In the traumatic weeks since Donald Trump was elected president, a few critics have argued that “post-election pain is good” for art. While some artists have already made compelling work in response to “post-election pain,” this argument, this soon, is cold comfort. Even if it contains elements of truth, it feels a little like trying to console an orphaned child by saying that even though her nice mom and dad were just murdered and replaced with an evil abusive stepfather and a fembot stepmother, at least she’ll probably draw some intense, fucked-up pictures about her trauma. (As long as, you know, her new stepfather doesn’t put her on a watchlist for doing so.)
Romanticizing violence- and oppression-induced pain because it’s “good for art” — especially without first acknowledging how bad it is for human beings — is as tone-deaf and reductive as romanticizing mental illness because of its dubious correlation with creative genius. Even if a Trump administration does, god forbid, prove so horrific that it inspires this generation’s “Guernica,” it looks like it could be bad for art on many other levels: Bad for arts education, bad for public arts funding, bad for freedom of expression, bad for artists who just want to draw Trump with a micropenis without getting punched in the face. Assuming that, despite all this, the pain Trump’s election inspires will ultimately amount to a net positive “for art” seems like a perverse kind of wishful thinking, one that frames victims of racism and misogyny as involuntary martyrs for artistic masterpieces that may or may not emerge.
Remember when former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani was sued for violating the First Amendment more than any other mayor? In his most high-profile attack on free speech, Giuliani wanted to cut all funding for the Brooklyn Museum, and tried to censor its exhibit of Chris Ofili’s elephant dung-embellished portrait of the Virgin Mary — which Trump called “degenerate,” an unfortunately loaded term. Giuliani is now squarely in the running for a cabinet position. Some art world figures already seem to be bowing to fear of censorship: The day after the election, Red Dot Art Fair withdrew its offer to freely show leftist art collective T.Rutt’s anti-Trump artworks.
So, sure, as critics like Jerry Saltz argue, perhaps a Trump administration will encourage artists to turn away from the establishment to go back to living in garrets “on the edge of the village” and making authentic tortured masterpieces instead of sucking up to mainstream power figures — but it might also stifle the expression of dissenting or marginalized voices. We can hope that this won’t be the case, and that artists will feel mobilized instead of paralyzed by the president elect’s bigotry, and that they’ll fight any assaults on their freedoms and find ways to transmute turmoil into great work that benefits their communities, not just the commercial art industrial complex.
Fingers crossed, because, after all, “Vietnam gave us Apocalypse Now,” the “Reagan ‘80s [brought us] the AIDS quilt,” and “antipathy to George W Bush … inspired some of Eminem’s best work,” and if the human race survives long enough, our grandchildren might enjoy watching VR action movies about World War III and looking at quilts inspired by mass deportations. Tortured artists, what are you waiting for? Use your pain! Make a quilt! It’s up to you to be the silver lining in the toxic orange gas cloud looming over our nation. Otherwise, the pain of the next four years might not be worth it for art critics.