In a recent graduate school interview – after the inauguration – a professor asked me, “what socio-cultural or political situation are you most concerned about in our time?” Immediately after posing the question, he paused, then quipped, “Oh…this question was written before last Friday. I think I know what we’re all most concerned about.” I agreed with him wholeheartedly. Since his inauguration on January 20th, we have seen Donald Trump and his allies do everything possible to assert and consolidate his power, push through sweeping executive orders, and continue his assault on deeply-held American principles. And this is most likely only the beginning.
But what I have been watching for in particular in the weeks since the inauguration is how cultural institutions may respond to Trump, especially museums and those in the arts. Some American institutions will likely support him. But what about the ones who do not? Do they continue with business as usual and refrain from taking an institutional stance? Or do they refuse to remain neutral?
Prior to the inauguration, a number of artists and critics called for a “culture strike,” encouraging museums, theaters, concert halls, schools, and galleries to shut their doors to support those voices protesting the new president. Plenty of institutions recognized, however, that closing the doors of such cultural institutions, even in solidarity to oppose a threat to our democracy holding the very office that ought be its first defender, only strengthens the position of Trump, a man who deals in ignorance, misdirection, and “alternative facts.”
I can speak best to my experience with art museums, but museums of all kinds – in the arts, sciences, history, and more – play a crucial role in public education. They provide access to a wealth of information (FACTS) and programming geared toward various audiences to learn about the world around them. They are spaces which encourage curiosity, exploration, and intellectual engagement with new perspectives, all of which are foundational skills for well-rounded critical thinkers, and which we are well aware is all the more necessary in the age of Donald Trump.
All of this leads me to wonder if the real reason Trump proposes to cut the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities is not because it would make a significant dent in bringing down government costs (it wouldn’t – not even close), but because he thinks he can dismantle “Culture” as he understands it. Trump has railed against “Culture,” which from the mantle of populism he has assumed is characterized as elitist, out of touch with “authentic” America, and overly concerned with political correctness. Trump celebrates ignorance. He has little if any understanding of the value of the arts and humanities, or if he does, he doesn’t like it, because they are not something over which he will be able to exert control.
In art history, I’ve studied countless examples of rulers, emperors, and autocrats who marshaled art and artists to create cults of personality and visual propaganda to assert their power, and more importantly, to control the narrative of their reigns. They understood the seductive power of the visual to communicate a message, and while once the chosen media might have been painting, sculpture, or architecture, we have developed more immediate options: photography, television, and social media and the Internet. Donald Trump is no different in attempting to shape and control the image and the narrative through his favorite medium, Twitter (hence his almost daily attacks on the independent media).
But the arts are no longer something available to only the wealthy and powerful. We all ought to understand and be able to think critically about images and what messages they convey. Businesses and political campaigns invest millions in marketing strategies to craft the visual image that suits their goals – be it a product or your vote. One of the first things I studied in art history was “learning to look”: learning how an object conveys a particular message or idea and what visual tools the artist used to suggest that interpretation. But this is a skill learned through study and exposure, which is why access is so important.
Museums especially have a responsibility to be accessible and open to everyone. While I was an intern at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I learned a great deal from museum leadership and the education department about how the museum understood its responsibility as a public institution: to provide access and offer context and perspective for works of art where they might otherwise seem unfamiliar and inaccessible. Moreover, through their programming, they wanted to make all communities feel welcome in the galleries.
In the weeks since the inauguration, we have seen multiple artists and institutions take a stand against Donald Trump and his rhetoric. Shepard Fairey released his series of “We the People” posters ahead of the Women’s March, featuring women of color and making them available to download free of charge.
In response to Trump’s recent immigration ban, MoMA has taken the prominent stance of hanging works by artists from the majority-Muslim nations affected by the ban in its galleries, replacing works by such Western heavyweights as Picasso and Henri Matisse. Among others, directors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and LACMA and the president of the Getty Institute have issued statements about the threat the ban poses to scholarship, collaboration, intercultural exchange, and how the ban could disrupt exhibitions and programming. Getty president James Cuno went further, condemning the ban and emphasizing that “curiosity, diversity, and tolerance are the core values of the humanities, values that require the free movement of people and ideas.” He concluded emphatically that, “we believe the order is ill-advised, unnecessary, and destructive. The Getty stands against it and adds its voice in favor of established American principles of freedom and engagement.” (Read the full statement here.)
How this situation develops in the weeks and years to come remains to be seen, but early signs from the Trump administration are not encouraging. While it is heartening to see institutions take a direct stance against Donald Trump now, it is just as important that they continue doing what they’re doing to offer access, historical context, and perspective. Resistance to Trump and what he stands for will come in all forms, and the great strength of museums will be to resist with history, education, and dialogue.
#artforall, especially now.