Stop Saying Art Will Flourish under Trump
Art created in opposition may be smart, but we shouldn't see it as a silver lining
Stop it. Just stop it.
The idea that "at least artists will flourish under Trump" is lazy thinkingand ignores history. It's an inaccurate trope. Yes, artists can play a critical role in combating or undermining authoritarian governments. Everyone from blunt political cartoonists to fine artists painting visual riddles can leave a record that not everyone in this moment in history let their thoughts be swayed by nationalist and xenophobic feelings. But none of this means that art somehow becomes better under authoritarians, and it certainly doesn't mean that artists themselves will flourish.
Are we sometimes gifted with an anti-authoritarian artist-celebrity who has escaped from totalitarianism like Ai Weiwei? Yes, and we need creators like him. But how many creative, people do we lose to oppression? We don't have to go too far back in time to look.
Are you familiar with the still lifes of painter Malva Schalek? No? Perhaps it's because this promising painter was killed in Auschwitz in 1944 after refusing to paint the portrait of a collaborationist doctor.
How about the truly innovative text-transparency-paintings of Charlotte Salomon, anticipating the rule-breaking mixed media that is a hallmark of post-modernism? While she produced over 1300 artworks as part of her Life? or Theatre? A Song-Play, including many of them while in an internment camp, I don't think we can say she was "flourishing". Prolific, yes. The question she asked herself and that drove her work was "whether to take her own life or undertake something wildly unusual". Salomon's commitment to her "something unusual" was interrupted when she, 5 months pregnant, was gassed to death in Auschwitz by the Nazis in 1943.
Museums may try their best to remember these women and other artists lost to the Holocaust, but how many lay forgotten?
"Genius"=/= "crazy". Artists do not flourish by being depressed, suicidal, downtrodden, impoverished, marginalized people fighting oppressive systems. A few become great artists despite all of those conditions, and yes that is worthy of specific admiration. But Van Gogh dying without ever having sold a work would have been a goddam tragedy (if it were true), not a precursor condition for historical relevance. What works would Schalek and Salomon have produced if their lives were not lived in fear, but instead lived in hope?
When I began my university degree in the early Nineties, one of the textbooks we were required to use was the gigantic H. W. Janson History of Art, and we had to have the very latest edition. Why? Because all previous editions had left out women artists. Entirely. For the whole of the history of Western fine art. And people of colour were mostly unidentified ancient Egyptians. Was it because only white men were producing what we now call fine art? In many countries over many centuries, the answer is yes: women and people of colour were not allowed to learn or practice art, and if they had, it certainly wasn't remembered by those (same white guys) writing the textbooks. Celebrated Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi was taught to paint by her indulgent middle-class artist father, a rare exception to an unspoken societal rule, and yet her life was not respected any more than other women at the time.
When the Trump presidency is over, we may be left with some historically resonant fine art, some skewering political cartoons, and some powerful new anthems by Green Day and Prophets of Rage. But this is a disruption of people's creative work, not a fate-fuelled "calling". How many important Muslim, LGBTQ2, black, feminist, Jewish, and Mexican-American voices will have been interrupted or silenced over the next 4 years? What art will be left out of the next generation's art history textbooks? What vital works of street art will be produced without us ever knowing the identity of the artists who risked the law while asking people to stay awake?
You don't have to register, insult, threaten, or lock people in a cage to generate conditions for creative expression. The art created in opposition to a Trump administration may be smart, but it isn't a silver lining. Creativity is expressed when people can think beyond themselves. Creativity is a question and a response to empathy.
- What It Means To Be An Artist In The Time Of Trump, by Priscilla Frank and Katherine Brooks, Huffington Post
- How the Art World Can Change for the Better During the Trump Years, by Caroline Woolard, Hyperallergic
- Don't Close the Studio Door, by Glendon Mellow, Symbiartic on Scientific American