Art and Upheaval

Artists on the World's Frontlines

Foreword by Clarissa Pinkola Estés

CLICK HERE TO ORDER in paperback, hardcover, and e-book (also exam or desk copies for instructors) through our distributor NYU Press.

Citizen artists successfully rebuild the social infrastructure in six communities devastated by war, repression and dislocation.

Author William Cleveland tells remarkable stories from Northern Ireland, Cambodia, South Africa, United States (Watts, Los Angeles), aboriginal Australia, and Serbia, about artists who resolve conflict, heal unspeakable trauma, give voice to the forgotten and disappeared, and restitch the cultural fabric of their communities.

Art can be a powerful agent of personal, institutional and community change. The stories in this book have valuable implications for artists, academics, educators, human service providers, philanthropists, and community leaders throughout the world. The artists documented in the book have generated new technologies for advocacy, organizing, peacemaking, healing trauma and the rebuilding of community. Creativity is our most powerful capacity, and it can mitigate and heal our most destructive tendencies.

William Cleveland is the founder and Director of the Center for the Study of Art and Community.

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés is an American poet, cantadora, psychoanalyst, and post-trauma specialist.


Title Art and Upheaval
Subtitle Artists on the World's Frontlines
Publisher New Village Press
BISAC Subject Heading ART000000 ART
ART027000 ART / Study & Teaching
Audience 01 General / trade
Credit William Cleveland
Title First Published 01 August 2008
Subject Scheme Identifier Code      93 Thema subject category: AB      93 Thema subject category: JNU      93 Thema subject category: GTU
Includes Index; Appendices


Foreword by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, PhD (Author, Women Who Run with the Wolves)

Introduction: "The frontlines are everywhere"

Part 1 The Community Wedding: Northern Ireland
Catholics and Protestants seek reconciliation and understanding through community theater in Northern Ireland's slow-motion civil war

Chapter 1 Early Days
Chapter 2 Devising
Chapter 3 The Wedding

Part 2 Resurrection Dance: Cambodia
Traditional and contemporary artists work to rebuild a decimated cultural and civic infrastructure in the post-Khmer Rouge era. These 3 focus on REYUM, a small Cambodian NGO struggling to revive the 900 year old Khmer visual culture in the aftermath of one of the world's most comprehensive cultural holocausts. REYUM works to retrieve classical painting and sculpture traditions and support artists and designers addressing modern political and social issues.

Chapter 4 Killing a Culture
Chapter 5 Reclaiming History
Chapter 6 Tilling the Fields

Part 3 The Art of Human Rights: South Africa
Artists work to promote justice, democracy and health in pre-and post apartheid South Africa.

Chapter 7 Walter Kefue Chakela
Chapter 8 Artists for Human Rights
Chapter 9 Prayers, Paper, Fire
Chapter 10 Artists for Humanity

Part 4 The Watts Prophets: USA
From the ashes of the Watts riots, three poets pioneer rap and hip-hop and forge new educational opportunities for youth with spoken word, jazz, and improvisation.

Chapter 11 Poets
Chapter 12 Prophets
Chapter 13 Griots

Part 5 Tests of Will and War: Australia
Artists, former soldiers and members of the aborigine community work to heal the social, environmental and health impacts of atom bomb testing conducted at Maralinga (1956-67).

Chapter 14 X-Ray Blindness
Chapter 15 Half-a-Life
Chapter 16 Maralinga
Chapter 17 Ngapartji Ngapartji

Part 6 Dancing in the Dark: Serbia
A theater company fights for truth and justice as Yugoslavia disintegrates under the despotic rule of Slobodan Milosevic.

Chapter 18 Angels in the Square
Chapter 19 Darker Still
Chapter 20 Bombs and Salt



About the Author

Additional Materials

William Cleveland Aloud Interview

Susan Hill, an L.A. artist and social activist since the 1980s, speaks with Bill Cleveland about what inspired his new book and what he sought to achieve writing it.
William Cleveland Aloud Interview


Jul 1, 2008
What are the roles that artists can play in the midst of severe violence? How can artists create meaning and empower communities during conflict and war? What are the motivations that lead individuals and groups to undertake arts-based processes at great personal risk? Why do authoritarian regimes feel threatened by creative acts?

- Craig Zelizer, CommunityArtsNetwork

Resurgence Magazine
Sep 1, 2009
To read these two compelling books back-to-back is to immerse oneself in radically contrasting habitats. Sarah Thornton's book offers an insider's view into the market-driven art world, its institutional hierarchies, privileged elites, and theatrical excitements, while Art and Upheaval plunges us into the world's most dangerous hotspots, where interactive networks of unknown artists toil on the frontlines, responding to scenes of tragedy, targeting distressed communities in real need of help. The settings are as alien from each other as chalk and cheese but, in the curious way that opposites provoke and create a spur for consciousness, they also dovetail, like yin and yang. what they demonstrate is that art today has no stable or knowable centre; it arises in contexts that bear no causal relationship to one another. This becomes a stunning object lesson in how differently artists in the 21st century can perceive their role and purpose.  Like Albert Camus, a writer who worked in the french underground during World War II, William Cleveland's artists have embraced the struggle to construct what Camus once described as "an art of living in times of catastrophe". They seek, with their art, to keep the world from destroying itself "by fighting openly against the death instinct at work in our history". In our own catastrophic times, there is a remarkable dichotomy between artists who believe unfailingly in the autonomy and self-sufficiency of art, and those who maintain that art should have some socially redeeming purpose. A sentence from my own book The Reenchantment of Art could be construed as the thrust of Cleveland's entire narrative: "we need an art that transcends the distanced formality of aesthetics and dares to respond to the cries of the world."  When I was an art student of Robert motherwell's during the 1950s, our class studied a single essay by Ortega y Gasset, 'The Dehumanization of Art', for many weeks. written in 1925, Ortega’s essay launched the emerging mindset of the modern artist as a creator of art that should be divorced from "the world of practical affairs." modern art, Ortega claimed, irreverently "flouts itself".  Not only does it choose to view itself as "a thing of no consequence": it also rejects any concept of the artist as saviour.  Nobody could have foreseen, in this quite deliberate separation of art from life, the rise of a multimillion-dollar industry – that gaudy and totally artificial habitat known as the 'art world’ – which would eventually become home to the kind of art that flouts itself. But that is what happened. Thornton probes brilliantly and deeply into this world, giving us penetrating glimpses without any malice or the remotest taste of iron in her mouth. So what, besides hierarchies of status, reputation and wealth, makes the art world the art world? most notably, it is  the power to define art.  Besides that, the art world is where the professionals hang out. By hanging out, socialising, and interviewing high-profile artists, dealers, curators, critics, collectors and auction- house experts during five years of "participatory" research, Thornton filled forty-seven blue notebooks with exciting artistic 'juju’. Her book explores seven distinct subcultures: an auction sale at Christie’s in manhattan; an art 'crit’ class at CalArts in Los Angeles; the Basel Art fair; the award ceremony for the prestigious Turner Prize in the UK; the editorial offices of Artforum magazine; a studio visit with Japanese Pop artist Takashi murakami; and the Venice Biennale. The final product reads like a fabulously good novel you can’t put down. 

In contrast, the communities of upheaval inhabited by Cleveland’s artists are both spiritually and geographically remote from the glamorous buzz of Thornton’s art world: six embattled communities on five continents – Northern Ireland, Cambodia, South Africa, watts (California), Australia, and the former Yugoslavia – places convulsed by war and racial, religious or political strife, offering excitement of a very different kind. Cleveland’s experiences in these places have led him to a quite divergent picture of art’s potential: as a channel for healing human grief. This work is often dangerous, carried on in the face of "vicious politics". “Imagine knowing”, he writes, “that your art- making could get you killed, but doing it anyway.” Cleveland’s writing about artists in far corners pulling together and creating moral centres for healing and political reconciliation is sometimes ponderous but couldn’t be more relevant now that we have a global leader in Barack Obama who has made community-organising the centrepiece of his presidency. It may be that we have outlived the long period of ethical (and aesthetic) neutrality in our culture, now that politics is finally catching up with art.

Suzi Gablik is an artist, writer and teacher whose books include The Reenchantment of Art and Conversations Before the End of Time. role and purpose. Seven Days in the Art World

- Suzi Gablik, Resurgence Magazine

Barry's Blog (WESTAF)
Jul 10, 2011
We need our creativity to help us build caring, capable, and sustainable communities. Art making too is an intrinsic and pervasive human activity. It is one of the most powerful tools we have for engaging the imagination and strengthening our creative capacities. It is also extremely useful. Art helps us commemorate, celebrate, mediate, communicate, entertain, worship, heal, design, initiate, and learn. Art helps us make sense and meaning in our complex world. We use art to tell our stories, explore the mysteries, and articulate our dreams. . . .

Historically I see art-infused community life, with a lineage that stretches back to prehistory stretching up to just before the industrial revolution. . . . the separation of art making from community life is a very recent phenomenon. But I think we are turning a corner, just in time.

Globally, the re-integration process has been taking place under the radar for the last 40 years. And, ironically, some of the most striking examples of power and vitality of cultural re-integration come from the most damaged and distressing places. The stories in my book, Art and Upheaval, are about artists dealing with the horrors like Milosevic, the Khmer Rouge, nuclear testing and apartheid. For those of us living under what I call the tyranny of comfort I think these stories say something universal about the creative process as a uniquely powerful transformative force both on the world's front lines and in less damaged places. If you scratch the surface of a community in need you will find artists responding, making art.
- Barry, Barry's Blog (WESTAF)

Grantmakers in the Arts Reader: Volume 20, No. 1, Spring 2009
May 1, 2009
Bill Cleveland's career has been focused on the uses of art as a tool for building community and salvaging lives. When I first met him twenty-eight years ago, Cleveland was directing California's newly formed Art-in-Corrections Program. The subsequent three decades of his work and writing have proceeded along a consistent path from this distant root.

His latest book, Art and Upheaval: Artists on the World's Frontlines, documents international artists and projects that Cleveland has encountered firsthand over the past eight years. The breadth and gravity of these encounters is both compelling and sobering:

* Political and social oppression in Cambodia
* Apartheid and AIDS in South Africa
* Sectarian violence in Northern Ireland
* Economic marginalization and racism in Watts
* Ethnic cleansing related to the breakup of Yugoslavia
* Long term effects of British nuclear testing in Australia on soldiers and Aboriginal groups

Cleveland develops each of these situations into a case history chronicling the processes that artists, usually working in groups over extended periods, have used to communicate to a public audience. For each case, the book recounts detailed backgrounds of communities and entire nations in crisis, biographies of the artists, and descriptions of the art works. Many of the cases involve theatrical productions, which are documented through photographs and excerpts from the scripts. In addition to theater, examples of poetry, dance, music, painting, and printmaking are also described.

Although contributed funding is not a featured topic of Art and Upheaval, funders play a part in many, though not all, of the stories Cleveland tells. For instance, in one situation, Cambodia, an American foundation (Rockefeller) plays a significant role, and in several other cases, governmental funding and local trusts are instrumental.

Throughout the book, Cleveland addresses his subject with the voice of a reporter, rarely injecting judgment or descriptions of his personal associations with the artists. In numerous instances, he provides verbatim interview transcripts of conversations with the artists, allowing them to portray their work in their own voices. Despite his scrupulous avoidance of critical judgments and partisanship, however, it is apparent that Bill Cleveland finds moving artistic experiences and genuine heroism in these cases.

For some readers, this book could be used as a how-to manual for organizing a variety of arts projects responding to crisis, but for a much broader audience, Art and Upheaval will serve to validate the importance of artists working outside artistic institutions. In Cleveland's words, these artists "… are doing this to rally or to bring order, to educate and inspire, to entertain, to heal, but most of all, to tell the story—the hidden story, the story denied."

John Kreidler is a volunteer fireman in south Humboldt County. In choosing to be acknowledged this way, he was "reminded of Aeschylus, who wanted his tombstone simply to mention his membership in the Athenian army."
- John Kreidler, Grantmakers in the Arts Reader: Volume 20, No. 1, Spring 2009

Public Art Review
Jun 1, 2009
The world's political hotspots—ripped open by war, riot, dislocation, and poverty—seem unlikely terrain for public art.  Food is what's needed, and medicine, and treaties. The theaters, galleries, and schools have been strafed to rubble.  And yet it's happened: In Art and Upheaval: Artists on the World's Frontlines, William Cleveland (who directs the Center for the Study of Art & Community) documents six art communities that took form out of siege and ashes. A survey that spans from Southeast Asia to Africa, Europe and aboriginal Australia to L.A. Watts, the book serves as a collection of case studies into the hazards and hard-won successes of politically responsive art.

Take for instance the staging of The Wedding Play in Belfast during the Troubles—with a mixed cast of Catholic and Protestant actors performing, for a similarly estranged audience, a script that marries their children while the bombings and fraught negotiations go on. Or the Artist Proof print studio in Johannesburg, with its bold purpose of bringing together black artists and white artists in workshops, exhibitions, and collaborative portfolios even as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was bringing to light (and offering amnesty to the
perpetrators of) the indelible depravities of apartheid rule.

These public-art uprisings have been, without exception, conducted by the most unassuming people—not by their own estimation especially heroic or exceptional, but working artists and organizers who danced, painted, performed, and wrote in the most inhospitable circumstances. In so doing, they exposed themselves and their audiences to real physical harm and, as is the fate of many frontline activists, abiding stigmatization. Cleveland gets down to gritty detail by documenting the censorship, government-sponsored arson, and institutional
apathy that have threatened these outposts, as well as the specific historic moments that sparked them. All told, these are success stories against the odds. Art and Upheaval makes clear that where "monetary compensations, legal wrangling, formal apologies, condolences, and all other cultural frameworks often surrounding disasters and tragedies" stand little chance of repairing the spirit in the wake of killing unrest, public art just might.

JOSIE RAWSON is the author of the poetry collections Quarry
(University of Pittsburgh Press) and Unrest (Graywolf Press).
- Josie Rawson, Public Art Review

Yes! Magazine
Feb 13, 2009
It's 1999, and in Belgrade, bombs are falling. Sirens and explosions—the results of NATO bombers and Serbian antiaircraft—fill the night. But between the bombs, a different story is unfolding. DAH Teatar, a community theater company, is rehearsing a new play.

They had at first searched for a script that would offer meaning and hope. But the play that emerged instead reflected the confusion and uncertainty of wartime. It took the form of a conversation between two old women burdened with the memory of human history. One describes natural beauty, everyday life, and small kindnesses, while the other relates the terrors of wars and tyrants. The endless cycle of despair and hope concludes with what seems to be the only meaning the company could find at the time. "They will not say: 'The times were dark,'" says the voice of hope. Her companion answers, "Rather, 'Why were their poets silent?'"

Like the artists who created it, the play refuses to despair, and transforms horror into an imperative for action. As one company member put it, "It's the most important time to create things when things are being destroyed."

Playwright Arthur Miller, refusing Lyndon Johnson's invitation to the White House during the Vietnam War, famously telegrammed, "When the guns boom, the arts die." But a new book by community arts activist Bill Cleveland argues that in times of violence, upheaval, and cultural dislocation, art is a key tool for confronting darkness and eventually rebuilding communities.

Art and Upheaval: Artists on the World's Frontlines tells the stories of six community arts organizations (including theater and writers’ groups, galleries, and arts co-ops) operating at the crossroads of risk and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, Cambodia, South Africa, the United States, Australia, and Serbia.

- Brooke Jarvis, Yes! Magazine

Yes Magazine
Jun 1, 2009
- Yes Magazine

We Also Suggest

Crossroads Comics #1
Keith Knight, Mat Schwarzman