If necessity is the mother of invention, then anxiety could be the jittery aunt of creation.
The mangled corollary aside, there’s no denying that some of the greatest, baddest, most compelling, and historically meaningful artistic movements have been born in the rubble of social, economic, and global man-made disasters.
Italian neorealist cinema was free to bloom in the post-Mussolini, post-World War II shadows, as directors like Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, and Luchino Visconti aimed hot lights on a nation’s shredded social landscape and deep poverty.
Literary, dramatic, and musical movements of all kinds have been reactions against and reflections of struggle: Beckett and the bleak existentialism of the modernists; W.E.B. Du Bois leading an artistic exodus out of the South and into the Harlem Renaissance; the ferocious, trickle-everywhere hardcore scene of the Reagan era (in case there was any doubt what those DIY bands were up to, one called itself, simply, Reagan Youth); NWA, Public Enemy, Woody Guthrie, Allen Ginsberg, M.I.A., Kendrick Lamar, Bikini Kill. And on and on.
Now, a new struggle is just beginning. Within minutes of the presidential election results gurgling to reality, the calls began to combat tyranny with, among other things, art. To see the early signals that we may be entering a fertile creative patch, search Twitter for the phrase “start a punk band.”
Beyond blasting guitars, what might the incoming administration mean for a greater artistic gestalt? It’s too early to know for sure, but creative people everywhere are beginning to think about this very idea. The day after the election, Sue Kessler, executive director of the acclaimed off-Broadway theater The Bushwick Starr, sent a note to her email list.
“I am reeling today from the election results, as I’m sure many of you are as well,” Kessler began. “It was hard to get up and start the day. It was hard to explain things to my daughter. It was hard, and will continue to be hard, to accept the deep and dangerous defeat that we all just experienced.”
Later in the message, however, Kessler rallied around the notion of bringing new work to a societal knife fight.
“But one thing that hasn’t been hard is sitting down to do my work at the Starr . . . where ideas transcend our walls and go on to mobilize real change. The thin silver lining as I see it is the wake-up call nature of this moment. We can keep doing our work. We can do it better. And we will.”
Kessler is far from alone in this belief. The call to take up pens, paper, amps, and faders could be heard in the late hours of Tuesday night, and will only get louder as time passes and new productions debut.
The politically active, formerly incarcerated feminist punk duo Pussy Riot framed this dynamic well, and did it in fewer than 140 characters.
There’s a reason, after all, people read books in jail. Art is powerful enough to melt the bars, transcend walls. Curious to hear how that might be done in the coming days, weeks, and years, Co.Create asked several creators, across disciplines what kinds of creative visions they could see emerging in what I still find difficult to type: the Trump Era. Here are a few of the replies.
“While I’m still processing the shocking election victory for Donald Trump, I do expect one thing: Our country will create some of its most impassioned protest music in decades. When Ronald Reagan’s conservative administration swept into office in the 1980s, they created a central source of anger and inspiration for America’s nascent punk rock scene. Antiestablishment, alienated, and, at times, nihilistic, many of that decade’s memorable punk anthems were often inspired by Reagan’s (and later Bush’s) reactionary policies. With that in mind, Trump’s ugly brand of right-wing, populist rhetoric should serve as a call to arms to musicians and artists (insurgent or not) to push the envelope, speak the truth, and create the kind of radical art that can really make a difference.”
Nana Mensah: actress, and writer of the forthcoming film Queen of Glory
“I just got an email from other artists looking to start a coalition. A direct quote from the message is that they’re seeking to ‘make art, initiate rallies and literature to fight this new America we will be living in. Time to start doing something! Time to act up and bring us all together for a common cause.’
A few hours ago, a dear friend and popular actress reached out and asked me if I had any short film scripts because she wants to create in order to stave away the sadness and feelings of powerlessness brought on by the election results.
This is all to say that I think it’s already happening. This campaign will be tremendous–to use the president-elect’s preferred adjective–for art, as a large part of the populace feels betrayed by the electoral college’s choice and needs a place to channel that rage.”
“I see this a lot and it kind of drives me crazy–‘at least we’ll get a lot of great music!’ My feeling at the moment is that I’d gladly take four years of terrible, boring art in exchange for not having Trump be the president of the U.S., and in exchange for people not suffering the amount of damage he can do in that time.”
James Leventhal: director of development, San Jose Museum of Art
“One of my favorite books when I was studying art history was Painting in Florence and Siena After the Black Death by Millard Meiss. It is a detailed and fascinating study into the socioeconomics of art production 700 years ago. It has always stood for me figuratively through its title, as a clarion call for how art endures against adversity.
Probably the perfect example is the Dada movement, right now in its 100th anniversary. It was in 2016 that a group of artists first performed at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Europe was in the thick of the war to end all wars. Its economy was in shambles. Immigrants were all over the continent. In fact, two of the three main performers at the historic performance in Switzerland were Jews from Romania. Explosives were everywhere. Shell shock and post-traumatic stress were being coined as terms. The physical impact of the new weaponry was pervasive. Art that has inspired to this day was awakening in this cauldron–so much of foundational modernism came out of that moment.
Greil Marcus writes evocatively about this, following a through line from those artists and styles to the economically challenged and politically charged Paris of the late 1950s and the birth of the Situationist movement. More also the Situationists had a huge influence on the art surrounding punk in racially bifurcated and depressed London of the mid-1970s–the ripped shirts, noise music, and flaneur-informed cosmopolitan malaise.
All of these movements have now made their way into the cannon and are being celebrated by high culture, high commerce, and cultural elites. I came of age in the Reagan Era where the Culture Wars were underway. AIDS was being ignored and government funding for the arts was being reversed. The time screamed out for grassroots engagement–the Guerilla Girls and innumerable AIDS-activist artists and collaboratives. As formative years, I believe they inspired a whole generation of some of my closest friends to become artists and nonprofit leaders.
I am not sure it is good to be too nostalgic though. Great art is pervasive, even if some of it is made in response to adversity. I am very curious to see what will come from the Next Generation, what will come from this soon-to-be Trump era. Will it be political, or apolitical? Technology provides boundless platforms and the world has become so small, precious, and most importantly: fragile.”