Art is not frivolous. Art is not just for the privileged. Art is not a waste of time. Art is more important than ever right now. “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,” Toni Morrison said in an interview after the election of George W. Bush, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!” As a studio art major, the current political climate has inevitably influenced my work. In conversation with fellow studio majors and seeing work from Art Basel Miami Beach and other sources, I have found that I am not alone in this.
“The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize,” tweeted Trump after Hamilton actor Brandon Victor Dixon directly addressed Pence at the end of the play and expressed hope that the President and Vice President-elect would be “inspired to uphold our American values.” Nothing about what Dixon said was “rude,” as Trump claimed. But more importantly, the theater is not a “safe place” in that art cannot be apolitical– particularly a play like Hamilton, with its mainly Black and Latino cast and political overtones. Trump, who belittles those who want safe spaces in schools, is sorely misguided in his view of art. Yes, art can be comforting, but it is also necessarily political. Art is not created in a vacuum, so we cannot ignore the psychological process of the artist and the temporal and geographical setting in which the art is created.
Art Basel, which ran from December 1 through 4, featured many overtly political works. Many of the messages are particularly factious if you consider that the art fair largely caters to the wealthy and privileged. Senior Arts and Culture Editor at The Huffington Post, Katherine Brooks, wrote, “Art has long been used to agitate the privileged, to amplify the voices of the less powerful.” A mixed media piece by Rirkrit Tiravanija proclaims, “THE TYRANNY OF COMMON SENSE HAS REACHED ITS FINAL STAGE.” Artist Sam Durant’s lighted sign near the entrance of the venue reads, “End White Supremacy.” Myriad other artists contributed portraits, sculptures, and works in other media directly responding to the current political state of affairs. The New York based gallery, Queer Thoughts, presented a work by Puppies Puppies, in which visitors walked over a floor tiled with American flags. This is only days after Trump announced on Twitter, “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag — if they do, there must be consequences — perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!”
Throughout history, artists have been suppressed, jailed, and killed by dictators and despots. Despite this, they continued to take a stance against injustice and fight the status quo. The contributions of people of color, queer folk, women, immigrants, and other targeted groups have transformed and developed art, culture, and societal values throughout history. We, as artists, need to continue this legacy. Bates studio art major Hannah Tardie ‘17, wrote in an artist statement, “if [art] doesn’t advocate for social change it is irrelevant.” By actively choosing not to make ‘political’ art, the artist is still making a clear social commentary. Depending on who we are as individuals, we need to use our fear, our pain, our privilege, our knowledge, and our love to create work that incites change. To quote Brooks again, even if you are not an artist, “see plays. Go to museums, concerts, exhibitions. Read.”