The Trump presidency has ushered in, or perhaps pulled the curtain back, on a rushing undercurrent of paranoia in the United States. Duh. But if the xenophobic verbal vomit from the White House (or is it Mar-a-Lago?) isn’t proof positive of paranoid politics’ primacy these days, take a look at the administration’s treatment of the arts.
First off, recall that while 45 was on the campaign trail, it came to light that he’d commissioned a giant portrait of himself for installation at Mar-a-Lago. Paid for by the Donald J. Trump Foundation—which is, evidently, a sort of pleasure slush fund for the now-president—thinly disguised as charity. By the way, nobody really believed the Trump Foundation actually did anything charitable, right? When I say "thinly disguised," I mean as thinly disguised as a wolverine in a spangled jumpsuit, telling everybody it’s Elvis. Psst. Nobody believes you’re Elvis, you dumb wolverine.
Upon viewing the painting, Trump must have thought or probably even said aloud, "We’re doing some good things with art. There are a lot of people who like art, believe it or not. I think people will want to keep making art." But it came to exactly nobody’s surprise that the amount of federal money Trump is willing to allocate to the National Endowment for the Arts hovers somewhere near the cost of an empty bag of dog food. Perhaps his unwillingness to federally fund the arts came from a better-late-than-never realization that the definition of art is not "overcompensatorily huge paintings of me."
On the one hand, the artist—writer, painter, dancer, et al.—might say, "F#@& it. Vaporize the NEA. Whoopty-shizz. Art isn’t going anywhere." That’s true, of course. Art is inevitable. In fact, one could make a pretty convincing argument that, with an oppressive regime at the helm, artists flourish—albeit at great risk to themselves. I’m thinking of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Rudolf Nureyev and/or Pussy Riot as examples. On the other hand, for the artists, it’s nice to know that when a president throws support to the NEA, he is validating the legitimacy of the arts. Even if the NEA can’t fund every single artistic project in the country, the message is, "Your government thinks that what you’re doing with that keyboard, paintbrush or pair of pointe shoes has a place in this country."
Let’s look into the crystal ball for a second. The path we find ourselves on in relation to the arts and the federal government is a spooky one. We seem to be moving rather quickly into a phase of American history where freely patronizing the arts (not to mention actually making art) is an act of revolution. To be clear, we aren’t there yet. But of all the U.S. presidents so far, Trump is the one most likely to take us there. Again I say: duh.
This isn’t simply about a president cutting certain federally funded programs to bolster others. That’s happened before, and, historically, the pendulum has swung both ways. With Trump, the really unnerving thing is that each opinion (artistically expressed or otherwise, really) that counters one of his own is personally problematic. More accurately, for Donald Trump, all opinions that counter any of his own opinions are perceived as affronts, and war must be waged against them. Right now, that means misspelled and grammatically incorrect Twitter rants lobbed like Molotov cocktails at 3 in the morning. But we’re also only two months into a four-year term. I’m not sure Trump himself has the nerve to escalate things beyond the relatively safe space of social media, but I think some of his advisers do.
Internally, Donald Trump is a fragile man with few real political convictions. However, he is undeniably a man with power, perhaps the most power any one person in the world can possibly have. An offended fragile person who possesses a great deal of power doesn’t try to counter negative opinions about himself with savvy political courtship of public opinion or, God forbid, good deeds. The offended fragile person with power moves quickly to destroy the source of the opinion.
So far, Trump has shown his hand a couple of times in relation to the arts other than his treatment of the NEA. His recent exclusion of news sources from a press conference is a bite out of the First Amendment, the broad dome that protects, among other things, artistic expression. And I recall another time in which Trump responded to a tweet that he found offensive with a tweet of his own along the lines of, "What right does he have to say that about me?" Unaware of, perhaps, or aware of but in disagreement with basic rights afforded to U.S. citizens in the First Amendment.
But I am confident artists will keep making art during the Trump presidency, no matter what happens during the Trump presidency. Hell, maybe Trump will reverse course and dump tons of money into the NEA. I’m not holding my breath for that, but good art does remind us of greater possibilities, no matter how improbable. When I read or hear about what’s happening in Washington so far this year and hang my head over it, I remind myself that no matter what, there will be new novels, new pieces of music, new ballets. The one great mistake any oppressive leader makes in relation to the arts is forgetting, or never becoming aware, that art has much more durability than anything that can be said or done from their halls of power.
Paul Luikart is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of places over the years. His most recent book, "Animal Heart," is available now from Hyperborea Publishing. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.