Since the shock of election night, and the ongoing tremors of scandal and shenanigans surrounding or promulgated by President-elect Donald J. Trump and his transition team, liberals and progressives in the institutional left have struggled with how to respond. So has most of America, which awards Trump the lowest approval numbers ever for an incoming president, yet is not yet appalled enough to kick up a fuss.
As Trump made clear in his carnival show of a press conference, he intends to maintain power by continuing to break the norms of such institutions as the free press—and society at large. Institutions operate on the assumption of long-held norms. So does society. But artists, less so.
Artists generally function in an individualistic way, but not detached from institutions of power. Their communities are loosely organized, but are able to assemble quickly when a need to do so arises. With creativity as the coin of their realm, they have a knack for drawing attention and distilling messages in memorable ways. And they’re stepping out.
The rebuff of Trump by major performing artists asked to perform at the inauguration is a manifestation of the artistic community’s opposition to Trump, but only the singer Rebecca Ferguson’s response tipped into the category of art itself: She responded that she would perform only if she could sing “Strange Fruit,” the 1937 anti-lynching protest song that Billie Holiday made her own.
As the streets of major cities filled with spontaneous protests following Trump’s Electoral College victory, a group of visual artists executed a multi-platform demonstration directed at Ivanka Trump, who has been put before the nation as a moderating influence on her father—the one Trump administration figure who really cares about the plight of women and the environment. In addition to the November 28 protest launched by the community that calls itself the Halt Action Group, members also launched an Instagram account called “Dear Ivanka,” and a website that includes downloadable protest posters designed by New York artists.
On Monday, Halt Action staged a second protest outside the Puck Building, where Ivanka Trump lives with her husband, presidential-elect adviser Jared Kushner, based around the theme of the pair’s move to Washington, D.C. Artists inscribed cardboard cartons with the names of things to be lost or demeaned in Trump’s America, ranging from “LGBT Rights” to “Meryl Streep’s Awards.” Others were more provocative, such as the artist who held a box lid demanding that Donald Trump keep his hands off her country, with that last word deliberately misspelled to omit the “o,” and the figure of a naked woman with a bouquet of flowers covering her privates adorning the lid.
In Washington, D.C., jazz musicians Herb Scott and Aaron L. Myers II are organizing their fellow artists in a community they’ve dubbed REformance Arts, recently convening a “Peace & Power” march of musicians commemorating Martin Luther King Day that began at the White House and ended in front of Bohemian Caverns, the historically black jazz club opened in 1926 that was recently shuttered in the rapidly gentrifying U Street corridor. Bracing for a heavy hand in the overseeing of the District of Columbia by a Republican Congress aligned with the Trump administration, REformance artists put together a video welcoming the new president to their hometown, with a few caveats. “We and the community we represent do not believe in living in a militarized state subjected to being stopped, frisked or even stereotyped as we walk through our communities,” the artists state. Scott hosts a weekly jazz jam at the music club, Mr. Henry’s, where Myers is artist in residence. It’s an event filled with enthusiastic young musicians, ripe for organizing.
On the steps of the New York Public Library on January 15, PEN America, a venerable organization of literary writers and journalists, convened a reading in conjunction with the Writers Resist project that featured such notables as former poets laureate Rita Dove and Robert Pinsky, as well as Amy Goodman of public affairs program Democracy Now! The poetry of protest dominated at the event, but signs crafted by artist Molly Crabapple visually brought home messages from noted writers, each featuring a Crabapple painting of the writer whose quote was inscribed on the poster. My favorite was the image of Audre Lorde, inscribed with the words, “Your silence will not protect you.” (Crabapple has posted high-resolution images of the posters on her website.)
Back in Washington, D.C., the poetry community known as Split This Rock will host a “resistance open-mic poetry speak out” after the conclusion of Saturday’s Women’s March. Already, the sign-up roster is full, and the event is expected to fill the Woolly Mammoth Theater.
For far too long, the institutions of liberalism and progressivism have kept artists pushed to the perimeter, calling on them when needed as rally entertainment or carriers of an institutionally approved message. And yet these institutions have used the same methods, over and over again, to try to push back against the right wing, only to fail. The job of the artist is to give people a new way of seeing things, new approaches to expression. And lest you think the artists have no agenda or strategy, think again. Check out this “to do list” from the Halt Action Group:
1. Tarnish the Trump brand
2. Expose national hypocrisies
3. Reject official bigotry
4. Attack media normalization
5. Enable media effectiveness
6. Afflict authoritarians with the constant irritation of democracy
7. Share comic relief / encourage absurdity
8. Mobilize creative communities
9. Provide a space in which to demonstrate and engage / interrogate power
10.Visualize our profound disenchantment
Right now, it is the artists who are leading the way. The gatekeepers of national politics would do well to let them do so, to celebrate their efforts, and to follow their lead.