House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.), said in a televised town hall meeting on December 5 that she thinks the “arts” will help heal an America profoundly fractured by the divisive political and cultural realities of life in the Trump era. When asked how the Speaker planned on “unifying the country” during impeachment, Pelosi answered, “I myself think that one of the ways that America will heal is through the arts. I truly believe that’s something where we find our common ground. You enjoy music together, you see a play or movie, you laugh, you cry, you’re inspired, you laugh, you cry …”
But the “arts” are more divided than ever. Schismatic tribal “factions” generate and consume art and media that’s increasingly characterized by blatant political partisanship, and overt contempt for ideological dissidents.
Two paintings of presidents completed in 2018 perfectly exemplify the opposing camps. The first, a portrait of Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley, was widely celebrated as a presidential portrait for progressives who, until that point, mostly rejected presidential portraiture as corny establishmentarianism. Its unveiling at the National Portrait Gallery became an artistic gathering as much as a political event, which the “right” interpreted as a clear declaration of the art world’s majority support for Obama. The painting drew near-unanimous disdain in conservative media which referenced Wiley’s earlier work: “Judith and Holofernes” — in which a black woman beheads a white woman — as a way to condemn Obama’s portrait as radically progressive and maybe even racist. For Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign, his action committee appropriated the image for satirical merchandise.
The other work by outsider artist Jon McNaughton is a camo-hued campy adaption of George Bingham’s painting of Washington crossing the Delaware, replaced with Trump and his cabinet entitled “Crossing the Swamp.” The painting received over 20,000 likes on Twitter and was featured on Fox News, ABC News, and USA Today as an example of trending contemporary conservative art. (I reached out to McNaughton, and his assistant declined to provide an image or more information about the work. She stated the artist “didn’t want the painting to be used for political purposes.” Which is supremely ironic considering the subject matter.)
Old debates about the role of government in the arts are re-emerging, and once more a presidential administration is looking to put politics upstream of culture. Republican officials have been threatening to cut funding for the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) for decades — in part as a way to censor work the NEA funds, like the famously graphic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” The Trump presidency has perpetuated this legacy by threatening to cut $126 million of NEA funding three years in a row.
This socio-political factionalism isn’t exclusive to Washington partisan posturing though. The art world is itself experiencing divisive convulsions between conservative institutional policymakers and their progressive workers. Last year the Marciano Brothers promptly shuttered the Marciano Art Foundation in Los Angeles and fired all of its staff after workers tried to unionize. Similarly, in the events leading up to the resignation of Warren Kanders from the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the power players at the institution seemed at ideological odds with staff that produce some of the most progressive exhibitions in the world.
The so-called “right” has been eagerly constructing a conservative popular culture that counterbalances an arts establishment it sees as dominated by “leftists” and progressive values (despite evidence to the contrary mentioned above). But the “left” is also suspicious of the overbearing influence of conservatism in the arts. This impasse of perceptions precludes the possibility of Pelosi’s prognostication ever coming true.
If you do a quick Google search for articles related to “conservative art” you get things like “The Rise of Conservative Art and Poetry” on theepochtimes.com, or “Conservatives Need to Start Taking Art Seriously” on quillete.com, the first paragraph of which reads:
Conservatives, crack open some champagne and celebrate. A remarkable renewal of traditional painting and sculpture has taken place in the American art scene over the past 10 years. At last, a cultural movement has emerged that builds upon time-honored practices instead of deconstructing them.
Both authors identify an urgent need for conservatives to create an alternative to progressive culture with their own celebrities, writers, and artists, but also to define spaces where the “right” can share art.
This isn’t the first time Americans have gone through “culture wars,” and perhaps today’s iteration is just a continuation of the tumult experienced in the ’60s and ’80s. There’s always been a traditional ideological rift between urban progressives and rural conservatives in this country, but unlike past struggles, social media and search engine algorithms have intensified insular bubbles and soothing “echo chambers.”
Increasingly, people from both sides only see content with appealing values that are reflexively organized by convenient left and right-wing polarities. If you couple this with “block, ban, unfriend” culture, the effect is people are finding fewer opportunities to find common ground through art. As long as the “arts” continue this trend of inspiring parallel but opposite cultures, art will exacerbate our divisions, not heal them.
President Trump’s recent tweet threatening strikes on Iranian cultural sites is a scarily literal expansion of the “culture wars.” Although Trump walked his statement back in a later press conference — saying he would respect international law — it seems that’s the only thing stopping him. His tweet set an unretractable presidential precedent that arts institutions across the country unanimously condemn. We must, of course, unequivocally oppose virulent partisans from either faction weaponizing art for short-term political advantage, especially in exchange for the destruction of cultural heritage sites millenia old.
As this sort of discordant rhetoric intensifies, we must do more than just find commonality through shared culture, as Speaker Pelosi suggests. We must also recognize and resist self-serving politicians who use art to divide us.