The Midwest turned out to be the ideal place for this particular foreigner to experience the tail end of the US election cycle, and election night itself. Removed from the self-confident, ‘liberal’ confines of New York, LA or Chicago, so called ‘real America’ was an altogether more exotic experience.
Nebraska – where I lived for three months while on a residency at the Bemis Centre for Contemporary Arts – is that archetypical mixture of ‘liberal’ cities like Omaha and Lincoln surrounded by rural conservatism. My time was mainly spent with a glorious group of artists from the US and elsewhere, of various cultural backgrounds, sexualities and gender identifications. The city of Omaha is characterised by its coffee shops, quaint farmers’ markets and gay club nights, but once one ventured out of its confines it was all “Trump! Trump! Trump!”
My fellow artists and I held regular viewing nights during the presidential debates where we would eat and get drunk together while shouting at the screen. Election night proved much more sombre when it became clear that Clinton – a poor candidate in 2008 and now, but better than the alternative, surely? – was not going to win.
In many respects, filmmaker Michael Moore’s impassioned commentary from summer onwards had prepared me for it, in much the same way as my regular perusal of a certain mid-market, right wing UK tabloid meant Brexit also seemed inevitable. Candidate Trump had cleverly calibrated his appeal to a specific demographic – fearful of losing its cultural and numerical dominance – and they had rewarded him at the polling place.
Time to return to Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler – The Handmaid’s Tale, the MaddAddam trilogy; the Parable of the Talents and the Sower. Science Fiction – art – might be able to offer counsel. One of my fellow residents turned to Hannah Arendt’s words on how to survive a dictatorship. I didn’t leave my studio for days.
Interestingly, I noticed my Black Nebraskan friends were overwhelmingly nonplussed about the impending president Trump. Most felt it was business as usual. If anything, Trump might provide a wider demographic with the ‘opportunity’ to experience marginalisation and discrimination on a structural level, for once. (This sentiment was brilliantly echoed in ‘Lemons’, a recent episode of the sitcom Black-ish.) It was my white, liberal friends who just could not believe what had happened, as if a veil had been lifted. Oh, that was what was under the surface?
I was struck by how polarised the USA is when it came to notions of temporality and progress. This contrasting relationship with time was exemplified by a McClatchy poll in October 2016, in which 72% of Trump supporters agreed that the American way of life and culture has deteriorated since the 1950s (70% of Clinton supporters said it had changed for the better). Imagine – a time where African Americans’ voting rights were not enshrined, women were routinely oppressed in and out of the home (women of colour doubly so), where one could not marry the person of one’s choice – was preferable to now.
The author Zadie Smith recently drew attention to the privilege of nostalgia – that one can only lament a lost past if one’s own position would not be adversely affected by time. This nostalgia fetish is also simpatico with the Brexit campaign: Make America Great Again! Take Back Control!
Commentators will continue to try to make sense of the new regime, whose impact will be felt particularly strongly by those whose subjectivities are marginalised within the Breitbart-friendly paradigm Trump represents.
What fresh hell might Trump’s ideological masterminds have in store for trans kids, or women and men of colour? What about attempts to raise the minimum wage? Abortion rights? Of course, artists are just like everyone else – our politics cross the spectrum. Nonetheless, as artists more often than not find themselves in states of precarity, it makes sense to consider what role the arts might play in defending certain key rights and values so hard fought for.
I offer not prophecy, just subjective observations:
1. Don’t sleep on Teen Vogue – it’s producing some of the sharpest political commentary out there, and providing space for the political formation of a generation of young women who will be eligible to vote in 2020.
2. Ongoing, grass roots artist-led initiatives such as Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter and Gulf Labor continue to contribute not only to the art world, but to the wider political debate, in the admirable American tradition of organisation and activation as a response to political crises. Not to mention the Women’s March on Washington on 21 January. To my mind, it is this kind of engagement – actively a part of a broader struggle, not just the art world taking to itself – that is the most necessary. Forget about the art strike, which seemingly ignores the art world’s complicit relationship with the normalization of neoliberalism.
3. Equally, art world hand ringing is meaningless without self-examination of its own erasures, systemic biases and practices of Othering. And self-examination needs to lead to change in practices, or be rendered pointless.
4. Creating and supporting spaces for critical thinking, alternative education and solidarity building remains imperative.
5. The many similarities between the US election, Brexit, the rise of so-called ‘populist’ demagogic authoritarianism across Europe and parts of Asia and Africa, suggests that internationalising our understanding of the world is more important than ever.
How art and culture more broadly respond to Trump could play a significant role in determining whether forces calling for ‘normalization’ of, or resistance to this shift, dominate. How will we respond to, engage with and challenge this lust for nostalgia and the despair it represents, and help develop and articulate the potential for possible futures based on justice and equality as active citizens? Not as a privileged class, but as fellow citizens facing multiple inequalities, the ravages of economic injustice and impending climate doom.
The Chinese proverb about living in interesting times feels both a curse and an opportunity.
1. Poster by Perry Hoberman, available from www.haironfire.org
2. Poster by Sabrina Jones, available from www.haironfire.org
3. Gulf Labor banner, featured in All The World’s Futures exhition, 56th Venice Biennale