Artists have declared their dissent from Trump. #WritersResist, #ArtAfterTrump, and #J20ArtStrike are a sample of many anti-Trump events organized by artists worldwide. It’s important to remember that these events are strategies for resistance and not the final aim of dissent. Although there is no clear path for the artist who dissents from established rules and power structures, it is important for the dissident artist to strategize—Trump’s election has life threatening consequences, we’re headed into an era of constrained resources, and a failure to alter the core sociopolitical realities will leave folks under siege in peril. In this essay, I present open-ended questions designed to help dissident artists understand what we’re pushing against, what success looks like, and what unique and necessary roles artists can take in the resistance.
What is the artist resisting?
To resist an authority figure is to question the levers and fulcrum of their power. Trump is hegemony personified. As a white man with considerable access to wealth, he represents the interests of a small minority, but wields a dominant share of power. Hegemony is a state of cultural domination—a sliver of the population enjoys disproportionate access to wealth via imperialism, capitalism, racism, ableism, homophobia, misogyny, and so on.¹ The true ideologies of power are obfuscated by narratives about work ethic and ingenuity. The majority’s belief in these superficial narratives means they advance the goals of the majority as their own. Social and economic inequality is legitimized and deemed inevitable. Debates about everything from gender and racial inequality to prisons and policing tend to focus on helping folks under siege advance up the ladder rather than questioning why society has so many rungs in the first place.
¹Srnicek, Nick, and Alex Williams. Inventing the future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. Brooklyn, NY: Verso , 2015. Print. p. 132.
How does a dissident artist define success?
The dissident artist must acknowledge the depth of their dissent. Some artists benefit from hegemony and seek to rearrange elements to their liking. Folks under siege and their accomplices seek to dismantle hegemony’s true narratives—capitalism, racism, ableism, misogyny, and so on. For the artist interested in rearrangement, a shift in political activity or optics will soothe them—additional arts education funding, an individual’s impeachment or electoral defeat, or changes to media reporting will suffice. An artist interested in dismantling hegemony will see these shifts as short-term wins that stabilize folks under siege while the long-term transformation continues. An artist who wants to dismantle hegemony knows they are digging the foundation for a new power structure whose final blueprint and form will be decided by our descendants. An artist who is ready to dismantle cultural dominance is not afraid to smash the roots of hegemony in their own life and work.
How does the artist advance hegemony?
Hegemony is a state of cultural domination and culture is the domain of artists. We mold the collective imagination. We grapple with history. We imagine the future. We provide the intellectual and emotional infrastructure of society. Remember—prayers, schoolbooks, dialects, dress, stories, and songs are all the domain of artists. Artists influence the imagination, and in turn, influence how humans relate to one another. From Aristotle and Plato to James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, intellectuals have not only acknowledged the power of the artist, but have wondered how artists should use this power.
What about art before Trump? If art influences the collective imagination, how have works of art, artists, and institutions, scaffolded Trump’s rise? Hours after the election, artists made statements about their role “after Trump.” Although many of these statements referenced the role of the artist in resisting historical threats like Hitler and McCarthy, or what artists must do in Trump’s wake, the question of how artists and our institutions contribute to hegemony is largely ignored. If the artist simply responds to Trump, and not the collective imagination and cultural dominance that birthed him, Trump will be born again. If the artist simply produces more work, or shifts themes, but does not consider the hegemonic foundations that art work, institutions, publications, and financiers are built upon, artists will still contribute to hegemony.
Dissident artists who want to respond to hegemony are forced to consider questions about identity, power, and privilege that are often avoided:
- How does hegemony manifest itself in the art world?
- How do art institutions amplify hegemony?
- How do individual artists and works of art amplify hegemony?
- Which artists and institutions have a disproportionate share of power, audiences, and resources?
- Which artists are suppressed and erased?
- How can individuals and institutions with a disproportionate share of power give reparations to and become accomplices of folks under siege?
How can the artist resist hegemony?
If the primary goal of countering hegemony is to reshape the collective imagination, the dissident must focus on both process and product. Artists can create work that uncovers erasure, questions the power structure, and imagines a future without hegemony. Artists can build and support institutions that give reparations, elevate the work of folks under siege, and have a counter-hegemonic mission. The work must happen at an internal, interpersonal, and global scale because hegemony is pervasive.
In his talk “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity”, James Baldwin says “The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us.” Dissident artists of integrity must tell the truth to help society reimagine itself.
CANDACE WILLIAMS’ poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Hyperallergic, Lambda Literary Review, and the Brooklyn Poets Anthology (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2017) among other places. Her first collection, Spells for Black Wizards, won the Atlas Review’s 2017 TAR Chapbook Series. She’s earned a MA in Elementary Education from Stanford University, a Brooklyn Poets Fellowship, and Cave Canem scholarships. Candace has performed, presented, and taught workshops at the Obie-winning Bushwick Starr Theater, Dixon Place, Eyebeam, the New Museum, and the Museum of Arts and Design, and received a commission from the American Jewish Historical Society for poems about black diaspora and liberation. You can find her cuddling her pit bull while subtweeting the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (@teacherc).