What is the Guernica of the Trump Era? Or rather — where is it?
Art has largely failed to rise to the seriousness of President Trump, beyond the most obvious indictments of his administration. “[T]here’s no denying,” Fast Company insisted back in 2016, “that some of the greatest, baddest, most compelling, and historically meaningful artistic movements have been born in the rubble of social, economic, and global man-made disasters.” But by that logic, we ought to be swimming in Guernicas at this point, and they’re nowhere to be found.
Trump hasn’t been the boon for culture he was expected to be back in 2016, precisely because artists have spent the last four years focused on how to take him down. Rather, it could end up being Joe Biden — who likely won’t elicit nearly the same impassioned reaction from mainstream artists — that could end up being the better president for truly great art.
Any attempt to confidently characterize art during the Trump Era would be premature at this point, though you can make safe guesses at the eventual canon: a mix of Alec Baldwin impersonations on SNL, the “Fearless Girl” statue, Jenny Holzer’s trucks series, Jenny Holzer knock-offs, American Dirt, The Handmaid’s Tale, Lovecraft Country, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. All broadly share what Sophie Haigney coined for the Los Angeles Review of Books as an “aesthetic experience of obviousness,” in which artists try to expose Trump as “a fool, a monster, a jester, a racist, a sexist,” despite the fact that he already “shows himself quite nakedly to be what he is.” The observations, as a result, fall flat, with conclusions that are shallow and self-evident. Even versions of art that don’t deal explicitly with Trump — like the period-piece Green Book or comic book adaptation Joker — still find ways to transparently attack him, with self-congratulatory and overly-simplified wokeness or pseudo-intellectual musings about toxic masculinity.
Biden, in all likelihood, will not provoke similar pushback from mainstream artists during his tenure. Already written off as the “third term of the Obama presidency,” his administration is expected to be cozy with Hollywood, with Biden already embraced by entertainment’s biggest stars. You can practically hear the alarm bells going off for critics like Vulture‘s Jerry Saltz, who wrote in November 2016 that “This Post-Election Pain Is Good, At Least for Art.” Post-election elation, presumably, is bad for it then.
But in truth, the Biden Era will very likely feature “better” — or at least more creatively ambitious— art than the Trump Era. For evidence, you only need to look at the Obama Era, a recent golden age for creators. Take 2014’s Citizen by writer Claudia Rankine, Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album Lemonade, and Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly, three very different projects that masterfully tackled issues of race; or the movies Carol (2015), Moonlight (2016), and Maggie Nelson’s 2015 book The Argonauts, which told meaningful and unapologetic LGBTQ love stories. There was also the eerily-prescient Social Network (2010), the election-eve Obama allegory of Lincoln (2012); even the formidable musical Hamilton, which would come to unintentionally capture the liberal naïveté of the era. As Time‘s Judy Berman wrote earlier this month, “The experiences and ideologies of the artists who flourished [during the Obama years] were just too diverse to be homogenous … its creators didn’t seem in lockstep with the president so much as free to explore an unlimited range of topics, many of which had little to do with him.”
Further, without a cartoonish villain in the White House to lambast, artists and comics will have to up their games and find new targets (Biden himself is far from being beyond reproach, too). Satire, which died a thousand deaths under the un-satirize-able Trump, could be weaponized once more. Late night TV will lose its low-hanging fruit, for the better. Jokes might even start to be funny again.
What’s more, we are hardly entering a period of stability and tranquility. We’re surrounded by the “rubble of social, economic, and global man-made disasters,” particularly if you consider the botched handling of the coronavirus outbreak to be “man-made.” In truth, we live in a much scarier world now than we did when Trump was entering office; climate change remains an ax over our collective heads, Russia is emboldened by our lack of action on election meddling, and the outgoing president has energized violent conspiracy theorists and white nationalists, who will not fade away.
But without having the obvious target of Trump to take aim at anymore, artists will be forced to confront more uncomfortable realities about the hatred and anger and resentment that have long festered under the surface of our nation. I anticipate that the art during the next four years will share the Obama Era’s broad reach, but tackle diverse topics without the rose-tinted perspective that often tinged art during his second term.
Admittedly, the next great protest song isn’t likely to be written about Joe Biden. But it didn’t get written about Trump, either. As is often the case with matters of creativity and perspective, any eventual, truly great work about the Trump Era will likely come after it’s ended.
Lucky for us, then, we’re just getting started.