Dallas — I guess I have no choice but to write something about this unpredictable field I live and work in—the arts—as we stand on the edge of a new and scary era, The Trump Era. With so many life-threatening changes on the table, I could say the arts are the least important to worry about except I know that whenever a society’s freedoms are challenged, the arts play a critical role in maintaining them. There’s a reason artists and intellectuals are the first targets on which totalitarians aim their attacks. In a repressive atmosphere, it is always dangerous to have free thinkers roaming around stirring up controversy and so I must take a moment to reflect on what The Trump Presidency and a very conservative Republican Congress may mean to the health of America’s creative community.
One advantage to getting old is you have a perspective on things that is colored by experience not just hearsay. I am an artist who lived through the Culture Wars of the late 1980s and early ’90s and know that we are ripe for a similar episode given the political landscape. It has been reported that Donald Trump is considering defunding the National Endowment for the Arts, and he has surrounded himself with people whose ultra-conservative and repressive views on personal freedoms bodes poorly for creatives. When thinking back on the political landscape of the Reagan and Bush the Elder’s eras, I see many parallels. The emphasis on the white male normative was in full swing as the country swung from the radical ’60s and ’70s and the push for multiculturalism to the conservative ’80s and ’90s and “traditional American Values” (translation: Eurocentrism).
We find ourselves in a similar climate of white supremacy and male domination, with code words for white nationalism being freely tossed around by the Republicans and their followers. The attacks on the individual artist so common during the Culture Wars are poised to happen today, particularly with a POTUS who takes offense at any and everything he deems personally disrespectful. I can just imagine the tweets we’ll see once the art world goes into overdrive to address his repressive initiatives. If the Pence/Hamilton episode is any indication, we have a rough road ahead!
Holly Hughes, one of the infamous NEA Four, stated in a 2004 interview at NYU that we had a “long tradition of censorship in this country” and what she called people's “willful unwillingness to make connections” and the “unwillingness to see [this episode] as anything other than a problem for a number of individual artists.” She went on to say that what happened to her and Karen Finley, Tim Miller and John Fleck was simply a part of a greater attack the Bush government waged on government funding for education, housing, and health care. Does this sound familiar?
One thing I can say is that America never seems to learn the lessons from its history. As the NEA Four urged us in the creative community not to be silent in the face of censorship, many chose not to heed that warning, allowing infringements on this basic freedom of expression and speech, and ultimately the elimination of federal funding for individual artists, and today we have politicians actually calling for a boycott on a theater production.
So what does all this mean for American artists? I suggest those who are not familiar with America’s history of creative censorship get familiar with it! It’s as American as apple pie and we don’t need to go back to the founding years to see it in full swing. The McCarthy Era of the 1940s and ’50s saw many progressive artists being blacklisted and in some cases, their passports taken like in the case of Paul Robeson. My own mentor, Elizabeth Catlett, was exiled to Mexico for her political beliefs and activism. Many of the screenwriters in Hollywood saw their livelihood dry up and theaters were shuttered that dared to stage productions critical of the government. Of course, less than 40 years later we experienced the Culture Wars and now here we are less than 25 years after those wars, witnessing a POTUS trying to silence a group of theater artists exercising their constitutional right of free speech.
Anyone who doesn’t understand that we are at a very dangerous place where social media dictates what’s real and what’s not (much of it being in the “not” category!) and where politicians are poised to wreak havoc on our basic freedoms, then I feel sorry for them. I have never suffered from the fear of speaking my mind so I can’t say that this Trump Era has me scared to resist but I know people who’ve expressed such fear. All I can say is now, more than ever, is the time to not just speak out but to shout out about the injustice, inequality, misogyny, hatemongering and divisiveness being openly touted by Republicans and our new President.
Artists have always been marginalized in America so we have nothing to lose by taking a firm stance against this type of tyranny. I predict that we will not only see repercussions in our Capitol but can expect our states and cities to exhibit similar reactionary acts; so we need to be prepared to battle against the dismantling of American Democracy or we will surely see another return to the days of McCarthy. I recognize that everyone is not comfortable being an activist on the front line. I get that. But if you have any love for creative freedom, you will find a way to fight for it.
2017 promises to be a momentous year for many reasons but not the least of which is it will test our country’s resolve to be a free state and a place where artists can express themselves without fear of reprisals from elected officials and the agencies created to serve their needs. Keep your eyes open and your ears attuned to the language of repression because I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot of it in the next four years! A luta continua…
» Vicki Meek is a former arts manager, a practicing artist and activist splitting her time between Dallas and Costa Rica. ART-iculate explores issues around race, politics and the arts. You can also keep up with Meek's musings in her blog Art & Racenotes.
- Vicki Meek ART-iculates (April 2016)
- On Dallas and Cultural Equity (May 2016)
- Equity vs. Diversity (June 2016)
- An Arts Super PAC? (July 2016)
- Too Big to Fail? (August 2016)
- It Isn't Us Against Them (September 2016)
- Another Missed Opportunity (October 2016)
- Neighborhood Arts Center: Not a New Idea (November 2016)
- Save Our Summer Programs (Decemeber 2016)