What is Our New Reality?
By Sandra Tyler, Editor-in-Chief
This past August, in the Washington Post, Phillip Kennicott posed this question: “What would happen to the arts if this country turned to authoritarian leadership? If fundamental freedoms were challenged, if a strong leader gathered up the full weight of the regulatory state and started using it to systematically punish his enemies and reward his friends, if the country was precipitated into ever more severe constitutional crises, if the only political labels that mattered were whether you were with the Leader or the Resistance — where would the arts stand?”
Kennicott goes on to imagine the ramifications of a “crudely made sculpture” of our new Trump president wiping his butt with the Constitution. Initially President Trump would decree it “disgraceful.” Racist graffiti would defame gallery windows. But the real ramifications would be less immediate than cumulative, rather, a slow constriction of the arts; public-art funding would be more closely scrutinized by Congress. The Smithsonian would be forced to shut down an exhibition of works by a Mexican-American labor activist in the “interest of public safety,” after the defamation of a painting by an Anti-Sanctuary advocate. A sense of apprehension in cultural institutions would spread to corporate philanthropists. The Americans for the Arts Board would become infiltrated with members touting the anti-ethnic and the defunding of Black History Month. And so on and so on, coalescing in a perfect cultural divide between “preservationists” seeking to hold out until the next election, and the new “purists” movement.
Isaac Kaplan cites this same article in his post on artsy.net: “Regardless, if Trump wins the presidency, the fate of arts funding shouldn’t be the first, second, third or twentieth concern. The arts can’t be disentangled from Trump’s general bent towards authoritarianism or his general incompetence.” A truth now enacted by thousands protesting in our streets, Americans already having been made to feel disfranchised, downright ostracized, by a presidential campaign that racism, sexism, and bigotry fueled. Kaplan goes on to point out that the arts “would no doubt fare poorly under his administration, perhaps even to the degree outlined by Kennicott. One interesting twist in his tale is to picture a scenario in which Trump doesn’t defund the National Endowment for the Arts—a dream of conservatives for years—but rather turns it into an organ for funding right-wing art. But some of Kennicott’s suggestions—like that a judge would award a $140-million-dollar judgement for libel against a group satirizing administration officials—strain the imagination.”
But are these suggestions now, such a strain on the imagination? I mean, who would have imagined an election night where so many of our blue states would turn raging red? Really, it strains the imagination to even fathom where we are at this moment, with Trump just a handshake-and-swearing-in away from the helm.
If the election had gone the other way, Kennicott’s, scenario could now perhaps be chalked up to a tour de force. And American values are founded on just that, free expression–hard to imagine it actually coming to that, the authoritarian. But with Trump as our actual president elect, Kennicott’s wild imagination resonates of a stark plausible reality. It seems entirely conceivable that the art world could become infiltrated with purists seeking to weed out truly innovative and expressive art; mistaking gorgeous hibiscus blooms for mere weeds.
Still. As a nation we are being called upon from all directions to come together. To unify, as divided as we clearly are. So if Kennicott’s scenario for the arts is the worst case scenario, what is a better one? That for the next four years, Trump barely casts the arts a sideways glance. Best? He turns us a completely blind eye.