The New Functionality of Art Under A Trump Administration


Let’s talk about the function of art in the upcoming Trump administration, why it (still) matters and what it can do.

At the risk of sounding too distant about the very real issues threatening marginalized groups, the only thing that gives me hope today is the prospect of art. Art is how we look at the world. Art is a reflection of how the world looks back at us. After Trump’s horrifying win, lots of people responded to the news that the democrats have lost, that America was divided, that the force of conservative backlash might send us reeling back into the twentieth century, by calling on creators to make great art.

Bad times spawn great art, and as sixty five million Americans would agree, this is a very bad time. But who cares if a Trump administration will lead to the creation of magnificent protest pieces and finely curated art exhibits? What does that matter, long term? Who cares about any of that, when everything seems to be crashing and burning around us?

Our culture has a history of forgiving a lot for great art (see Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, every ‘genius’ male writer who wrote a book about how happy relationships don’t exist so let’s have an affair with some nubile stripling). Why does art upstage ethics so often and so easily? Why does art seem to exist on a plane where ethics are secondary, if not irrelevant, simply because art has the chance of outliving the people who create and consume it? In the age of Trump, do we have the luxury of creating amoral art anymore?

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Art is a tool of expression as much as it can be a tool of oppression. Art has a history of being propaganda. Just because it is art doesn’t mean it’s unimpeachable. So what kind of art are we asking for here?

Art can easily slide into agitprop. Under the Trump regime some forms of art will wither and some will thrive. There’s the intensely human urge to accept the status quo, to bury our heads in the sand in an attempt to find some sort of equilibrium. We’re already seeing it in journalism, which has often been considered the fourth check in our government’s messy system of checks and balances. That’s why the Wall Street Journal is no longer going to be calling Trump’s falsehoods lies. It’s that slippery slope where one feels they must appease the powers that be in order to keep on reporting on the powers that be. It’s the now very fine line between democracy and Trump’s particular brand of fascism. It’s the banality of evil, becoming more commonplace every day.

Let’s make great art. But let’s make great, furious, angry, deeply ethical art. Art is deeply personal. The personal is political. What we write, sing, dance and act about is political. Art doesn’t get the privilege of being unrelated to ethics anymore. There is a clarity now that there hasn’t been in years. The whole world has suddenly been swathed in black and white. Trump is evil, Clinton was good. If this is an oversimplification, it is one most people have chosen to live with. We’re not a monolith. If we all come at this oversimplification with our paintbrushes and our notebooks and our acoustic guitars, what do we individually make of it? What happens next?

Let’s use art to restore order. Much has been made of Trump’s chaos politics, designed to confuse and obfuscate. This video contextualizes these methods and draws a direct parallel between Trump and his international counterparts.

This is not normal. Art is ordinarily a reflection of reality. Now let’s use it as a restoration of reality. Let’s not value the blandness of ‘nice’ over having something to say. Naomi Shulman writes that “nice people made the best Nazis. My mom grew up next to them. They got along, refused to make waves, looked the other way when things got ugly, and focused on happier things than “politics.” They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away.

You know who weren’t nice people? Resisters.”

Demanding niceness above all else is just a way of shutting down opposition. The time for niceness is over. Now it’s time to get angry.

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There’s a really interesting theory by blogger Mary P. Sue that emo music was created by alienated teens as a result of the growing feeling of helplessness under the Bush government. I’ve been thinking about this theory lately and wondering how kids, too young to vote but old enough to see the writing on the wall, are going to feel growing up under Trump. The rage and fear of emo music in the early aughts helped teenagers express their feelings of loss and insignificance, of being toted along for the making of history without having any say in it. Perhaps with Trump elected, music will veer sharply from the EDM dance club jams back to the angst ridden drum propelled tracks of old. Or perhaps it will be something new entirely. Either way, our culture and the way we party is about to change drastically over the next four years.

So what purpose does art serve under a Trump establishment?

Well, we’re united in a way we have rarely been, against a common enemy we never expected to face. Art serves the same purpose it always should, to provide an interpretation of our existence. To give hope. But there is no neutral territory anymore. Nothing is created in a vacuum. For art to provide hope it must first acknowledge why we need it. There is no such as apolitical art. Albert Camus once wrote that “the only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” If you live in America, if you are planning to exist in a Trump presidency, your daily existence is political. Your rage is political.

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History books are being written as you read this. You are not alone in your rage. There is room now specially carved out for political art. Your rage is relevant. Resist the urge to slump into stasis. Make angry, politicized art. This is the war.

Anyone who’s ever studied heat transfer knows that the reason you get cold when you go outside is because your fragile, fallible human body is trying to warm up your surroundings. That’s what art should be now. A process of saying ‘it’s cold out here now’ and doing your best to change the temperature.