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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

curated: “Donald Trump‘s Presidency Was Supposed to Be Great for Art. It Wasn‘t”

I mean, I suffered from this delusion, too. Or maybe it was merely all of us trying to cling to hope in a dark hour that we all knew was only going to get darker. From Judy Berman in Time magazine:

Over the last four years, the arts and entertainment have suffered mightily as Trump held court in the White House. While his policies have made it harder to subsist as a creative professional, his near-monopoly on the public sphere has distracted artists from their work and audiences from their engagement with it.

Put simply: Donald Trump was bad for art.

I personally have found it very difficult to focus on anything creative in the past four years (and it only got worse in 2020). And I wasn’t alone:

It seems obvious that, romantic notions about starving artists aside, fewer jobs and less funding would have an overall negative effect on a society’s creative output. But the emotional tenor of the Trump years hasn’t exactly been a gift to the arts, either. Shortly after the 2016 election, the author Porochista Khakpour told TIME: “For me, in times of emergency, it’s far more important to be an activist than artist.” While allowing that “those things don’t have to be at odds,” she explained that “we’re in an emergency situation right now. The urgency I feel—it’s very intense.” The time for writing and reflection would come later.

Meanwhile, a wildly accelerated news cycle eroded the concentration it takes to make good art. Anxiety and despair surrounding kids in cages or attacks on the Affordable Healthcare Act or escalating international tensions could torpedo the imagination. In early 2017, my Twitter feed filled up with artists of various kinds confessing that the work they’d always done suddenly felt gratuitous, if not impossible. Long before in-person workshops became a casualty of COVID, the informal fiction-writing group I’d started with a few friends became a forum for such handwringing, then tapered off into nothing.

Of course, there has been plenty of great art made in the past four years, and Berman doesn’t ignore it… though she also acknowledges that the roots of much of it predate Trump, again underscoring how he is merely a symptom of much larger, deeply entrenched problems (all manner of bigotries and predatory capitalism, for instance).

And what do we have to look forward to?

We know that periods of social upheaval inform art, but that isn’t the same as nurturing it. The Renaissance was only possible after the Crusades. In Germany, the radical art of the Weimar Republic followed the devastation of World War I—and then disappeared, or worse, with the rise of Hitler. In the Global South, it was the end of colonial regimes that created space for master filmmakers like India’s Satyajit Ray and Senegal’s Ousmane Sembène. When the cultural sphere expands, when human beings have the mental and emotional energy to exercise their imaginations, when speech is free but not weaponized in the service of hate, when the range of perspectives that can be expressed in relative safety broadens—that is when art flourishes.

The transition will be neither instantaneous nor easy; as of November, 74 million American voters still supported Trump. COVID has already ensured that the early Biden years will be some of the toughest in our history, just as the Obama years were for many and every year is for some. No one’s granting left-leaning artists leave to go back to brunch, metaphorically speaking, if that’s where they ever were. It will take some time to shake the half-conscious psychological tics of making art in the age of Trump—to stop framing every work as a response to the President’s policies and stop projecting his personality on every fictional villain. But eventually, the Cheeto dust will dissipate and the view will start to clear.

The 2020s are going to be… interesting.

Read the whole fascinating essay at Time magazine.


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