The Art of the Protest
The Political Role of Art

CHRISTIAN PAZ/THE HOYA People gathered outside of the White House lawn to wait for the presidential election results.

CHRISTIAN PAZ/THE HOYA
People gathered outside of the White House lawn to wait for the presidential election results.

Sullen swathes of people, some shedding tears of despair or disappointment, departed from their locations surrounding the White House and National Mall, finally off to bed in hopes of escaping their bitter reality in restless sleep. The remaining crowd, jubilant and euphoric with victory, only grew rowdier, jeering at the departing people. Similar scenes of emotion and disbelief played out across the nation as people reeled with shock in front of their televisions and laptop screens.

In one of the greatest political upsets of all time, President-elect Donald Trump defeated more experienced fixtures of the American political system in both the Republican primary and the general election, harnessing the growing resentment of the American working class and riding the burgeoning populist movement to victory.

Nationwide, liberal groups have been organizing and preparing to protest the inauguration of a man who they feel is unqualified to be president, one who threatens the same rights he is called to protect. Although there is no shortage of political marches and protests taking place over inauguration weekend, the creative community in particular has mobilized and scheduled multiple arts and culture events for the inauguration weekend throughout Washington, D.C., and the nation.

WHAT DO THEY WANT? NOT TRUMP

In an election where 45 percent of the voting-eligible population refused to vote and in which Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost three million votes, the incendiary rhetoric used throughout Trump’s campaign served as kindling for the fiery furor that seems to have swept the country.

This has led to a desire for many to demonstrate their opposition, according to Bhaskar Sunkara, who serves as publisher and editor of Jacobin magazine, a pre-eminent socialist publication.

BHASKAR SUNKARA Bhaskar Sunkara is the editor of pre-eminent socialist publication Jacobin.

BHASKAR SUNKARA
Bhaskar Sunkara is the editor of pre-eminent socialist publication Jacobin.

“People are angry, and they’re looking for some way to show dissent and show Trump there’s limits to what he can do. They’re going to come from popular demonstrations that can make things almost ungovernable if he crosses certain red lines around mass deportation and similar things. … We on the left want to make it difficult for him to govern,” Sunkara said in an interview with The Hoya.

Many of these events take advantage of the increased activist population that will convene in D.C. during this weekend as visitors swarm to the nation’s capital to greet — or block -— the incoming president.
“We’ve found that often with these kinds of one-day protests or mobilizations — they’re often very ephemeral,” Sunkara said. “We wanted to make sure there were some deeper ideas and discussion about organization, about what to expect from a Trump presidency, the best way to oppose him [and] how not to oppose him.”

Sunkara’s publication will be co-sponsoring “The Anti-Inauguration” with Haymarket Books and Verso Books today at the Lincoln Theatre. Sold out and immortalized by watch parties organized across the country, “The Anti-Inauguration” features a panel of liberal thinkers: Author and filmmaker Naomi Klein, author Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and journalists Anand Gopal and Owen Jones.

“[Protest] is the only force we really have to advocate for the effect of politics. … The core of left-wing politics is to unite the many against the few, and also, in that process, define who’s the many and who’s the few and on what terms,” Sunkara said.

MAKE THEM LAUGH, THEN TALK

DOJO COMEDY "Stupid's Arrow," a long-form improvisation and sketch comedy show at Dojo Comedy last Valentine's Day, featured a caricature of Donald Trump.

DOJO COMEDY
“Stupid’s Arrow,” a long-form improvisation and sketch comedy show at Dojo Comedy last Valentine’s Day, featured a caricature of Donald Trump.

New York comedians Emily Winter and Jenn Welch, disgusted with Trump’s controversial language, produced a national comedy festival with proceeds benefitting the American Civil Liberties Union. Shows for the What A Joke Comedy Fest have been coordinated in 34 cities over the entire inauguration weekend.

D.C. coordinators and members of the local creative community Katherine Jessup and Linsay Deming are committed to giving people an opportunity to protest through laughter.

Politically tinged comedy has become the norm during this election cycle, with no shortage of material for late-night hosts to poke fun, but comedy can provide substantially more than just entertainment value.

“If you can get somebody to laugh about something furious that matters, then you’ve got them thinking about it. At the end of the day, the big, big social issues we’re having, the big problems we have in this world, people don’t like to think about it,” Deming said. “But if people just started to think about things, maybe that’ll lead to more activism.”

More specifically, comedy presents information in a new light and can help audiences reach different conclusions than if they were to be otherwise introduced to the material.

“When I teach joke-writing, I always tell students that laughter is an involuntary response to pattern recognition in the brain. For us to laugh at something, we have to recognize that it correlates,” Murphy McHugh (COL ’08) said. “In these scary times — or awesome times, for someone who disagrees with me politically — we can find common ground in things that are true. … If you laugh at a punchline that has a point, some part of you recognizes the truth in it. ”

As a comedian, writer and owner of Dojo Comedy, one of the participating venues in the What A Joke Comedy Fest, McHugh has unveiled one of the main points espoused by these artist-protestors: the importance of communication.

CLEARING THE WAY FOR SPEECH

In his seventh solo studio album, “Graceland,” Paul Simon broke with many of his contemporaries and disrupted the cultural boycott imposed on South Africa for its apartheid practices. Simon instead collaborated with South African artists, using Zulu musical styles like mbaqanga and isicathamiya.

PAUL SIMON In his seventh solo studio album, “Graceland,” Paul Simon incoporated Zulu musical influences, disrupting the cultural boycott imposed against South Africa.

PAUL SIMON
In his seventh solo studio album, “Graceland,” Paul Simon incoporated Zulu musical influences, disrupting the cultural boycott imposed against South Africa.

According to Anna H. Celenza, Thomas E. Caestecker professor of music in the Department of Performing Arts, “Graceland” is a prime example of artists using their cultural influence for activism.
“Up to that point, the world’s image of South Africa had been, ‘Oh, there’s violence and division.’ There was a sense of the world looking at the blacks of South Africa with pity. What Paul Simon did was say, ‘Look at this amazing sound. Look at this sound we’ve never heard before,’ and it blew up,” Celenza said.

This task can be difficult, especially when the artists themselves are limited in their means of communication. Trump has repeatedly threatened to revise existing libel laws and disparaged critics like the team behind “Saturday Night Live,” intimating retribution against news outlets and artists who have spoken out against him.

ANNA CELENZA Thomas E. Caestecker professor of music Anna Celenza

ANNA CELENZA
Thomas E. Caestecker professor of music Anna Celenza

“The arts thrive on expression,” McHugh said. “One of the things that raises hackles for me is the freedom of expression, anyone trying to limit that or saying what can and can’t be said. That’s what’s so great about the American Civil Liberties Union. They defend anyone and their right of speech, even if their views differ from mine. That’s a noble cause.”

The challenge of protecting free expression goes beyond governmental censorship. Imagine never hearing iconic protest songs like Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” or John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” because they were never written or barred from release. Recall the contention that surrounded N.W.A.’s “F–k Tha Police.”

“I think that what you see happening is that artists do some self-censorship. They need to make that decision: ‘Do I want to be seen as an activist or not?’” Celenza said. “All the radio stations are owned by the same place. You might not have government censorship, but you do have corporate censorship, where perhaps an idea or critique doesn’t show up on the airwaves, because that company has a financial obligation to another company getting critiqued.”

FINDING A VOICE

Deeply personal reactions to the election have spurred organizers into action. Artist Deborah Lash, organizer of the My America: D.C. Creates, Innovates, Unites Arts Festival tomorrow, was one such coordinator.

“Right after the election, I was really stunned,” Lash said. “I felt kind of lost and angry, and then I realized that my best voice is always through creativity. That’s the way I know how to speak out. The arts tend to change society in a really big way when artists come together and speak. It’s important for us to realize that power.”

For Mindi Mimosa, burlesque performer and producer of Barenaked Comedy, a show participating in “What a Joke,” the reaction is personal.

COURTESY ANDREW BOSSI Burlesque performer and comedian Mindi Mimosa is a local artist participating in the What A Joke Comedy Fest benefiting the American Civil Liberty Union.

COURTESY ANDREW BOSSI
Burlesque performer and comedian Mindi Mimosa is a local artist participating in the What A Joke Comedy Fest benefiting the American Civil Liberty Union.

“[Trump’s] presidency puts people at risk. … In the D.C. arts scene, the arts scene I am in, there’s a very large trans presence in just D.C. alone. The [repeal of] the [Affordable Care Act] is going to limit resources to trans individuals to transition and just physically be in their own bodies. … It’s an issue that’s hitting people at home,” Mimosa said.

Mimosa would know, her partner is transgender.

“Just letting this man be in charge, just symbolically, even if he doesn’t do s–t and he just sits back, he’s symbolic and encourages and empowers the racists of the world. … As artists, we take our responsibility of putting ourselves out there to f–king say something and I think that’s just necessary,” Mimosa said.

CHANGING TIMES

Legendary singer-songwriter and civil rights activist Nina Simone once asked, “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”

Many of the artists and organizers protesting this weekend emphasized the importance of the artist in speaking out about current events. Trump is certainly no stranger to artists speaking out against him. Besides SNL, a litany of artists including Earth, Wind & Fire, Adele, Queen, the Rolling Stones and Neil Young expressed their dissatisfaction with Trump’s use of their music in his campaign events.

GRAPHIC BY ALYSSA VOLIVAR/THE HOYA A few of the celebrities Donald Trump has feuded with:  Jennifer Holliday, Yoko Ono, Alec Baldwin, Samuel L. Jackson, Meryl Streep, & Robert De Niro

GRAPHIC BY ALYSSA VOLIVAR/THE HOYA
A few of the celebrities Donald Trump has feuded with: Jennifer Holliday, Yoko Ono, Alec Baldwin, Samuel L. Jackson, Meryl Streep, & Robert De Niro

The cast of the hit Broadway show “Hamilton” made headlines and drew Trump’s ire when it used the curtain call to appeal to audience member and Vice President-elect Mike Pence to “uphold our American values and work for all of us.”

More recently, Trump’s team has had difficulty recruiting star power for his inauguration, with many celebrities flat-out refusing. Last week, Broadway star Jennifer Holliday withdrew from the event, publically apologizing to her fans. This regretful note won her the support of many but also drew the ire of many Trump supporters.

“Don’t look to artists to heal. We’re not here just to make you feel good about the world. There were a lot of artists who said, ‘I’m not going to perform at the inauguration,’ and they got some backlash for that: ‘Well, of course you are! It’s your job!’ No, it’s not our job. Our job is to create works by what inspires us or what touches us or what affects us,” Celenza said. “The idea is that our obligation as artists is to heal the world sometimes, but arts are about showing the cut and showing what needs to be healed. We can’t be expected to [heal] it.”

LESS SAYING, MORE FEELING

Art, by nature, challenges norms. It is public and engages with existing discourse and ideology. Trump’s administration itself understands the symbolic and political power of art. A tradition going back to Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1985, the inaugural luncheon has had a different American painting as a backdrop. At Trump’s inaugural lunch with Congress, “The Verdict of the People” by 19th century painter George Caleb Bingham will set the scene.

As with many other facets of Trump’s inauguration, tensions heightened because of the painting. Despite portraying a Democratic victory, the painting is a fitting emblem for Trump. Painted after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, “The Verdict of the People” depicts the public reactions to the bill that put the future of slavery in Kansas to a public vote.

Kansas quickly became a bloodbath in the aftermath, as abolitionists and pro-slavery settlers flooded the state to participate in the election. The painting is a symbol of another time in American history when democracy was insufficient to solve the crisis of the day, with populist sentiments prevailing.

GEORGE CALEB BINGHAM "The Verdict of the People," a painting by George Caleb Bingham, depicts the public reaction to the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

GEORGE CALEB BINGHAM
“The Verdict of the People,” a painting by George Caleb Bingham, depicts the public reaction to the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

It is no surprise that populism has made an intense resurgence across the country. Artists themselves are not unsympathetic: Bruce Springsteen and The Ramones have long made music portraying the decline of the Rust Belt and the human impact of the death of the American manufacturing industry. The potent fervor of Trump’s supporters stems from years of anger at the current political system and anxiety about the future for people and their families.

“In the end, you have Trump supporters turning out passionately, because they felt like their candidate was getting unfairly maligned, that he had something very different to offer, and you have the rest of us just organizing and turning out ostensibly,” Sunkara said. “The polling wasn’t able to capture enthusiasm.”

If Sunkara is right, passion may very well become one of the critical actors in the political scene for the coming years. The real test in the future for sharing passion and effecting political change, for artists and citizens alike, will be in forging relationships within the community. If you are looking for passion and community, there is certainly no better place to start than the arts. The power of art is not just political — it is spiritual, it is emotional and it is personal. In a turbulent election cycle that has struck people deeply, art has granted solace to the worried and a voice to the voiceless. It has given power to those who have long felt disenfranchised, be they minorities, women, or members of the working class. As the country seems to head towards further polarization and divide, maybe, if we are lucky, art will bring us together again.

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