It’s been a tumultuous year, and this presidential election has been one of the most divisive in history. Due to the diverse nature of the Listerhood, we tend to shy away from political issues on this blog. But with the broad statements and aggressive agendas being released by the new Trump administration that deeply affect the arts community, that is likely to change in the coming year. The changes our new prez plans regarding human rights, immigration, arts funding, healthcare and more, are all issues that not one of us can afford to ignore. And the wheels are already in motion: moments after The Donald took his oath of office, the climate change page was removed from the White House website. There is nothing accidental about that timing, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
With or without the many protest concerts that have run concurrent to the inaugural festivities, this president is putting artists on alert. Rumors of the intended elimination of both the NEA and the NEH have grown to fever pitch in the last 48 hours, and while, as saith the Washington Post, “No one knows what Trump will do until he actually does it”, there is no doubt that this is part of the agenda. Arts organizations of all kinds are sounding the alarm, sending email to their supporters, making phone calls and organizing other efforts to make the value of these projects known. The argument that this is part of necessary budget cuts doesn’t hold water, as these appropriations make up a miniscule part of the budget. This is not a budget issue — it’s a power play.
Our next job
This is not an effort to tell you who to support: the election is done, and Donald Trump is our new president. But regardless of how you voted, now that he’s in office, we must all watch this administration like a cast of hawks*. This is because Trump has lobbed an early and harsh threat to our cultural support system, but also because it is always part of our job to keep an eye our leaders, and to draw attention to problems and triumphs alike. Art is a lens that can help the larger community see things more clearly. And we have a big job ahead of us.
But even while some artists have been at the forefront of the conversation since long before the election, it is still truly alarming that so many individual creators seem to lack an understanding of what these changes would mean, and to all of us. This is reflected in social media, of course, aka the Land of Pre-thought Expression and an existence rife with foot-in-mouth-syndrome. But it is also reflected in far too many otherwise intelligent IRL conversations with fellow artists. Too many performers, in particular, don’t realize how many of their employers receive NEA funding, and how such a loss would affect available jobs. Even if you’re not directly receiving a grant for your own work, you will be affected by the elimination of this single agency. Programs and ensembles will disappear, or be severely reduced. The larger economy will also be impacted by the loss of so many artistic projects, as our significant contribution to jobs and revenue in this country will be profoundly changed.
Making your work matter
Years ago, I went to a unusual audition where the artist running the project said, “I’ve decided I want my art to be more political”. It sounded as if she’d arbitrarily decided to create her own Blue Period, adopting the topic as if it were an aesthetic choice. The conversation rang false to me, and so I walked away from the project. But in hindsight, I think I missed the point: she wanted to be a more active participant in the national discussion, and wanted to draw attention to issues that really meant something to her. She just hadn’t yet developed a great way to say so.
Whether or not you know how to tell people what matters to you, remember this now: it is our responsibility as artists not just to find opportunities and draw attention to ourselves. The work we produce needs to mean something, and that means we must connect with the world and help others find their meaning, too. Even if you haven’t found your cause, or even if your rhetoric needs a little work, get involved anyway. Don’t leave the heavy lifting to the household names. It is the combined voice of millions of cultural producers, advocates and consumers that has real power, and we must stay informed, chime in, and let the powers that be know at every level that art and music and dance and theater and writing and every other art form truly matter to individuals and to daily life. Government’s investment in cultural life enriches not only to those funded, not only to those of us trying to create meaning in a cynical world… but everyone. With or without funding, art will continue — true passion cannot be contained. But far fewer people will have access to quality programs, and the poor and isolated will have even fewer educational and experiential options than they do now.
Which are you?
We’ve talked before in this space about the difference between an artist and a technician, and you’ll see more of that battle cry as time goes on. If ever there was a time to be the artist, to create something of your own, and to make your work count, this is it. Speak up, and show the world why artists are important. Don’t be satisfied with joining the repetitive noise of social media — create something more substantial, more thoughtful, and in the real world. (Then put it on social media!)
Create something that helps someone else feel something valuable. Create a memorable moment. Sing a song that makes them cry, dance, laugh or think. Get them to sing, too. Help the members of your immediate community not just know, but truly understand how and why performance and vision and creativity make us human, keep us connected to one another, and make life worthwhile. With so many people feeling hopeless and afraid of the near future, art is more important than ever.
Whatever you do, resist the urge to put your head in the sand and just wait for your next gig. Get out there and say something.
* Yes, a group of hawks is often called a “cast”. If that doesn’t tell you that it’s our job to keep an eye out, nothing will.
Featured hawk image by blont / FreeImages