The Tangled Debate Over Art-World Protests

From museums to Meryl Streep, the discussion around culture creators’ responses to Trump often misses the point.

Mike Segar / Reuters

The culture industry’s response to Donald Trump’s election has largely consisted of different ways of saying “no.” Celebrities have refused to play his inauguration. Meryl Streep methodically blasted him at the Golden Globes. Hamilton’s cast greeted Mike Pence by informing him of their fears. And artists are considering a national strike on January 20th.

The discussion around such efforts has shown some of the typical—if muddied—ways people talk about the arts intersecting with politics. On the right, a common theme is that celebrity protests are only going to ensure Trump’s re-election by making his supporters feel condescended to. On the left, cultural anti-Trump efforts are being taken as examples of the kind of bold truth-telling Democratic operatives should mimic. Both frames prize electoral impact—policy influence now, voter persuasion for 2018 or 2020—over all else. Which is a strange way to think about art, a form of communication that exists to do what other forms—political, commercial, journalistic—can’t.

The debate around the arts walkout is a good example. More than 130 artists, curators, and critics—many of them prominent—are undertaking the #J20 Art Strike, a semi-open-ended call for collective action in the arts world on Inauguration Day. Some arts venues and arts workers have said they will literally strike—shut down, not show up—on January 20th. Others have responded to the prompt in different ways; New York City’s Whitney Museum, for example, will stay open but offer civic-minded programming and pay-what-you-want admission.

A familiar backlash alleging out-of-touchness and grandstanding has ensued. In The Guardian, the arts critic Jonathan Jones writes, “An art strike is just about the least effective idea for resisting Trump that I have heard. The American left is in for a long, wretched period of irrelevance if this is its idea of striking back.” Along the same lines, Artnet quotes a Facebook post from the artist Daniel Keller saying of the strike, “This is so pointless and anyone who doesn’t realize this is completely oblivious to the current political climate and of art’s utter irrelevancy within American culture.”

But the strike is partly a reaction to the specter of irrelevance—and has goals other than sending a message to the president-elect and his followers. At Hyperallergic, the critic Hrag Vartanian writes about how the Silicon Valley summit at Trump Tower made him realize just how structurally diffuse the arts are compared to tech and other industries. “There could never be an equivalent convening in art,” he says. “If you were to summon the leaders of art, who would they be? Who has that type of authority in our field?” A strike, he argues, could begin to reveal “the scope of our community as the beginning of a new phase of solidarity.”

More than that, a strike could be a moment for art workers to re-examine their relationship with the hypercapitalism and nationalism that Trump is seen by many to represent. Vartanian quotes the critic Yates McKee wondering if a walkout could “drive a wedge between staffs, on the one hand, and the upper echelons of institutional power—directors, boards, donors—on the other.”  The artist Coco Fusco also suggested using the opportunity to begin thinking about how to disentangle from “the Wall Street financiers who stand to gain from Trump … the same ones who have thrown bundles of cash into art.” Last week, the artist Richard Prince seemed to act on that idea by retroactively “faking” a piece he’d sold to Ivanka Trump—which is exactly the kind of mind-scrambling, beyond-logic statement that art excels at.

None of these rationales directly speaks to stopping the president-elect’s policies or removing him from office. They speak instead to an existential quandary triggered by the rise of someone who, to many in the art world, seems at odds with truth, free expression, and egalitarianism. An art strike, according to its supporters, is about reflection, recalibration, and ideological stress-testing in the name of more effectively wielding power in the years to come.

Now, the question of whether a strike is the best way to achieve those goals is a valid one: The writer Joyce Carol Oates has been essentially holding a Twitter forum on alternative artistic methods of opposing Trump. But that debate is in fact the kind of industry-wide political conversation that, it seems, the #J20 Strike wants to inspire: “… It is an invitation to motivate these [artistic] activities anew, to reimagine these [artistic] spaces as places where resistant forms of thinking, seeing, feeling, and acting can be produced,” the mission statement says. There’s precedent, too, in the 1970 arts collective action responding to the Vietnam War.

The debate around the strike echoes the ones that have followed other culture clashes in recent days. Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech—in which she homed in on Trump’s bullying and defended the media—led Meghan McCain and others to argue that rarefied celebrities denouncing the newly elected president just feeds the resentment that brought Trump to office. Maybe such criticisms are correct, or maybe the estrangement between red and blue cultures is already so deep that Streep moments make little difference. But the argument that artists should not say what they believe to be truth out of political concerns is—not to overstate it—completely anti-art.

Art can, of course, amplify causes, but first its purpose is pure expression. Punk rock did not bring down Ronald Reagan—it was a raw outpouring of rage that helped coalesce an opposition culture. Nelson Shanks’s painting of Bill Clinton in the shadow of Monica Lewinsky may now be in storage at the National Portrait Gallery—but it still potently summed up a fraught public persona. Kanye West’s “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” moment didn’t end up in campaign commercials—but it did forever crystallize a critique.

Streep’s speech accomplished a number of things regardless of whether it, on its own, moved the vote total one way or another for the 2018 or 2020 elections. It articulated the opposition’s point of view in a compact, eloquent way that the liberal rank-and-file could use for inspiration and strategic discussion (e.g., should she have mentioned sports in the way she did?). It asserted that the election’s results would not silence Hollywood when it comes to Trump—which is to say, it was a move against normalization. Most concretely, it brought in donations for the Committee to Protect Journalists, just as many other cultural protests—see: the Nasty Women Exhibition to help Planned Parenthood—are financially benefiting causes possibly endangered under the next president.

Streep’s words also happened to bug Trump—just as the Hamilton/Pence moment and the mass refusal of entertainers to book his inauguration and Alec Baldwin’s SNL imitation all did. Whether this means more fodder for Trump’s side in the culture war or whether it helps undermine him—the truth could be both—the fact is that now more than ever cultural protests stand a chance of being amplified.

Certainly, criticisms alleging the pointlessness of protest might feel persuasive in a moment when Trump’s administration is forming, making its first moves, and preparing for a celebration. Jones’s Guardian column gets at all of this as it closes ominously: “The real reason art strikes and fine words at the Golden Globes are futile is that they cannot do justice to the danger the world is in.  ... Save your strength—you will need it.”

The truth, though, is that recent cultural efforts have partly attempted to shore up the resistance’s strength: to consolidate a fractured left, to create dialogues about ways of bringing change, and to signal to Trumpland that the president-elect does not have a blank check. Inauguration is about as far away from another election as you ever get; as other ballots approach and specific policy fights develop, culture creators will no doubt play a role in the skirmishes. But even then, their work should not only be evaluated in terms of electoral tactics. On some level, all art is for art’s sake.