Is President Donald Trump good for the arts in the United States? That may sound like a trick question given that he’s the first president to try to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, but some observers actually think the answer may be yes.
“Trump seems, perversely, to be stimulating creativity,” notes Alastair Sooke, a journalist for the British Broadcasting Corp. The president gives artists something “to oppose and rail against. Any civilized society must cherish artistic expression — and nowhere more so than in a country that prides itself on being the Land of the Free.”
Indeed, the level of activism against Trump and his administration is higher and more broadly based than against any administration in recent history.
But does that make for good art? New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl once remarked that “most political art is poor art and worse politics. Art is both too sensitive and too ponderous for the necessary roughness and speed of civic conflict.”
I tend to agree and think most overtly political art is tiresome. A good bit of it — left, right, socialist, fascist, whatever — is nothing more than propaganda for or against a cause, lacking the subtlety and room for contemplation that good art provides.
Still, without any statistical measuring I’d guess that painters, musicians, actors and other artists are more involved in activism than any other single group of people. The whole infrastructure of the art world often operates with such a commitment. The Rauschenberg Foundation, for instance (named for the late artist Robert Rauschenberg), gives art-as-activism grants to artists who have “a demonstrated commitment to applying their creative work toward a social or political action.”
Consequently, I often wonder why so many artists seem to be political or social activists given how difficult making such art really is.
Waco community artist Steve Veracruz is co-founder of the Central Texas Artists Collective, an organization here in Waco that is currently planning an exhibit for next fall that will use the arts to examine social attitudes toward mental illness. I asked him if he could explain the connection between art and activism, and he told me it was natural — it’s hardly a choice at all.
“Artists have a different perspective on how they see things,” he said, which in a way makes “them more empathetic on many things going on around them.” Whether they intend it or not, much of their work will naturally reflect how they feel about what they see happening in society.
In general, I think art with a social component works best when it’s subtle and gives the viewer room to draw his or her own conclusions.
Andy Warhol’s silk-screen prints of a prison electric chair have an unavoidable social quality to them, but it doesn’t come at you aggressively. The image is silent and understated; you can almost miss what it is you’re looking at — until you realize it.
Even Norman Rockwell, who seems like the artist most likely to celebrate the status quo, showed Americans prevailing racial injustice in his powerful 1964 painting “The Problem We All Live With.” I can think of several songs by artists ranging from Woody Guthrie to Billy Joel with social messages that work because they come at you more gently than the Texas-based Dixie Chicks once telling an audience they’re ashamed then-President George W. Bush was from Texas, too.
I think that Veracruz is right when he says that thoughtful artists look at the world in a distinctive way and perceive things most people miss. I’m looking forward to his group’s show this fall for what it reveals about our society.