On Thursday, the day before the presidential inauguration, there were indications that the National Endowment for the Arts and PBS were among the agencies destined for the chopping block under a Trump administration — not that this was actually a surprise. But the news came at a moment when artists across the country were preparing for a range of protest events, from New York (where a Unity Concert, at noon Friday, livestreamed opera singers performing the composer Glen Roven’s settings of two speeches by Hillary Clinton), to Los Angeles (where the group Audioslave will reunite for an evening Friday to perform at one of many Anti-Inaugural Balls), to Silver Spring (where the Takoma Ensemble, a chamber group, will give a concert with an immigration theme at 7:30 p.m. Saturday), to Tysons (where the mixed-genre concert “Sisterhood in Song” brings together women from a range of musical backgrounds at 8 Friday night). And all over the country, the J20 art strike has shut down galleries, museums, and other cultural institutions in an effort to galvanize attention and build focus both among the public and within the art community.
But what, in fact, is effective? Last week, I spoke to an orchestra contractor, Edward Walters, who had been charged to put together orchestras for two inaugural events, and had encountered an unprecedented amount of pushback from the freelance musicians’ community, many of whom turned him down. Walters has played in every inauguration since Ronald Reagan’s, but he said this had never happened before: In Washington, locus of political events, a job is a job. “This is different,” he said. He did assemble the orchestras, though he “had to cast my net a little wider” to find players; but he and some other musicians also decided to donate a portion of their fees to charity. “If I sit home to protest,” he said, “nobody knows it but me”; by donating the money, he felt, he was at least taking action. But, he conceded, maybe he was just trying to make himself feel better.
Artists aren’t unique in feeling powerless. In a society in which the arts, as a construct, are so marginalized and face new concrete threats — abolishing the NEA would have a weight disproportionate to the amount of money actually involved — some have questioned whether giving a concert or writing a new piece of music is a meaningful response at all. Maybe this is the time to focus on calling congressmen, volunteering to help at-risk populations, and generally working directly to bring about social change.
Others, though, have voiced the idea that this can be a galvanizing moment for the arts: that now, more than ever, art can give voice to a consciousness and a conscience that might not find other outlets for expression.
For commentators, such debate is fine. For artists, it may be a risk to spend a lot of time talking about it. In a discursive piece I wrote in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks about art’s response to crisis, I quoted Theodor Adorno. In today’s society, he said in 1949, “even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter.” There is no better summation of the challenge the artist faces in the age of Facebook: Ideas and visions can be worn down even in a well-meaning debate about what constitutes an appropriate response.
The best response: Make art. Be creative. Fight for individuality. Give concerts. Know that you may not see immediate results. Brace yourself, as artists have so often done, for a long road ahead. Auden’s words have lost none of their luster in almost 80 years, though it’s a shame that they still have such bitter, biting relevance.