Dear Artists: We Need You More Than Ever

A Trump presidency requires artists get political.
Jenny Holzer
Jenny Holzer
Artist for Hillary

On the night of Nov. 8, I was preparing to write about Artists for Hillary, the group recruited by HRC’s campaign to use art to advocate for and eventually celebrate America’s first female president. Among them are artists Jenny Holzer, Carrie Mae Weems and Maya Lin.

I was planning on having the piece ready for the historic day I thought was ahead of us. But when the election results began to roll in, I stopped preparing the piece and started realizing that the outcome many, many people had anticipated ― a clear and swift win for Hillary Clinton ― was not to be.

I work for a media outlet that has been anything but silent on its position toward Donald Trump ― we had not-so-subtly attached an editor’s note to each and every story about the GOP pick, denouncing his racism, misogyny and xenophobia. When, in the early hours of Nov. 9, it became apparent that he would indeed capture the electoral vote, I found myself at a loss for words. I, like so many people, went home tired, defeated and ashamed.

The next day, I woke up to an email. “No words,” Baltimore-based artist Paul Rucker had written to me earlier that morning, echoing that familiar sentiment of disbelief. Known for his creative critiques of police brutality and the prison industrial system, Rucker had sent the email unprompted.

“For years people ask why do I make art about racism ... hate ... history,” he continued. “I noticed [hate] was a tool used to control people through fear. I’m going to continue to make art that addresses our current and changing state. If we don’t address the elephant in the room, it will continue to be used in harmful ways far beyond our imagination.”

“This is precisely the time when artists go to work.”

- Toni Morrison

Art has long been used to agitate the privileged, to amplify the voices of the less powerful. The commercial art establishment has its own problems with gender and race, there’s no doubt about that. But people like Tania Bruguera in Cuba, Yael Bartana in Israel, Kara Walker in the U.S., Ai Weiwei in China and Pedro Reyes in Mexico defiantly use art to prod the status quo and question the way the world works.

Some like to argue whether or not artists are bound by duty to make art political; whether or not art can be simply beautiful for beauty’s sake. “All of that art-for-art’s-sake stuff is BS,” reads an oft-cited quote frequently attributed to Toni Morrison. “What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’”

In the recent past, poets of color, queer artists, writers of immigrant descent, Muslim photographers, minorities on Broadway ― they have all been quick to stand up against hate, power and inequality in this country. This week, artists and writers across the internet are doubling down, voicing both justified fear and empowered resolve in the face of a Trump presidency. “Today I must declare, I refuse to let fear stop me from speaking out against the people and policies who create it,” Lilly Workneh, editor of HuffPost’s Black Voices, wrote.

In a world where the most recognizable piece of contemporary art is a musical about the sheer influence of immigrants in the formative years of this country ― a musical that’s revolutionized the way we view theater, the way we interact with political art and the way we perceive our nation’s past ― I hope every creative person is heeding the advice Morrison wrote after the reelection of George W. Bush. “This is precisely the time when artists go to work,” she declared. “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

To artists: Write plays. Paint, sculpt, perform. Write some more. Because we need you more than ever. To everyone else: See plays. Go to museums, concerts, exhibitions. Read. It’s not all you can do (in fact, here is a list of timely volunteer and donation opportunities). But I agree ― art is, in part, how civilizations heal, provoke and change minds.

To all of you: “Keep going,” as Rucker concluded in his email. “Keep the faith.”

If you have a poem or painting or performance or any other creative project that speaks to the role of an artist over the coming four years, please let us know by emailing with the subject “Art in the Next Four Years.”

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