The Center for Artistic Activism 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. At the Center for Artistic Activism we’ve examined a wide range of fields so please note: 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.

sister outsider audre lorde book cover

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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

Cultural Resistance Reader

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

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Sataristas

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

free PDF

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Promoting Nutrition and Physical Activity Through Social Marketing

by Rina Alcalay and Robert A. Bell

Dry, but loaded with information.

free pdf

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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.

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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.

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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

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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”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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“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.

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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.

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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

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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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Creating A Life Worth Living

by Carol Lloyd

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

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Art & Fear

by David Bayles and Ted Orland

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