In a ranking of the hippest institutions in America, big banks and airlines would not come in at the top of the list. But even grading on a substantial curve, Bank of America and Delta Air Lines made an unfortunate contribution to the cause of cultural illiteracy this weekend. Delta withdrew its financial support of New York’s Public Theater, and Bank of America pulled its funding of the play, over a production of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” that dressed the titular character like President Trump. Depictions of Trump’s death have popped up in both high and low culture in the months since his inauguration. And while giant corporations might not want to be associated with those images, treating them as if they are all the same poses risks to more than these companies’ brands.
Since apparently this needs saying: A photo of a severed, blood-drenched head that looks like the president’s, a music video showing a clown dressed up in the president’s clothes and gravity-defying hair, or a Julius Caesar attired in a blond wig and an unfashionably long tie don’t all tell us the same thing.
You can picture those forms floating in blank space, and then react to them. You might find the first horrifying, the second disrespectful and the third merely odd. Or you might not. That’s the thing about artistic images: They can provoke very different responses. But if you use this method to decide whether what you’re seeing is good or bad, you should also be aware that this isn’t the only part of these images or performances that matter. What’s happening around visuals like these is critically important to understanding what the artist is trying to say.
That bloodied, severed head, for example, showed up in the hands of the comedian Kathy Griffin during a photo shoot. By positioning herself in a way that was more reminiscent of Islamic State executioners than feminist advocates, she heightened the viewer’s sense of shock — and totally failed to communicate the message that she apparently wanted to send about Trump’s views on women. That means the pictures she and a photographer shot were bad art. You don’t even need to find them offensive to think that’s true.
The depiction of the president as a clown came from a music video by rapper Snoop Dogg, which depicted a world populated by clowns. The president wasn’t alone in his grotesque presentation or exaggerated gestures. And the gun that was fired at him was a prop gun, a flag that reads “Boom!” protruding from the barrel. If the metaphors in the video don’t seem fully developed, at least one message is clear: The traits that make this fictional president ridiculous are present everywhere in the society that elected him.
And when it comes to “Julius Caesar,” it’s essential to remember that Shakespeare’s play is a tragedy, rather than a pure celebration of regicide. The Romans who assassinate Caesar do so for a range of reasons, not all of them noble. Far from securing their triumph, Caesar’s killers are destroyed by their actions: The two main conspirators commit suicide. I’m based in Washington, and so I haven’t seen the Public Theater’s most recent production (though I’m willing to bet that the Bank of America and Delta executives who made this call haven’t, either). But it seems unlikely the theater’s artistic director Oskar Eustis, whose work I’ve long found to be sensitive and thoughtful, has staged “Julius Caesar” so as to eliminate the complexity of Shakespeare’s play. A production of “Julius Caesar” that alludes to the Trump administration could easily be a warning about people who respond to populism with violence, rather than a declaration that Trump is a dictator in the making.
Corporations seeking to protect their reputations from hordes of complaining consumers may not examine art this deeply or carefully. From a corporate perspective, support for the arts is generally meant to jazz up the bland images of giant companies and to suggest that they have a civic function beyond merely extracting money from their customers. But if the only art that businesses such as Delta and Bank of America are willing to support is bland to the point of meaninglessness, their timidity merely reinforces the point these corporate giants are trying to obscure.
For the health of our public discourse, it’s desperately important that the rest of us continue to approach art with all the subtlety, intelligence and curiosity that corporations apparently can’t.
The 2016 presidential election provided an unnerving lesson in what happens when citizens only read news reports that tell them what they want to hear. The months since Trump’s inauguration have reminded us that things can always get worse. We can reject art and ideas without ever actually seeing them for ourselves, making our decisions based on highly simplified secondhand accounts. And if we do take a look at controversial things, we can deny their subtle meanings — or even their plain ones — in favor of interpretations that appeal to our pre-set political ideas. If you think it’s hard for Americans to talk to each other now, an outright refusal to hear what’s being said to us or to acknowledge what’s in front of our noses could become the disturbing norm.
Political art featuring the 45th president is only going to get more common as Trump’s term continues: Photo shoots, music videos and plays will be just the beginning, because they are faster to produce than television shows and movies. You may decide you hate all of it. But if you’re going to get outraged about art, at least try to see it and form your own opinion, rather than letting a big corporation or an outraged news anchor tell you what to think.