Opinion

The Trump Nightmare Is Here

What do we do now as artists, writers, curators, and other members of a community that was so vested in one candidate?

Leone Ermer's "The Nighmare" (2016) (© the artist and used with permission)
Leone Ermer’s “The Nighmare” (2016) (© the artist and used with permission)

It’s a dark day in America. I’m numb. Many of us are right now.

I didn’t think Leone Ermer’s “The Nightmare,” which I posted at the top of yesterday’s live blog, would be so prescient, but, sadly, it is starting to look that way. In the image, the female personification of liberty is exposed, passed out on a mattress while a hate-filled monster sits on her chest. The creature is looking at us, trying to figure out if we will help the green woman or ignore her.

That woman once personified a vision of America, and she died tonight. She represented the idealism of a country that imagined itself as a beacon of hope for all people, but she may have committed suicide; we still don’t know.

We live in a racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, xenophobic, and Islamophobic nation — we already knew that. But we imagined it was always improving, changing its ways, and learning as it went. But America has proven itself uninterested in facts, preferring to be swayed by bravado. This isn’t the first time the United States has showed us its ugly, hateful face; we’ve seen it previously, as recently as the years after 9/11 and many many times before.

During the past election season, we’ve been warned again and again about America’s obsession with a new car smell, and tonight we got a sense of what that means. Sure, the car may be a lemon, but it has the scent nonetheless.

Come January, we will have a Republican House, Senate, and White House, and when that trifecta takes office, they will appoint the vacant seats on the Supreme Court. These will be among the individuals who decide our future.

Buoyed by white nationalists and the alt-right, Trump has snatched the crown he’s always wanted, and we’re left with lots of questions and no answers. He never us gave us any, no clear ones anyway.

We will still create, write, perform, sing, dance, and anything else we can, because that’s what we do. We will react and generate, we will reinvent and challenge, and we will fight, because we can, and not just for ourselves but for others, too.

The art community will have to help by innovating new paths forward, because the old ways don’t work, and they haven’t for a while. Projects like #DecolonizeThisPlace at Artists Space take on a new urgency today, as they will be our greatest hope to forge ahead. Success requires risks. All art is some form of artivism now, as we will all become inadvertent activists, whether we like it or not. This is to survive, grow, and feed ourselves with the financial, social, and intellectual nourishment that we need.

For many different reasons, a great deal of us are scared, and some more than others. We know stop-and-frisk isn’t going away, new restrictions on those from Muslim-majority nations will grow, women’s bodies will continue to be a battleground for health issues, America’s foreign alliances and wars will be in flux, government surveillance may be heightened, and we now have a Vice President who is known to support “gay conversion therapy” for LGBTQ people — and this is just some of it. It’s hard not to feel hopeless, but this too shall pass.

I’ve had a number of friends already ask me how to explain this election to their children, and I haven’t responded. How do you tell kids and young people that you can express blatant bigotry and disrespect towards women, minorities, and immigrants, yet still become President of the United States? Trump will be the most powerful person in the world, but how did we get here? In the coming days, weeks, and months, mostly rich, white, right-wing American men will try to assure us and tell us we have nothing to fear — it will be hard to believe it.

Barbara Kruger's cover, left, and the infamous photograph of President Harry Truman holding up the overeager frontpage.
Barbara Kruger’s cover, left, and the infamous photograph of President Harry Truman holding up the overeager front page

Barbara Kruger’s “Loser” cover for New York magazine will become the “Dewey Defeats Truman” of our age: a sign of hubris by a corporate media that rushed to prove it knew what it was talking about. Freedom of the press will also be under siege during a Trump presidency, as will freedom of expression. In November 1999, at the height of the controversy surrounding the Young British Artists (YBA) Sensation exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, Trump — who remarkably was weighing a possible run for president — waded into the public outcry over Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996) painting and said: “As President, I would ensure that the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) stops funding of this sort. It’s not art. It’s absolutely gross, degenerate stuff. It shouldn’t be funded by government.” It didn’t seem to matter that the exhibition had not received any NEA funding, because he never did his homework — that hasn’t changed.

Earlier this year, he answered the Washington Post‘s candidate survey that included a question about NEA funding. His campaign provided a generic answer about the value of liberal arts education. It also added: “The Congress, as representatives of the people, make the determination as to what the spending priorities ought to be.” That Congress will soon be solidly Republican, a party that has never had a good track record with federal arts funding. The culture wars are back, and Trump just threw kindling onto the flames.

We’ll have to regroup as an arts community, however fractured we may be, because that’s how we can survive and grow. We will build new partnerships and solidarities, challenge old and broken models, and make something better, stronger, and, yes, more diverse.

A vision of one hope-filled America may have died tonight. Fear won, but this isn’t over.

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