Columns, Opinions

Johnson ’19: Art versus the ‘Art of the Deal’

By
Staff Columnist
Tuesday, February 21, 2017

In anticipation of the Oscars this weekend, we can look back at a film and music awards season that was one of the most politicized in recent memory — one that showcased many celebrities using their media platforms to criticize President Trump and his administration. This isn’t just true of the awards circuit itself: As Herald arts and culture critic Daniel Wayland ’18.5 pointed out in his critique about filmmakers’ responses to the Trump presidency (“Trump administration at odds with national film culture,” Feb. 15), both artists’ platforms and creations can be political protests. Art has historically fostered resistance, and in today’s political climate, it can once again spur social change.

As audience members, we can sometimes consume art thoughtlessly for the sake of escapism. This is understandable: In these contentious times, it can be comforting to turn toward art that transcends daily struggles and experiences. Attending the ballet or the symphony just to find refuge from the daily barrage of alarming New York Times updates is justified. But art of all forms has more power than just aesthetic pleasure. Art can be dissonant and provoking. As a form of creative expression that leans toward the new and original, art can be inherently progressive. It can inspire action and thus serve as a political tool. Yet Trump’s policies suggest that his administration will not be friendly to the art world, especially art that is recognizably political.

Trump is so removed from the cultural sphere that he does not have a clear position on the arts and its funding, and there is no question that his plans to improve the country have nothing to do with the arts. Trump wants to cut federal spending, and the National Endowment for the Arts is rumored to be on the list of potential budget cuts. And with all of Trump’s mildly authoritarian tendencies and predilection for manipulating libel laws, Trump poses a concern to those who voice dissent through their art.

Yet artists are already using their platforms to make political statements and dissents. At the Grammy Awards, A Tribe Called Quest’s performance directly addressed Trump and his immigration ban, and at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, a countless number of celebrities denounced the ban, including Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Mahershala Ali and Taraji P. Henson. Likewise, on inauguration day this year, the #J20 Art Strike organized museums and gallery closures, while other museums offered free admission to those who wished to escape from news about the inauguration. This was reminiscent of another protest under similar circumstances, when the art world withheld access and even closed museums for a day in 1969 to protest the Vietnam War. These are promising signs that artists will not take Trump’s posturing lying down, and to be most effective, artists should continue to create political art prolifically. And as consumers of art, we should not shy away from political pieces; we should support artists’ right to criticize the administration through their work and use art to broaden our own perspectives.

We should remember that everyone — not just the artists — plays  a role in consuming and leveraging politicized art. Art and its audience can engage in conversation. Take Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring:” The piece broke convention in itself, but the riot at its premiere in 1913 placed it in the history books. As the public, we need to contextualize art and understand that, by consuming art, we are entering a larger dialogue that has far-reaching implications.

To support artists in this tense climate, we don’t have to look beyond the borders of Rhode Island. Rhode Island is home to several art organizations that reaffirm and uphold diversity and inclusivity. For example, we can embrace organizations such as AS220 and the Rhode Island Writers Colony who are making the arts more accessible. Our state also hosts arts organizations dedicated to preserving cultural tradition, such as the Center for the Arts and Culture of the Americas, Algonquin Indian Arts and Culture Association and Providence Latin American Film Festival. We can read Rhode Island writers of color like Franny Choi and Padma Venkatraman, and we can support art created by Rhode Island refugees.

Now, more than ever, we must think about art’s role in our contemporary political climate. Though Trump’s executive orders and authoritarianism are extremely troubling, his lack of regard for freedom of expression through art is also concerning. Freedom of expression and creativity are essential to expressing resistance to Trump and his harmful policies. It is imperative to create and support art that resists the growing hate within our nation and has the power to unite rather than divide.

Grace Johnson ’19 can be reached at grace_johnson@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.