Our Fear Is Valid, and So Is Our Courage: On Art and Artists in Trump’s USA

A nice photo of me, but look at the writing on the board. These aren’t conversations I ever had in traditional arts education spaces, and I think they’re ones that we need to have.

(originally published at Opine Season)

In my inbox right now, I have invites to four different panel discussions on the role of art and artists in the age of Trump. I’m sure they’re happening all over the country, so I wanted to share a few thoughts.

I’ve written a lot about the relationship between art, artists, and movement-building. It would be inaccurate to say that that conversation is more important now than it was last year, or ten years ago—things were urgent and scary before Trump too—and artists have always been part of social and political movements. But I also want to recognize that for a lot of people in my community, this feels different. Maybe it shouldn’t, and maybe some of us should interrogate that feeling. But, if nothing else, this could be an opportunity to have a deeper, more critical conversation about the role of art and artists in resisting fascism, supporting our communities, and building a movement for justice.

So I’m revisiting some of that earlier work, and trying to work out—for myself, and for anyone who might be interested—what a responsible artistic practice looks like in this particular historical moment. I also want to recognize that art has multiple functions, and that it isn’t productive to attempt to hold everyone to the same standards. So what follows is much less five powerpoint-ready commandments or magic keys and much more just questions that I’m trying to ask myself in 2017 and beyond.

1. How Do We Come to Terms with the Fact that There Is No “Neutral?”

Let’s be clear: the attitude of “I’m just going to do my thing and leave politics to the politicians” is an attitude that supports the status quo. And the status quo is unacceptable. Art impacts people, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Artistic protest matters, and so does the lack of artistic protest. Fascists don’t need us to join them; they just need us to not talk about fascism.

For those of us who already engage with social and political issues (or those of us for whom these issues are inextricably bound to our identities), this is easy; for those of us who do not, sure, it’s more of a challenge. But I’d rather frame that challenge as an opportunity, rather than a burden. As the rest of this list will explore, that opportunity is bigger than just writing “message songs.” We can think more holistically about what “being engaged” means—but we have to be engaged.

News came in this week that Trump might finally be able to achieve something that the GOP has wanted for years—defunding the NEA and other federal support for the arts. It’s important to note that federal funding for the arts is already a beyond-minuscule part of the budget, so these kinds of efforts are much less about saving money and much, much more about making a symbolic statement about dissent.

Conservatives want to shut artists up, because artists present counter-narratives that challenge the status quo. With all of this happening in the background, this means that we need to dissent. We need to keep sharing our stories and counter-narratives, and we need to fiercely challenge the status quo.

2. How Can We Know Our Strengths, While Also Acknowledging Our Weaknesses?

Art is powerful—it moves larger conversations, provides frameworks that can lead to a deeper understanding of the issues, inspires and provides emotional support, educates and challenges, reaches audiences that politicians and activists can’t always reach, and much more.

But art alone won’t defeat fascism. It won’t protect our families and neighbors from ICE, or police violence, or defunded schools, or banks foreclosing on homes, or hate crimes. If we really want to tap into the power of art, I think that we have to be realistic about its limitations too. Now is not the time for disconnected, love-and-light proclamations about how “all we need is more poetry” or whatever.

Because we do need more poetry, but I’m less interested in art as some mystical force for change, and more interested in the power that art can bring to bear when it is organically, intentionally integrated into movements. I believe that progressive change is the result of organized activist movements. So how might we, as artists, break out of our arts community bubbles and engage in meaningful, concrete ways with the activists and organizers doing the everyday work of building these movements? Again, for many artists, this is simply how they already operate. For others, though, it takes some extra intentionality and effort. See next point.

3. In What Ways Can We Think ‘Beyond the Benefit?’ What Do We Have to Offer Beyond Our Art Itself?

Related to the previous two points, I want to link to this piece I wrote last year: “Beyond the Benefit: Ten Ways Artists Can Help Build and Support Movements.” An excerpt:

I believe that as artists, we have more to offer than our art. I’m not asking artists to take leadership roles in social movements they may or may not know much about. I’m also not asking anyone to radically change their style or preferred subject matter, or to be someone that they’re not. I’m just saying that artists occupy strategically useful spaces in our communities, and have access to resources and networks that can really help movements grow. In a perfect world, we’d all get directly involved in activist campaigns, but I know that reality doesn’t always allow that to happen. So I’m trying to think of spaces of synergy. We can cheerlead stuff when it happens. But we can also use our platforms to help make stuff happen.

4. How Might We Take Both Process and Product More Seriously?

Of course, every artist is invested in some measure of “process” (with whom we work, our guiding philosophies, the journey that the art takes on its way to being released, our own personal growth as artists, etc.) and some measure of “product” (a critically-acclaimed album, a viral video, a profitable book, etc.). I hope this isn’t a radical statement, but I’d like to encourage myself (and others, if this applies to you as well), to think more critically about both this year.

Because process matters: being an artist can’t just be about capitalist transactions, and what we do has so much value beyond how many views or likes it gets. Let’s be more intentional about the community we build, the support we offer one another, and our own mental/physical health as we create. Let’s affirm, once and for all, that identity matters, that power and positionality impact our access to resources and audiences, and then act accordingly—opening up new spaces, supporting new distribution models, and engaging in more effective, symbiotic collaborations.

But product also matters, at least if we are invested in creating art that impacts other people. If you’re not, that’s perfectly valid; art can be about the joy that you get from making it, or having fun with your friends; maybe your art and your activism exist independent of each other. But for those of us who do strive to create transformational art, I believe that now is a good time to start taking certain elements of the process more seriously, in order to create a more effective product.

  • Are we throwing that big concert just to say that we threw it, or are we creating a space of intentional growth and transformation, a space where people can connect not just to ideas and emotions, but to organizations and other human beings too? Are we putting in the work to make sure people actually show up?
  • Is our work community-oriented, or does it just *look* community-oriented in a grant application?
  • Is that song or poem that we poured so much of ourselves into done once it’s released, or are we willing to put in the work to ensure that it reaches people? Numbers aren’t everything, but they are something.
  • Who is our audience (target, likely, ideal)? What are we attempting to share with them? How do our own identities impact the kind of message we can/should share with them?
  • In our quest to honor process, are we creating products that, on a basic level, just don’t move people? Where is the balance? How are we– as poets, musicians, visual artists, dancers, and beyond– taking our craft seriously and striving to improve?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but I am trying to keep them in mind.

5. How Do We Survive? How Do We Thrive?

This tweet from Trungles really stuck with me, because it captures so much of what we’re talking about here.

Artists are people. The archetype of the “starving artist” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Both concrete policy and the resulting cultural frameworks about the role of art in society contribute to the mythology of artists as eternal sufferers, who create art not in spite of that suffering, but because of it.

And of course, great art can come from anger, frustration, sadness, and cynicism. But it can also come from joy. It can also come from having the personal security to just sit down and create, without worrying about being able to keep the lights on. It can also come from existing within a community that values the arts, and makes that value concrete by shifting institutional policy to support and develop artists– whether through defending art programs in schools, supporting local artists by paying them what they’re worth, increasing the reach/inclusivity of grant programs, and beyond. As artists, we don’t have to just passively hope that we can benefit from this stuff; we can take a more active role in making it all happen.

Artists are people.

That phrase relates to the previous point, but it also relates to the larger idea here of artists in relationship with movement-building efforts. As Bertold Brecht said, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” We have agency. We are not just witnesses. Our work is not just to document the struggle, but to actively support it– with our art, sure, but with whatever other force we are willing to bring to bear as well.

These are all just preliminary thoughts. This is a process, after all. Feel free to leave a comment below.