I make art. While I was in college at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts — in the Experimental Theater Wing, no less — an acting teacher asked us to make a list of 10 reasons why Art was essential in the 21st century. Among the reasons I wrote down, many of which have since become less relevant to my professional life in theatre, there was one that has stayed accurate. “Art is the only language left that we can all understand.”
Trump’s win affected everyone here in New York, but it seemed to have an especially curious effect on New York’s artist community. The night of the election, I watched as my artist-heavy news feed grew increasingly grim while the votes were counted. It was probably the internet equivalent of watching Hillary supporters’ faces at the Javits Center.
Eventually, there was mostly silence on my feed. People turned off their phones. People went to bed. People announced they’d be taking a break from the internet for a while. And on Wednesday, statuses were bleak, rambling and hopeless. But by Thursday, there was a shift in the collective voice. By and large, the resounding sentiment of artists has become: Well fuck, okay. Let’s make shit.
Brooklyn-based director Max Reuben, 29, posted an update to his Facebook on Wednesday. “Tonight, we had a dress rehearsal for the play I’ve been directing for the past couple months. A play that is suddenly a completely different play than it was just 24 hours ago. It felt like a political act – deciding to allow ourselves to be the vessel for people to feel whatever they’re feeling in a safe and constructive way.”
Artists of every kind — musicians, painters, writers, dancers, actors and beyond — fall into a singular professional category you might call the public sector. Our work, wide as its scope may be, has a proven benefit in crisis relief and response. Look only to Ai Weiwei’s work in China; Alfredo Jaar’s work on the Mexican border and in Finland; Pussy Riot’s influence on Russia (and then around the world).
It’s no surprise that the plight of the artist is largely overlooked on a federal level (when in recent history have you heard a presidential candidate campaign on a platform that includes “the need for more art?”). Political art is reactionary, revolutionary and dangerous in a way entirely unrelated to physical safety. As writer and art philosopher Jeanette Winterson writes in her book Art Objects, “The riskiness of Art, the reason why it affects us, is not the riskiness of its subject matter, it is the risk of creating a new way of seeing, a new way of thinking.”
Art threatens political power because it upends our blind submission and wakes us up to other ways of seeing, or reveals space for thinking where there didn’t seem to be any before. It is outside authority. And it is antithetical to everything that Donald Trump stands for.
Like many artists in New York, I spent most of Wednesday feeling dead inside. I am an artist; I perform, act and write; once a month, I pun for claps; and yet this week I found myself wondering what the point of making anything was. I felt as though the entire art world had somehow been annexed from the country in one fell vote count.
But artists — and this is the one and only time I’ll invoke a Trump cultural reference — we are so far from “fired.” In fact, I’d go so far as to say we’ve been promoted: our job has suddenly become essential. Art-making is now secondary sector — think usable goods, think heavy industry (minus the environmental damage). It may seem like I’m speaking in constellations, but I assure you I mean this as close to literally as the limits of tangible proof permit. Our work cannot afford to be gentle or “process-oriented” right now. Our work must be the guillotine.
I repeat, artists’ capacity to respond to the internationally-felt tragedy of Trump’s election isn’t an abstract idea. In the viral, hashtag-heavy world of social media, where a wayward Tweet can ruin your career and “influencer” is a real job, the fact that we speak a language that everyone can understand makes us an incredibly bankable asset in Trump’s America.
So, what’s our objective here? Is it to console fellow liberals in our community? Is it to educate Trump supporters in Ohio? Is it to get Donald Trump impeached?
In the same way that art upends power structures by offering alternative ways of seeing, I believe that the best art behaves like a Diane Arbus photograph — able to be read many ways and created with the intention of raising questions, not providing answers. Art’s objective is to encourage us “to live in a state of constant questioning,” as per playwright Stephen Wangh, so that we never end up with another election 2016 again, where polarized politics and deep-seated prejudices held us in blind contempt of one another because we each thought we had all the answers.
And I’m aware that the plight of artists may not seem as despondent as the minorities who are fearing quite literally for their lives right now. But that’s why I’m writing this. In the wake of an election that has left the nation’s artists confused, depressed and uninspired to make new things, I want to remind all us right-brained leftists why the fuck we do what we do. This is what we’ve been training our entire lives for. This is our fight.
“Today we are not happy,” New York-based playwright Matt Minnicino posted to his Facebook on Wednesday. “Fine. Let us start being everything else. Let us feel more be braver go further cry harder laugh louder stand taller paint with more colors sing with more notes…. write ‘til our hands go numb then ‘til our hands fall off them write with our toes and when they fall off write with our lips and tongues and eyes and guts… know the stakes and not forsake a single soul and let us let us let us MAKE for fuck’s sake MAKE ART.”
Sam is a writer and performer based in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter: @ahoysamantha