDF

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Theatre of the Oppressed

by Augusto Boal.

  Translating Freire’s ideas to theatre, and using performance for social change.


The Moral Equivalent of War

 by William James

Classic essay by the great philosopher and psychologist on how we must understand and respect — and appropriate — the good desires that motivate people to do bad stuff.


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Electoral Guerilla Theatre: Radical Ridicule and Social Movements

by L.M. Bogad

From our own West Coast branch director, an important book on how activists have hijacked the electoral system as a stage to perform their own of politics.


Rules for Radicals

by Saul Alinsky

Almost 50 years old but still the great guide to organizing. And a fun read too.


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Bible cover

“The Gospels” and “Acts,” from the Bible.

You don’t need to be a believer or even approve of religion to appreciate that Jesus was a master creative activist and his apostle Paul was an effective — if opportunistic — organizer. See also Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, et al.


A User’s Guide to (Demanding) the Impossible

by Gavin Grindon and John Jordan

This guide is not a road map or instruction manual. It’s a match struck in the dark, a homemade multi-tool to help you carve out your own path through the ruins of the present, warmed by the stories and strategies of those who took Bertolt Brecht’s words to heart: ‘Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.’

free PDF


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Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution

edited by Andrew Boyd and David Oswald Mitchel

An invaluable collection of examples, theories and case studies for those interested in creative activism.


Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World

by Doyle Canning and Patrick Reinsborough

People like stories. They help us make sense of our world and our place in it. This book shows you how you can use this in your work.


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Making Waves: A Guide to Cultural Strategy

by The Culture Group

A smart and simple guide to using culture as part of an organizing strategy for social change, by some really experienced artistic activists, and friends of Center for Artistic Activism like Favianna Rodriguez,  Gan Golan, Jeff Chang, and others.

Free PDF

Continuum of Impact

by Pam Korza and Barbara Schaffer Bacon

Super useful tool set for thinking through and assessing the impact of your artistic activist projects from the folks at Animating Democracy

Free PDF

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Carol Lloyd book cover

Creating A Life Worth Living

by Carol Lloyd

A practical course in career design for artists, innovators, and others aspiring to a creative life.


Art & Fear

by David Bayles and Ted Orland


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The Art of Protest

by T. V. Reed

Simply the best book on the history of art and activism in the United States.


Making Health Communication Programs Work (The Pink Book)

by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute

Shares a couple decades worth of collected knowledge on running public health related campaigns. A detailed and thorough “guide to communication program planning that includes strategy development, testing concepts and materials, implementing programs, and more.”

Free PDF

Pink Book Making Health Communications Programs Work