What would happen to the arts if this country turned to authoritarian leadership? If fundamental freedoms were challenged, if a strong leader gathered up the full weight of the regulatory state and started using it to systematically punish his enemies and reward his friends, if the country was precipitated into ever more severe constitutional crises, if the only political labels that mattered were whether you were with the Leader or the Resistance — where would the arts stand?
Arts leaders say they are nervous in general about the candidacy of Donald Trump, who has deployed authoritarian language more consistently than any major political figure in memory, but they are not particularly worried about this country’s robust tradition of free expression. Yet they also acknowledge that the arts have changed considerably since the last time the sector was tested by political crisis — the culture war debates of the late 1980s during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidencies. And some of those changes could make the arts a flash point for the larger cultural forces unleashed by Trump’s rhetoric.
Much of the most exciting work in the arts today is by groups that connect creativity to such issues as immigration, homelessness, cultural diversity and other social justice causes, and that could make them a target. The arts have also enjoyed a long detente with political leaders in recent years, but it is a fragile one. The National Endowment for the Arts has seen its budget go up and down over the past eight years, but it hasn’t been formally reauthorized by Congress since 1993. A president who forced that issue could radically restructure the agency.
And then there is the pure unpredictability of Trump, who hasn’t evinced much interest in the arts during this campaign but could easily empower latent but powerful anti-arts energies at every level of American society.
Trump, for example, has expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and it’s easy to imagine him following Putin’s example, by winking at vigilantism and local acts of seemingly random oppression. With violent crowds (from both the left and the right) buffeting the U.S. electoral process, the country may be entering a new era of do-it-yourself cultural policing and censorship.
Using past experience with cultural repression, what Trump has already said, and plausible extrapolations based on the history and political science of authoritarianism, what follows is a sketch of how the arts might accommodate to a new political reality, how they would deal with something that has never happened before and yet has happened all too often.
In New York, a few weeks after the Jan. 20 inauguration, there appeared a crudely made sculpture of the new president sitting on a toilet, using the Constitution as tissue paper. It sat in a gallery in Chelsea, mostly ignored by collectors and critics, but amusing passersby. Months after it had been taken down, the president mentioned it in impromptu remarks to a church group visiting Washington.
“It’s disgraceful,” he said. “And they take your tax dollars to make this filth.” He mocked the artist as lazy and a “loser.”
This was his first substantial comment on the arts. Fact checkers pointed out neither the artist nor the gallery had received public funds, but before the furor died down, someone spray-painted racist graffiti on the window of a gallery across the street. The vandals got the neighborhood right, but the address wrong. This amused many in the art world, but it worried others.
Although the president moved on to other things, his comments encouraged Congress to launch hearings on public funding for the arts. This happened faster than the in-house congressional liaisons at the Smithsonian Institution and the National Gallery of Art had expected, and for the first time anyone could remember, it looked as if Congress might cut or eliminate support to both institutions.
Unfortunately, it was during these hearings that a long-planned exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery celebrating the work of a prominent Mexican American labor activist was scheduled to open. When the idea for the exhibition was broached years earlier, it had unanimous support from museum leaders. But now, without saying so explicitly, Smithsonian officials in the Castle suggested delaying the opening. Curators stood their ground, and the show went on as planned.
No one would have paid much attention but for the arrest of a man who threw paint on one of the photos a few days later. Cable news networks picked up the story, and it turned out that the man was closely connected to the Anti-Sanctuary movement, which had attracted a large following in the first months of the new administration. Anti-Sanctuary advocates took issue with local ordinances that encouraged or required cities not to cooperate with federal immigration officials. They were particularly angry now, given what seemed to be backpedaling from the administration on some of the more hard-line anti-immigrant promises made during the campaign.
The arts suddenly had the president’s attention again. Reporters asked whether he condemned the attack on the exhibition. He sidestepped the question but chided the Smithsonian for not devoting more attention to “Great Americans.” The labor activist had, in fact, been born in Yuma, Ariz., but that didn’t stop demonstrators from gathering daily. After further attempts to vandalize the exhibition, the Smithsonian closed it “in the interests of public safety.” The Smithsonian was sharply criticized for its decision, but it had been effectively neutered by the episode.
Leaders of other cultural institutions watched nervously. Few of them were dependent on federal support, but something strange was happening in corporate philanthropy. After the Federal Trade Commission intervened to prevent a major, multibillion-dollar corporate merger — rumor had it that the president personally disliked one of the chief executives — a chill had fallen over the sector. Business leaders who had previously delegated corporate giving strategies to trusted subordinates were now taking a much more personal interest in every decision.
A new sense of caution was felt even in the most traditionally cautious parts of the arts world. A group of four opera companies that had planned a production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” quietly dropped plans to stage it as a reference to the 2003 Abu Ghraib scandal, with prisoners in orange jumpsuits and guards in American military uniforms. No one said anything about it being potentially controversial. Rather, opera leaders merely said the production had to please a wide audience in several different cities, and should therefore be more traditional.
After a grueling day of conference sessions at the 2017 Americans for the Arts convention, a group of executives compared notes, and all noticed something curious. Every one of them could cite at least one member of their board who had “come out” as an enthusiastic supporter of the president. The head of an important regional dance company described it this way: “I don’t think she had ever spoken in a meeting before, and then, out of nowhere, she asked why we were devoting funds to Black History Month. She gave a long speech about how all lives matter and even African Americans don’t want their history ‘ghettoized.’ ” The idea gained traction, and the company canceled plans for outreach events for February 2018.
When Americans for the Arts gathered a year later, the mood had changed from worry to panic. A major arts presenter in the Midwest had been forced to cancel touring appearances by a Russian chorus, a Chinese folk ballet and the Orchestre National de France, after failing to secure visas in time. At Lincoln Center, in New York, a performance of a new concerto for oud — an Arab lute — was scuttled when the Arab American soloist was detained for several days by immigration authorities. He was released but too late to go forward with the performance. The head of the New York Philharmonic wrote a strong op-ed piece for the New York Times denouncing the outrage, but that only attracted protests outside of David Geffen Hall. Some longtime subscribers urged that he be fired for “politicizing music.”
By the summer of 2018, the hottest on record, it seemed no part of the cultural sector hadn’t been politicized. The top box-office draw was “Death Wish VII: Border Wars,” a reboot of the old Charles Bronson vigilante film series, which came out just as mass deportations in Arizona and Texas were beginning. In that climate, few arts leaders felt it was wise for a small artist-run collective in Philadelphia to offer safe houses to people fearing deportation. Members of the group were injured after an attack on the small gallery space they had renovated on a depressed block of west Philly. Cellphone video of the artists denouncing the attack, still dressed in bloody clothes, went viral, but reactions to it were as polarized as the country. The president later mocked some of the artists on the video, mimicking their speech patterns in a way that suggested they were being hypersensitive: “We don’t feel safe, oh we don’t feel safe,” he said. More ominously, he added: “The arts are full of these people.”
By now, the arts world had divided into two large camps — the “preservationists,” who argued that the only thing that mattered was to preserve existing arts institutions until after the next election, and the “purists” (who didn’t much like the label), who argued that the new authoritarianism was essentially a cultural, not a political, problem and that arts leaders had a duty “to resist.” But it was difficult to know whom to resist, and how. A theater in Texas was shut down indefinitely by the fire marshal after a comedian mocked the president at an open-mic night. One city had dusted off old obscenity laws to block a LGBT film festival. A Latin music festival with a valid street permit was shut down by police, who cited a noise control ordinance from 1935. A school board in Kansas required “trigger” warnings before a production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” which led school administrators to cancel the show. Many of these seemingly isolated events were challenged in court, but the courts were overloaded with litigation.
One of the most closely watched cases was a libel suit against the country’s largest publisher of theatrical plays, which distributed a popular satire titled “MacTrump,” which clearly mocked administration officials. This was a radical “opening” of libel laws to target works of fiction, yet the company was hit with a $140 million judgment, which it was appealing.
The satire was popular on college campuses, the last redoubt of the “purists.” But top university leaders were increasingly terrified of losing federal funds for research and tuition support. In January 2019, officials at the University of California at Davis demanded that the theater department delay a production of “MacTrump” until the court case was decided. The students refused and went ahead with the show. University police entered the theater and used pepper spray on the audience and the actors, all of which was caught on camera. A drama professor decried “the new Gestapo” tactics outside the theater.
The president must have seen the interview, because he addressed it the next morning on his daily call into a popular morning talk show. He denied censorship of any kind, but spoke of the power of the people to criticize what they didn’t like. One of the show’s hosts asked him whether he agreed with a prominent critic that the arts were dead in America.
“The arts dead in America?” the leader repeated, incredulously. “Just at look at the art market. It’s booming. Never been better.”
He was right. A large Rothko had recently sold for more than $150 million to an art collector friend of the president’s who also was the head of the National Endowment for the Arts. To the surprise of many, the agency had survived the congressional hearings and was thriving with its new patriotic initiative: “Make Art Great Again.”