Of what use is art? It’s a question often asked in societies where money is the prime measure of worth, usually by people who do not understand art—and therefore dislike it and the artists who make it. Now, however, the question is being posed by artists themselves.
For American writers and other artists, there’s a distinct chill in the air. Strongmen have a well-earned reputation for suppression and for demanding fawning tributes: “Suck up or shut up” has been their rule. During the Cold War, many writers, filmmakers, and playwrights received visits from the FBI on suspicion of “un-American activities.” Will that history be repeated? Will self-censorship set in? Could we be entering an age of samizdat in the United States, with manuscripts circulating secretly because publishing them would mean inviting reprisal? That sounds extreme, but considering America’s own history—and the wave of authoritarian governments sweeping the globe—it’s not out of the question.
In the face of such uncertainties and fears, the creative communities of the United States are nervously urging one another not to surrender without a fight: Don’t give up! Write your book! Make your art!
But what to write or make? Fifty years from now, what will be said about the art and writing of this era? The Great Depression was immortalized by John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which described in detail what the Dust Bowl years felt like to those living through them at the lowest level of American society. Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible provided an apt metaphor for McCarthyism, with its witch hunts and mass accusations. Klaus Mann’s 1936 novel Mephisto, about the rise of a famous actor, showed absolute power corrupting an artist absolutely—a fitting story during the reign of Hitler. What sorts of novels, poems, films, television series, video games, paintings, music, or graphic novels will adequately reflect America’s next decade?
We don’t have any idea yet. We can’t: Nothing is predictable except unpredictability. It’s probably fair to say, however, that Donald Trump’s interest in the arts, gauged on a scale from one to 100, is somewhere between zero and negative 10—lower than any president in the last 50 years. Some of those presidents didn’t give a hoot about the arts, but at least they found it politic to pretend. Trump won’t. In fact, he may not even notice they’re there.
This might, in fact, work to our advantage. Stalin and Hitler took an interest in the arts and considered themselves experts and arbiters, which was very bad news for the writers and artists whose styles displeased the authorities. These got packed off to the gulag or condemned as degenerate. Hopefully, most creative people will find themselves flying under the radar, so insignificant as to escape detection.