On Donald Trump and the pop politics of suffering

Have you heard? It’s a real shame that Donald Trump is president, but at least we’ll get some great art out of it! Perhaps you haven’t. But you probably have, because this meme is all over the place. Logic being that it sure does suck that the president, Congress, the cabinet, and the country are all going to shit, but like, at least we can find a silver lining: In all that suffering lies fantastic works of art, from books to comics to film to television to paintings to textiles to all manner of things. Exciting stuff!

Okay, so, we need to take a break to talk here, my friends, because this meme is drawing on a lot of really loaded social attitudes. Let’s start with the underlying assumption that with great suffering comes great art — you’ve probably heard that reasoning in the ‘crazy creative‘ stereotype, only here, it’s extended to anyone who experiences hardship. We know that the Trump Administration is going to cause a lot of hardship for a lot of Americans, including but not limited to: People of colour, natives, disabled people, LGBQT people, Muslims, and women. Some of those people are undoubtedly artists, who will surely flourish under the Trump regime!

So does suffering create art? Well, that’s not necessarily supported by evidence. Some people who suffer because of horrible authoritarian governments absolutely create art and some of that art is political, and wouldn’t have been possible without their experiences. People who don’t suffer also create art, though. And amazing art comes from people who were living in actual golden ages where things were pretty stable and great for a large proportion of the population.

Some works of art will be made possible by the Trump Administration. But that doesn’t make those works worth the cost, and their creators would likely agree. Moreover, lots of works of art won’t be possible because of the Trump Administration. People who are suffering and focused on survival may not necessarily be able to create, or might not be able to make the things they want to make. People who would have gone to art school are going to be waiting tables. People who should be creating amazing things are going to be bouncing from couch to couch, focusing on the basics of staying alive rather than settling down to make art.

Some people who could be making great art are going to die because of the Trump Administration. They will die from hate crimes, from institutional violence, from being sent overseas to fight horrible wars. They will die on the streets, homeless and freezing because the administration promotes withdrawing the social safety net. They will die in institutions, trapped because the government withdrew the benefits that allowed them to live safe and happy in their communities. They will die by their own hand, due to stress and suffering and pain and misery that make being somewhere else feel like a better option.

Still gung ho about all the great art that will be created courtesy the Trump Administration? What about the fact that the president has repeatedly clearly indicated that he doesn’t support free speech rights? And that fact that he’s repeatedly moved to try to suppress both the press and members of the public? The fact that he’s gone after private citizens on Twitter, emboldening his followers to send them rape and death threats? The fact that Jewish reporters who followed his campaign were subjected to an escalating stream of antisemetic hate speech from the Trumpets? Do you honestly think that great political art is going to get a pass? That subversive media will be allowed to persist unnoticed? Think again.

But it’s not legal to suppress free speech, you say. What about the current administration makes you think that it is going to comply with the Constitution? No, seriously, what? Subversive and brilliant art is going to be extremely dangerous to make in the coming years. Some of it may never be distributed, may never be seen outside the walled gardens of art collectives. The mainstream arbiters of what we see on television, the movie screen, in the books we read, on the walls of galleries, are going to be under tremendous pressure to sanitise what they produce. Some will proclaim that they will stand against censorship. Fewer actually will.

But this dodges the larger and underlying question beneath this attitude, and the thing that makes it breathtakingly clueless and hateful: Have you forgotten, in your haste to talk about suffering and art, that you are talking about real people? Real actual human beings are going to endure unimaginable suffering in the United States and beyond in the coming years because of the administration and the cronies that surround it. Those are actual humans. Maybe you don’t know any? If that’s the case, I recommend that you get out and meet some of the people that you’re dismissively commenting about.

Is ‘great art’ worth the persecution that my Muslim friends and colleagues are already enduring? Absolutely not. Does ‘great art’ soothe my fears about what is going to happen to the disability community? No. Are my worries about what lies ahead for me and other LGBQT people mediated and eased by the thought that, hey, at least there will be some great art? Does the suffering coming women’s way after so many decades of fighting for equality make me shrug when I think of the upcoming generation of female artists? Do I see people of colour and Natives facing entrenched institutional oppression from voter suppression to police killings and think, well, I can’t wait to see their radical protest art?

No. The answer to all of these questions is no. I would rather have decades of bland, boring, dull, vanilla art than a single seminal political work. And the thing is that I know we won’t have decades of terrible art if the government stabilises and stops persecuting people for who they are. The push for greater diversity in pop culture rose during the Obama Administration, which was a golden age of its own, even though it was most certainly marred by suffering, especially in underrepresented communities. When society is giving you breathing room, when you’re not fighting to survive at every moment, you have the space to create great art, including political art, including protest art, including art exploring your identity and your relationship to the world. And that is the kind of art I want to see, rather than rubbing my hands together with glee at the thought of all the ‘amazing art’ that will undoubtedly be triggered by the rise of Trump.

Image: SDCC 2012, Pat Loika, Flickr