Here we are. Inauguration Day for Donald Trump. We are through the dystopian looking glass. And now “resistance” isn’t just something that would be nice if it happened. It is a necessity. From working people, from students, from community members, and yes, from artists. By any means necessary.
Trump took the White House for two reasons. 1) The failure of the Democratic Party. And 2) The mobilization of bigotry. America’s “political center,” in the form of the Democratic Party, was unable and unwilling to explain the crises of neoliberal austerity, to mobilize people on the basis of social class and solidarity. This political failure is also a cultural one – of avant-garde and popular culture alike. This conceded the space for the political and cultural victory of Trump and the far right.
Donald Trump’s cabinet picks telegraph a bleak future. A billionaire oil tycoon for Secretary of State, an enemy of voting and civil rights for Attorney General, a former Goldman Sachs executive (again) for Secretary of the Treasury. The Department of Education will be headed by someone who wants to abolish it and privatize schools. The Labor Department will be headed by the CEO of the Hardees fast food chain. The Departments of Defense and Homeland Security owned by hawkish high school football coaches in generals’ uniforms. The new EPA chief is a climate change denier.
Not to mention white nationalist “Senior Counselor Steve Bannon.”
This is a revanchist Trump administration, bitter and openly hostile toward any movement for social justice. The political center has proven that it cannot save us – not union leaders who will “work with” Trump, not “moderate Republicans” or the floundering Democratic Party.
In the midst of looming sorrows does it matter what artists, musicians, writers, performers and culture workers do? Art cannot stand in for real struggle – or urgent independent political action. We resist, in any way we can, but words and pictures cannot substitute for concrete activism.
But we need artists and “creatives,” because, more than ever, we must be able to imagine a different world. We need to connect the points between this world and our own present despair. If Trump represents a future of irradiated squalor and deprivation adrift in a rising ocean, the need to imagine alternatives is greater.
We desperately need a revolutionary imagination. We must also come to grips with the fact that, in the immediate future, this imagination will develop under siege.
Several days ago Red Wedge proudly added our name to the growing list of individuals and groups calling for an “art strike” on January 20th. The statement’s authors captured our challenges writing: “It is an invitation to motivate these activities anew, to reimagine these spaces as places where resistant forms of thinking, seeing, feeling, and acting can be produced.”
Trump’s cultural logic
Trump did not come out of nowhere. Most of us felt shell-shocked the day after the election, mostly because so many of us had convinced ourselves that there was no way a blustering bigoted buffoon like Trump could ever become president. For months, liberals and Leftists alike comforted themselves with the belief that Trump’s unapologetic chauvinism was just a sideshow act on the way to Hillary Clinton becoming president.
In a way, we were only half-wrong. Trump was, and is, a sideshow. But American democracy rewards sideshows. How can it not? It runs on denying votes to people of color, immigrants and the incarcerated. It still relies on anachronistic undemocratic institutions like the Electoral College. The winner of the popular vote “loses” the election. The frontier of U.S. democracy is bound by two corporate parties that have more in common than they do in opposition. Substance becomes a sick joke and sick jokes become substance.
Trump knew very well how to play on this. Even before his years on The Apprentice, he had a savviness for garish showmanship. And he played it to a very effective degree. During the campaign, he and his team deliberately employed hyper-nationalistic imagery. He sometimes turned it into a song. He made human suffering and violence seem dynamic and attractive.
Those who enthusiastically voted for him had been given a sense of power that was false through-and-through – because in actuality Trump maintains power. People’s minds were mobilized in such a way to keep the structure intact. It was a textbook example of what the communist cultural theorist Walter Benjamin referred to as “the aestheticization of politics.”
Of course Trump did not come into office simply because he put on a good show and knew how to distract the masses with shiny objects. The anxieties of an uncertain American future are real, the result of a decades-long decline in living standards for the vast majority of people. Trump exploited fears among a certain segments of the population; directing them against Muslims, Blacks, Mexicans, women, queer folk, the disabled and others.
But how he did this, the peddling of populist myths that championed “the little guy” against an entrenched “establishment,” are important. They tell us something about the cultural logic employed by an emboldened right-wing, and how that logic can be transmitted effectively through the likes of graphics, music, words and media.
Trump may not be a fascist – but he represents something not dissimilar, albeit on weaker ideological ground. (As Enzo Traverso argues: “‘Trump is as much a fascist as Occupy Wall Street or Nuit Debout are communist!’ There is no possible genealogy between these movements.”)
But like the false socialism of the last century’s fascists, Trump’s crude reality-television spectacle represented a faux “aesthetic leveling,” a figurative raising up of masses of people alongside those who, in their minds, have bilked them. A (virgin) Molotov cocktail tossed in the smug faces of the political center. In the end, the only people it has actually raised up is Trump and those who will benefit from his rule... But mostly Trump.
Nothing seems to reflect this better than the creepy poem composed by Joseph Charles McKenzie for Inauguration Day. Significantly, it pointedly eschews modernist experimentation, written in a classical, “A-A-B-B” rhyme scheme. It speaks of “tyranny,” “slavery” and “corruption” in ways that are quite obviously directed against Barack Obama and Washington liberalism.
It strikes an anti-intellectual pose, celebrating the “death” of academia. It speaks of “the poor man, the sick man, the young children crying,” of soldiers abroad, even of Black poverty. The blame is then pointedly cast at immigrant hordes and those who “Teach women to look and behave like us chaps.” In the end, all of these figures are inert, waiting to be saved by Trump himself, “the best of MacLeod.”
Donald Trump’s campaign was, much like this poem, recited to a predictable drumbeat promising security and strength. Those swayed by it could hear their own lives fitting neatly between the beats and enduring ad infinitum.
Many of these same people will soon enough find such rhythms pounding them into the ground.
Good frames won’t save bad paintings
The failure of the political center in keeping Trump at bay is also the failure of “cultural activism.” “[E]verything about the dynamic of this election should raise some critical questions about the limits of cultural activism,” Ben Davis writes, “The entire cultural establishment… threw its weight behind Hillary Clinton” (or at least against Donald Trump) in the final stretch of this campaign.” A great many famous recording artists – from Madonna to Moby to Bono – did the same. In the literary world it was Amy Tan, JK Rowling, Martin Amis. It did not work.
The failure of this weak cultural resistance comes the fact that it has at best tenuous connection with any contemporary social movement, and almost no connection whatsoever with the interests of poor and working class people. What it does have, on the other hand, is intimate and largely uncontested ties to the neoliberal market and liberal ideology (masquerading, on occasion, as “post-modernism” or post-something else). As such the cultural failure of the 2016 election was gestating long before November 8th.
Recently deceased culture critic Mark Fisher illustrates this in his 2013 book Ghosts of My Life:
Despite all its rhetoric of novelty and innovation, neoliberal capitalism has gradually but systematically deprived artists of the resources necessary to produce the new. In the UK, the postwar welfare state and higher education maintenance grants constituted an indirect source of funding for most of the experiments in popular culture between the 1960s and the 80s. The subsequent ideological and practical attack on public services meant that one of the spaces where artists could be sheltered from the pressure to produce something that was immediately successful was severely circumscribed. As public service broadcasting became “marketized”, there was an increased tendency to turn out cultural productions that resembled what was already successful. The result of all of this is that the social time available for withdrawing from work and immersing oneself in cultural production drastically declined.
Fisher’s words are specific to the United Kingdom, but they apply to most industrialized countries. Including the United States. Over here we saw community art centers shut down alongside union halls. Art and music schools became more expensive in the context of rising education costs. Rents and mortgages went up, wages went down. This has been a decades-long process of the political center, overseen by the Conservatives and Blairite Labour in the UK, and by Democrats and Republicans in the US.
“Hell is revealed to have been developing for many years,” Brett Schneider writes, “no fully formed demons are made in a day.”
A master of media manipulation he may be, but make no mistake: Trump is a world-class philistine. He infamously stiffed Andy Warhol for a series of paintings (because the colors “didn’t match”) in the early 1980s. His first media spectacle involved destroying a pair of historic Art Deco reliefs as he made room for Trump Tower. He even echoed the Nazis in describing Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary as “gross” and “degenerate” during the 1999 controversy at the Brooklyn Museum. It all fits rather nicely with his overall approach to any artist, actor or musician who criticizes him in public, which is to declare them “overrated” or “third rate,” tying their artistic merit to unwavering support for the Donald.
If the reports are true, then this level of crude cultural idiocy is about to make its way into official policy. Hyperallergic and others are reporting that the first glimpses of Trump’s “brutal” proposed federal budget are calls “for the complete elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).” Compared to other industrialized nations’ public arts funding, the NEA and NEH have always been somewhat anemic. Nonetheless, their elimination will be devastating for countless artists and cultural workers. Institutions will be forced to cut staff or shutter entirely. Independent creatives will have less time to hone their craft. The disappearance of cultural space described by Mark Fisher above will cross a significant threshold. It is worth remembering that the last time the NEA had been under this level of threat, Ronald Reagan was gunning for it in the wake of controversies surrounding exhibitions he too described as immoral and degenerate.
This attack is not simply due to Trump’s attitudes. They are part and parcel of an overall assault on social spending and what remains of the North American commons. As with other areas of policy, Trump is partly an acceleration of what neoliberalism already set in motion.
This shrinkage of independent cultural space means that Trumpian philistinism has all the more room to grow. With concepts of beauty and aesthetic convention shaped primarily by profit, how could it not?
In a possibly apocryphal story from Art of the Deal Trump recalled how an “artist friend of his” boasted at being able to randomly splash paint on canvas in order to make “twenty-five thousand dollars before lunch.” Whether this story is true or not, or as Davis writes, “a composite of different myths,” it illustrates the affinity between a financialized culture and Trump’s rebranding empire.
The two most dominant trends in contemporary avant-garde culture, at least in the U.S., are a sort of material or conceptual abstraction – a zombie formalism – and a weak political art – art that plays with signs of oppression but eschews the idea of overcoming them. Much avant-garde culture settles for negotiating identity with the (unseen and largely undiscussed) bourgeois oversoul. This is how, as Brett Schneider writes, contemporary art has “revealed itself as an organ of the Democratic Party.”
The result is an avant-garde art practice that is afraid of actual power even as it relies on its patronage. It plays with images in a detached “discursive” manner that reproduces the dominant ideas in society. We saw this play out in 2015 with the Kenneth Goldsmith poetry disaster (in which the conceptual poet read a remixed Mike Brown’s autopsy report). More recently, we saw it in the Kelley Walker debacle at the St. Louis Contemporary Art Museum. Walker, a white artist, covered images of Black women with whitening toothpaste and concealed iconic civil rights photographs with chocolate.
If the avant-garde was ineffectual much of popular culture was downright counter-productive (notable exceptions aside). As Johnny Coleman writes in LA Weekly:
This year  will be remembered for its toxic fluff. Provocateurs and dime-store Howard Beales such as Seth Meyers, John Oliver, Lena Dunham and Andy Richter have demonstrated zero political efficacy. If anything, we’ll never know how much their smugness ostracized potential allies and inflamed the opposition’s base. No one – even the undereducated and marginalized – enjoys being condescended to. And yet, part of the Democratic strategy was to talk down to the citizens of America or to shame them into not voting for Trump.
The condescension, Coleman notes, is not earned. How were working-class people supposed to respond to Lena Dunham’s letter describing Hillary Clinton as “light itself” or the fictional Leslie Knope’s “open letter” that called Donald Trump “a giant fart monster”?
People are facing $300 a month health insurance premiums, impossible student debt burdens, police murders, decades of war. The liberal cultural elite (which does in fact exist outside the fantasies of Trump supporters) provides little more than snarky jokes about rednecks and fat people. “Follow the beautiful people,” we are told. “They will protect you.”
They fucking won’t.
Art + resistance: what is to be (un)done?
Walls have been erected – politically and ideologically – between many of those who produce culture and those who have the power to change society. We must begin to destroy those walls if we are to resist Trump and the right-wing lurch of official politics. There are those who say that cosmopolitanism has failed, that nasty jingoism now occupying the White House has defeated it. We disagree, but we also believe that the cosmopolitan cannot be defended from the isolation of a gentrified, increasingly white, newly Victorian city center.
We will need a cosmopolitanism from below – a carnivalesque convergence of the oppressed – to challenge Trumpism. We will need a politics of solidarity, militant anti-racism and queerness, to oppose liberalism’s cynical appropriation of identity politics. We will need a genuine aesthetic leveling to oppose the fake aesthetic leveling of Trump and the neo-fascist alt-right.
We will need a popular avant-garde to challenge weak contemporary art and corporate pop culture.
As Cathy Park Hong cited Group Material in a piece for Hyperallergic, this will require a great many artists learning to speak to and put their creativity at the disposal of the masses:
All artists seek an ideal audience. This audience used to be people – flesh and blood individuals. This is finished. Our art is now made for the Castle… the Castle is a general sweeping power we can longer exactly locate… To love the castle is to make oneself in its image. Artists take on the attributes of the Castle. Artist are pawns of a higher rank… bestowed with the illusions of freedom… The Castle weakens when the artist rejects the role of the rook… this requires artist who, not waiting their turn, ignore the laws of the grid and break the rules of the game.
Daring artists, writers, performers and composers must figure out how to climb down from the Castle, exposing their work to the new daylight of working and struggling people. Not so that it will be tamped down or controlled by them, but so that it might flourish, might be exposed to new valences of inspiration, have its meanings transformed, made more urgent.
As acclaimed poet Roger Bonair-Agard argues in a forthcoming piece for Red Wedge:
In a time at which rage is a wholly appropriate response, and at certain times, absolutely constructive even as it destroys, those of us whose experience with making art, is that it does something, must take the responsibility of making art as a more desperately necessary thing; and make that art that keeps us extant in the world... We need your art, your songs, your failed dance vocabularies, your unsuccessful poems, your blurred photographs, your smudged canvasses, all of it. Write so you can gather and cook. Paint so you can plant a garden. Spin records so you can organize a reading circle for teens in your hood. Keep yourself alive and strong, and more than ever in constant communication with your tribe.
With the actions artists and culture workers are taking on January 20th, we see steps in this direction, glimmers of what a renewed cultural resistance might look like. Several institutions and galleries will be closed on the day. The Queens Museum is holding a workshop on making signs, placards and banners. The Whitney in New York City, Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles will all offer free admission on the day of.
These are positive, but they also raise more questions if we turn the mirror back on these institutions. Why aren’t museums and galleries always free? Why aren’t they considered a public right? Will the free admission possibly pull away from street protests that are in need of attendance on the 20th? Was there the potential for more coordination between the institutions and the movements? Shouldn’t there be more sign-making workshops like the one at the Queens Museum? Why are museums not spaces of debate, questions and democratic creation?
It’s these question, urgently posed by Trump’s election, that led Greg Allen to pull his improvisational Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind off its decades-long run in Chicago, with the specific idea to radicalize it for the Trump era.
We don’t need to abandon all our artistic spaces and practices – but they must be radically retooled. The sterile white walls of the art gallery that separate art from its social context must be turned into a theatrical space that thunders condemnation. Our stages must become Brechtian again. Our films can present montages of new revolutions. Our poems moments of realization on the barricades and in the prisons. Our music the rhythms of coming battles. Our stories the contradictions of working-class life.
Trump calls the artistic outsiders “degenerates.” The other side may secretly agree, but thinks the outsiders might be redeemed if only they behaved respectably and made themselves acquiescent to the old dominant order. The art needed in the coming months and years will be that which puts the voices of the rabble first, that doesn’t just inhabit the nasty, gruesome consequences of a Trump presidency. It must give life to the wreckage, teach it to spell, and let it sing in confrontation.
As of now, we are all degenerates.
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