From Flickr user Ian Brown. "The Twitter logo mod is from graffiti seen on a wall during recent protests in Turkey."

From Flickr user Ian Brown: “The Twitter logo mod is from graffiti seen on a wall during [the 2013 Gezi Park] protests in Turkey.”

Earlier this month, the cast of Broadway’s most popular show made a political statement from the stage…and the President-elect of the United States of America demanded, via tweet, that they apologize for it.

Let’s take a minute to stew on that. Commanders-in-chief of the United States have gotten involved in the arts before, but mostly to resolve disputes, not create them; to celebrate artists, not berate them. Moreover, unlike most of the controversies from the late 1980s and early 1990s at the height of the so-called culture wars, the contested speech did not involve desecration of treasured religious symbols or explicit sexual content. Only a statement of less than complete fealty to the administration-in-waiting.

It’s reasonable to wonder what the election of Donald Trump means for the arts. Trump’s was actually the only campaign during the primary season to answer Alyssa Rosenberg’s questionnaire about arts policy priorities back in March. His responses mostly articulate a free-market, libertarian-ish approach to arts policy and a willingness to delegate most of the decision-making to Congress, though he does state his opposition to net neutrality. (Oddly, he also makes a point to say that there is “no Constitutional obligation” for the president to host artists at the White House.) The day after the election, Americans for the Arts was out with a statement that emphasized bread and butter issues for the organization, including support for the National Endowment for the Arts and arts education. A few publications and organizations have attempted to grapple with the reality of Trump as president both before and after the election, trying to read tea leaves from random clues like the fact that he once trademarked the name Trump Art Collection but has yet to use it, or that Mike Pence’s wife is a painter.

But zeroing in on arts-specific policy is usually the wrong way to understand the most important issues in the arts, as my colleague Lauren Ruffin deftly pointed out in a recent post on the Fractured Atlas blog. Even for those who were predicting (or rooting for) a Trump win, the news of his accession to the Oval Office is a shock to the status quo of governance style and priorities for the Earth’s richest and most powerful nation. Trump potentially represents such a tectonic shift that events that would once have been considered drastic, like having the NEA disappear completely, could end up being small potatoes in the face of what’s to come.

At present, no one really knows what to expect from the Trump administration. Predictions are flying fast and furious, and run the gamut from our core institutions and policies will remain intact to Trump won’t even get through his first full term to Trump will usher in a new era of authoritarian dystopia from which we may never recover. Though wildly disparate, I would argue that these three basic paradigms – the aspirational statesman, the incompetent nepotist, and the dictator-in-chief – in combination form a good model of what to expect, as I think we have seen all of them in Trump and his team throughout the campaign and now during the transition period.

While the paradigms are not mutually exclusive, it matters a lot for our collective wellbeing which of them ends up becoming dominant, and which of them are reinforced by the rest of our governing infrastructure and society. This is true not only for the United States but the rest of the world as well. Arguably never before in human history has so much power been placed in the hands of someone with so little respect for convention and so unbeholden to anyone other than himself. President Trump is about to have at his disposal the world’s largest military and nuclear arsenal, the vast spying powers of the NSA, and a massive regulatory and law enforcement apparatus. In peacetime, the nation’s system of checks and balances — Congressional oversight committees, whistleblower protections, etc. — may be robust enough to prevent significant abuses of that power. The truly telling moments are likely to be those that take place just after a major terrorist attack on American soil, or after a naked provocation by the likes of North Korea, when US citizens will be under tremendous pressure to close ranks and show loyalty to the commander-in-chief. How we respond to moves on the administration’s part to consolidate power will be hugely consequential for the future of our democracy.

And that’s where the arts come in. If Donald Trump wants a playbook for bending the democratic institutions of the United States to his will, he unfortunately has plenty of recent examples from which to draw:

We see in each of these examples how the arts, artists, and media are often among the first to be singled out when an authoritarian government seeks to impose itself on the people. Indeed, when considering issues in the arts globally, freedom of expression is arguably at or near the top of the list, given that well over a billion people live under a regime in China that actively seeks to control its citizens’ access to information and ideas. With a Trump presidency on its way, that issue looms with new urgency over the United States as well. In the coming months, Createquity will be watching the administration and Congressional leadership closely for any attempts to consolidate power or exert control over the media, as these issues are now intricately connected with the health of the arts ecosystem in America.

Other arts issues and research questions that have arguably become more urgent, present, or resonant with this election outcome include:

  • Under what conditions are arts for social change efforts and arts-based anti-oppression strategies effective at shifting societal attitudes towards greater tolerance and empathy for others?
  • What are the ingredients of successful social movements, and do the arts have a role to play?
  • Are there disparities in access to the arts and opportunities to make a living as an artist by geography, particularly in rural areas, and does this have an effect on political discourse?

If we are looking for ways the arts and artists can play a productive role in the healing of our nation, the above questions are most likely to get us there. The 2016 election laid bare not only a seething undercurrent of bigotry and xenophobia in our midst, but also just how politically and culturally segregated America has become. Are the arts part of the solution? Have they been part of the problem? We ought to find out.

Twisting a vibrant democracy such as the United States toward authoritarianism is hard work, and it’s not clear yet whether Trump will be up to the challenge. But make no mistake: we are in a vulnerable position. Support the media sources you trust, by subscribing or donating, as they will need your help more than ever. Support organizations such as the ACLU that will be looking to contain abuses through the judiciary system. Talk frequently to the Trump supporters who may be in your life and seek to understand them so they may be more inclined to understand you. Lobby your elected officials and start organizing now to prevent an expansion of the administration’s reach in Congress in 2018 and beyond, which also means getting involved at the state and local level (state legislatures will be redistricting Congressional districts for the next decade in the next two years). Watch out for any move on the part of the Senate to eliminate the filibuster – if that happens, it is a bad sign.

And finally, don’t forget to support artists. If we don’t, who will?

  • ellen chenoweth

    Ian, thanks for this really cogent summary of the moment we’re in. I would only add that in addition to talking to the Trump supporters in our lives, we need to talk to other people who are against Trump but may need encouragement or support to be active in opposition. Vocal, visible, imaginative, inclusive opposition.

  • I’m executive director of a nonprofit that presents jazz and I hope many musicians and songwriters step up to respond to this turn of events. At a recent concert, jazz violinist Diane Monroe played a composition she wrote right after the election. She called it “Roost” (as in the chickens are coming home to roost) and it had a powerful effect on the audience.

  • Gibarian

    Working for LGBT-affiliated arts organizations in San Francisco, I came across 1980’s-era rejection letters from the NEA stating the work was obscene. That said, I find the arts community knee-jerk opposition to Trump distasteful an alienating to the half of the country that supported him, and in terms of minority arts, if anything, we should be grateful when Trump supporters engage with this material. As a gay man (and here Trump has been explicit about inclusion), I have genuine concern about demographic shift’s long term impact on my civil rights, and the exit polls of Proposition 8 and the various social laws of South America support my claim. After all, Trump’s immigration policy is nearly identical to Cesar Chavez’s (he was a labor leader who sought to reduce competition from immigrants), and when cultural equity advocates effectively profile arts and arts consumers by race, they are part of the problem of stifling political correctness and toxic nonjudgmentalism. As for abolishing the NEA, fine. I worked hard for years and never got a grant from them, and the miniscule and insignificant funding it provides becomes a cudgel against the arts communities. This is a state issue anyway, and we should have tolerance for regional variation of priorities, and I completely understand objections to cultural expression you don’t agree with, given the number of self-anointed LGBT activists who claim to speak for me and will cast me out if I don’t kowtow some party line. If you really want to do public arts funding right, use the lottery and hotel taxes. Same with stadiums.