I was hesitant to write this article, as it does not fit with my previously stated intentions for this blog, or my current general desire to stay out of political commentary. It is an involvement that has never benefitted me in the past.
However, I felt at the same time it was nearly impossible not to think about what effect the election of Donald Trump may have on the visual arts. It is Remembrance day, and a mere 3 days after an American election that so clearly seems reactionary and supportive of extremist views. On this day we remember the lives lost fighting, among too many other conflicts, a world war that featured another election of an outsider politician. He too espoused extremist views and offered shortcuts to salvation to a demonized population exhausted from the hard slog of recovery.
As a western Canadian I am removed from the heat of the election, as well as the heat of the contemporary art world. I am not sure you could get a lot more ‘outsider’ than me. However, outsiders do make good observers, so I can speculate generally about how this political development might impact the art coming out of the USA, and maybe the world.
A number of artists have already voiced their shock and dismay over the results of Tuesdays election. Those who support Trump seem few and far between. With this (not undeserved) animosity, I fear that the arts in America may fare poorly under a Trump presidency.
Between Trump’s proclivity for threatening law-suits on detractors, and his supporters’ demonstrated willingness to bare knuckles against critical artists, artists may choose not to tackle ‘sensitive’ topics for both personal and economic safety. Those who do may find it safer to criticize from a geographic remove.
While artists’ efforts to hold up a mirror to society are crucial to keeping the public thinking critically, it can be a dangerous road to follow. Many avant-garde European artists during World War II could attest to their work, critical or not, earning them the label of ‘degenerate’, getting them imprisoned, getting them forbidden from working, and being destroyed by the Nazi government. Even Nazi supporters such as Emile Nolde wound up on the wrong side of the party over his painting style.
This persecution of artists in Europe spawned a massive influx of avant-garde artists and intellectuals to North America, contributing significantly to the flowering of the American visual arts scene and its consequent acknowledgement as the centre of the art world for at least half a century afterward.
With the Americans’ long history of free speech, freedom of assembly and civil rights activism, I doubt that artists would ever be subject to such dramatic persecutions as under Nazism. However, lets not forget McCarthyism. I would not be surprised to hear that under the threat of litigations or harassment some artists might choose to either second guess their creative output or criticize from a distance. Should this be the case, American art may move in a more conservative, traditionalist direction, where the most interesting art is produced outside of its borders.
Should anyone think this be an argument for an expansion of the arts in Canada (as a few artists have voiced intentions of moving to Canada), I am not sure our minuscule Canadian art market could satisfy. Ironically, a return to European destinations such as Germany might be more the order for the avant-garde.
Of course, this is likely worst-case scenario speculation, and perhaps all we will see under Trump’s polarizing influence is a larger divide between the camps of art for art’s sake, and social art reinvigorated by having something to fight against.
What do you think? What influence will Trump’s presidency have over the direction of American art?
Here is one possible scenario from the Washington Post. What is yours?