The Power That Endures

Breaking News! YOU have begun to turn the tide!

Your actions, from The Women’s March through yesterday’s groundswell of protests at US airports against Trump’s attempted Muslim refugee ban: WORKING! Trump’s attempts to muzzle federal agencies from communicating with the public: RENEGED because of YOUR protests. We the People are on the move, and have only just begun.

But there’s one “front” that needs more attention. For some time now, reports have been circulating that Trump’s federal-budget blueprint calls for the wholesale elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

It also calls for eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), as well as for the privatization of National Public Radio (NPR) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS). De-funding each of these, on its own, would be a disaster for artists, scholars, and free speech itself. Defunding them collectively constitutes a catastrophe. But for now, I’m going to focus on the arts.

As it is, the United States has a shameful record of support for the arts—yet arts are America’s most durable and popular, even beloved, export. For at least a century, the world has craved our music above all other; our TV and online dramas and comedies are the rage from Antarctica to Mongolia. Our writers are one reason English has become the global dominant language. Yet the NEA currently spends only 1/40th of what Germany does on its arts, which are revered as a German citizen’s birthright. France spends close to USD $10 billion, Sweden USD $15 billion (for its only 9 million people!), Australia $7 billion; England blows $728 million on museums and galleries alone. My god, even Uzbekistan and the Balkan states spend more on arts and culture than we do.

The NEA funds the arts at $146.2 million a year—compare that, say, to the $245 billion bailout of banks and financial institutions. The National Arts Index revealed art-spending makes up just 0.28 percent of the U.S. government’s non-military budget.

I imagine that to some people it might seem odd to sound the alarm about attacks on the arts at a time when people’s bodies, health, lives, and livelihoods, when our air and water and very existence, are being assaulted by Trump’s policies. To that, I would argue that the arts are civilization’s air and water, that the arts are as necessary to our survival as sentient human beings as any items on the above list—perhaps even more so, in that they keep us fully alive. In street parlance, they’re the means by which we “stay woke.”

This has always been the case. At the height of the Athenian democracy in Greece, playwrights like Aristophanes were expected to challenge the political status quo, to expose the ideological framework of political life, so much so that Plato even argued the arts must be censored for the safety of the state, because poets like Homer dared show flaws even in actions by the gods.

In the tenth century, Abbess Hildegard von Bingen composed early operatic devotions casting her nuns in all-female angelic choirs–with the one male voice, a priest, slyly cast in the role of the Devil. Dante’s writing was considered so subversive that he was exiled from Florence for life, though he certainly got even in The Divine Comedy, placing various popes and cardinals smack in hell. In his Henry plays, Shakespeare found it necessary to tweak history diplomatically, because the figures he was writing about were recent ancestors of the Tudors, the reigning dynasty of his time.

Whether through the satire of Molière or, later, the social insight of Shaw and bleak wit of Beckett, through the realism of Ibsen and Brecht or the lyricism of Synge and Anouilh, theater exposed and transformed the political arena. To this day, under authoritarian governments, companies mount classic Greek and Shakespearean plays considered “safely” beyond reproach, but they stage them with modern subversive messages. American theater has opened the veins of family politics through the plays of O’Neill, Williams, Miller,and Wilson and has put forth work protesting the government’s response to the AIDS crisis and the Iraq war. The theater door has finally been forced open by the talents of Lorraine Hansberry, Marsha Norman, Wendy Wasserstein, and other playwrights who have placed women’s lives before us in dramatic clarity. Hamilton itself fits into this tradition, reclaiming the founding myths of America for immigrants, men of color, and women.

The same is true for the visual arts. Da Vinci, Michelangelo—both in trouble for being intensely political. Picasso protested Spanish fascism through voluntary exile. Just last week, the environmental artist Cristo canceled the largest arts project on earth–a silvery canopy planned to temporarily billow over the Arkansas River, toward which he had already raised $15 million—canceled because the federally owned terrain now has a new landlord, Donald Trump, whom Cristo despises. Recently, Richard Prince disowned one of his own paintings, an inkjet print of Ivanka Trump that she had commissioned, renouncing it as “fake art.” Last November, a coalition of artists and curators held a candlelit vigil outside the Manhattan building where she and her husband have an apartment–to appeal to her as a collector of contemporary art to be a voice of reason in her father’s inner circle. (Good luck with that.) More than 130 artists signed a petition calling for an art strike by museums, galleries, concert halls, and other cultural institutions on Inauguration Day, to “combat the normalization of Trumpism.”

Writers? The writers, individually and collectively, haven’t shut up for a minute. A recent writers’ protest organized by The Pen America Center in New York, one of many, included readings on the subtleties of encroaching tyranny. The list of musical artists refusing to perform at Trump’s inauguration would comprise the longest, most stellar marquee in modern music history. And from Meryl Streep’s denunciation of Trumpism at the Golden Globe Awards to Alex Baldwin’s devastatingly satirical portrayal of Trump, actors have more than made their presence felt.

We know that in Trump’s self-obsessed universe he perceives criticism as attack. We know he has vowed to “open up the libel laws.” We know that he has already lobbed libel suits against writers who failed to genuflect to him. It didn’t matter whether he won or not; the aim was harassment, making his target pay heavy legal fees. So it’s not hard to imagine a country in which he sues any critical writing or work of art for libel–which bodes ill for artistic freedom, since 90 percent of artists are notoriously poor and can’t begin to afford high legal-defense fees.

But artists—next in line after journalists as the first targets of dictatorial governments—are accustomed to this. You can buy off a revolutionary now and then, but not an artist. The great poet Federico García Lorca knew that well before he was murdered by Generalissimo Franco.

A personal note of disclosure: In 1979 I was named a National Endowment for the Arts Awardee in Poetry. The honor came accompanied by a grant that literally changed my life. You can read about this at some length in my memoir, Saturday’s Child; how the recognition and the grant bought me some time and space to write but more importantly to step back and look at how I was living, and how I needed to change that. It was a transfusion of esthetic lifeblood. I will always be grateful to the NEA, and will fight with every fiber of my being so that transfusion will continue to be available for other artists.

These days–dark, dark days in our Republic—when I sometimes feel granulated between the mounting pressures of activism and time, the one solid place of restoration I know I can rely on is reading or seeing or hearing a work of art, or crafting a new one into existence myself.

Nor am I alone. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is being rushed into a new printing by the publisher, because moments after Kellyanne Conway coined “alternative facts,” the 68-year-old novel began selling out. Friends, as you read these words, it is now Number 1 on Amazon’s best sellers list. That’s the power tyrants fear. That’s the kind of power that endures.

As Toni Morrison wrote:

This is precisely when artists go to work. 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. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.

And in her masterpiece, Requiem, the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova depicted Stalin’s purges, when her son was imprisoned in a Leningrad fortress before which she would stand for hours every day to learn if he was still alive or had been killed, waiting silently with hundreds of other women hooded in their babushkas, shivering in the frozen air:

In the awful days of the Yezhovschina Terror I passed seventeen months in the outer waiting line of the prison visitors in Leningrad. Once, somebody there “identified” me as a poet. Then a woman, standing behind me in the line, which, of course, never heard my name, waked up from the torpor that was typical for us all, and asked me, whispering into my ear (all spoke only in a whisper there):
“And can you describe this?”
And I answered:
“Yes. I can.”
Then the wisp of a smile passed through her blue lips across what had once been her face.

Akhmatova did describe it, and she paid the price for that. It was her gift, her burden, her job. As it is mine.

I ask you to stand with your citizen artists, as we stand with you, we who give voice and image, melody and form to your suffering and celebrations known and not yet known, every day.

That’s what we live for—and what, if necessary, we will die for.