When Vice President–elect Mike Pence went to see Hamilton on Broadway, he was doing more than enjoying a night at the theater. Even if he didn’t realize it, he was there to triumph over an enemy. For if any work of art represented the liberal hope of the Obama years, it was surely Hamilton. Here was a patriotic attempt to open the canon of American history to people of color, to tell the stories of the past in the language of the present, in much the same way that Obama himself believed he could do when he was elected in 2008. The election of Donald Trump eight years later, riding a wave of white supremacy and xenophobia, represented the defeat—for now, at least—of that inclusive hope. Hamilton and Trump represent diametrically opposed visions of what America is and should be, and Trump won; no wonder Pence, venturing into the sanctum sanctorum of Obama’s America, got booed. Booing was all that the audience could do, having lost when it mattered.
The Trump victory has already put a number of complacent American assumptions to the test. Many things that liberal, educated people believed were cherished by all Americans turned out to be a matter of indifference to almost half of them: a free, objective press; respect for women; respect for the Constitution; common decency. One illusion that will be particularly painful to part with is the idea that high culture and the arts have any effective power in American life.
Maybe they never did. But there was a long moment, roughly coinciding with the Cold War, when circumstances conspired to make it feel like culture mattered. In that post-radio, pre-internet age, the mass media were limited in number—three TV networks, two newsmagazines—and very broad in scope, reaching tens of millions of people. As the recent documentary Best of Enemies reminded us, debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal were considered TV events in the 1960s. Talk show hosts welcomed Norman Mailer and Lillian Hellman to their couches. When a poet or essayist made the cover of Time magazine—as James Baldwin did in 1963 and Robert Lowell did in 1967—there was an implication that knowledge of literature and the arts was a central part of being an informed citizen, even if a majority of readers never sought out their work.
But it has been a long time since artists and writers commanded so much public attention. During the 2016 campaign, a long list of prominent writers, including Junot Díaz, Amy Tan, and Dave Eggers, signed an “Open Letter to the American People” imploring them not to vote for Trump. There were entire gallery exhibitions devoted to protest art against Trump. But the response from outside the “coastal elite” was mostly silence. The emperor of culture turned out to have no clothes. This shouldn’t be unduly embarrassing, given that every institution in American society that opposed Trump—from schools to unions to churches to Fortune 500 corporations—proved unable to exercise the moral power they believed themselves to possess. The arts and humanities stood exposed as what perhaps they always were—the pursuit of a small minority.
It is this revelation of powerlessness, I think, that accounts for the mood of depression and shock that has gripped the world of the arts since Nov. 8. There is an echo here of intellectuals’ reaction to the defeat of Adlai Stevenson, the liberal “egghead” candidate, in 1952. (Intellectuals, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. declared in Partisan Review after Stevenson lost, were now “on the run in American society.”) Now as then, writers and artists, and people who take their moral and intellectual bearings from literature and art, must reconcile themselves to a world in which they have no connection with power. And not just political power—no one ever thought that there was a Culture Lobby on a par with, say, the National Rifle Association.
What’s more important is that high culture has forfeited the power to define the individual’s reality. The central role that writers and artists have played in public debate and popular culture is a thing of the past, but that role was always secondary to their real purpose, which is to create works that help readers and viewers to shape their lives. Art is supposed to be a tool for interpreting our experience and determining our values. And yet such a statement can seem impossibly abstract and idealistic at a time when the nation itself is in danger. One of the definitions of a time of political crisis is that the public usurps the private; it becomes impossible to control what we think about, what dominates our minds and emotions. At such times, in the words of Bertolt Brecht’s poem “To Those Who Come After,” “a conversation about trees is almost a crime.” What are the arts to do, what are people involved with the arts to do, in such a period?
The first lesson we must learn is that it was our prior sense of normality that was the illusion, not our new sense of disaster. The world is always on fire; ask the people of Aleppo whether 2015 was a better year than 2016, the year we all complain about on Facebook because Leonard Cohen and Prince died in it. A bad historical moment, for any of us, is merely one in which the fire gets close enough that we can feel its heat. Now that we are feeling the heat, questioning whether democracy and the rule of law will survive in America, we may lose the durable illusion of “American innocence” that was supposed to have been shed after 9/11 but apparently grew back pretty quickly.
The second lesson we will have to learn is the courage to insist on a private definition of reality, in the face of the overwhelming pressure of public events. If we continue to believe that the arts and culture matter, it will not be because we think a passionate poem or a rousing play has the power to change the world. They don’t: As the poet W.H. Auden said long ago, during a previous era of crisis, “Poetry makes nothing happen.”
This is a bitter truth for many good people, who find it hard to accept that the beautiful and the good are separate ideas, who want their passion for the beautiful to substitute as, or supplement, a passion for the good. If we are to oppose Trump and the policies and crimes that are likely to emerge from his administration, we will have to do so as citizens, not as artists. History shows that the attempt to make art serve a direct political purpose mostly results in bad art and empty self-congratulation. Even the rare works that do have a political effect in their day—such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was said to contribute to the coming of the Civil War—usually lose their power and interest when that moment is past. In the 1930s, when the world was in worse shape than it is today, artists and intellectuals felt an all-consuming pressure to make their work serve the cause of progress—which meant, usually, the cause of the left, of communism and socialism. The result, at its very best, were works like Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, both about the perseverance of the American spirit during the Great Depression—and both unimpeachably democratic, but also simplistic, monochromatic, manipulative. Such books offered propaganda for the common man, in a way not too far removed from Soviet socialist realism. It took a determined critic like Lionel Trilling to defend the cause of ambiguity and complexity at such a moment, to insist that political effectiveness is not the only criterion of artistic value. “It is as if wit, and flexibility of mind, and perception, and knowledge were to be equated with aristocracy and political reaction, while dullness and stupidity must naturally suggest a virtuous democracy,” Trilling complained in a 1946 essay.
This doesn’t mean that art can’t address politics—it can and must. But art works most productively at the point where politics becomes a personal, even private experience. Art speaks most honestly and effectively of the plight of the individual at the mercy of historical events. That is why great political art is so often about the experience of dread and loss, and why it takes such difficult and unpopular forms. Indeed, the political art of the 1930s that remains most vital is often positively hermetic. The early poems of W.H. Auden use cryptic imagery to create a generalized sense of decline and threat; the essays of Walter Benjamin combine cultural criticism with dense Marxist and messianic theory, creating a new way to think about history as a series of endangered moments. Even Picasso’s Guernica, perhaps the most famous work of political art of the past century, is fractured, surreal, bizarre—less a document of an atrocity than a translation of atrocity into the language of modernist painting. But these works live, long after the political climate that produced them has passed, because they are able to make us feel what it was like to be alive in a catastrophic time and place. The function of engaged art is not to change the world but to offer other people, now and in the future, a kind of testimony. Artists are not legislators but witnesses.
The most difficult thing for any human being to accept is powerlessness. It is such a terrifying condition that we will resort to all kinds of magical thinking and conspiratorial fantasy in order to imagine we possess some kind of control over events. But in the words of the poet John Berryman, “We must travel in the direction of our fear.” An embrace of powerlessness may even give art the reckless freedom it needs to become truly subversive and enduring. One of the works I found myself thinking of with the most gratitude in the past few weeks is Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which is above all a play about the imaginative strength of the socially powerless and outcast. The kind of comradeship and utopian hope Kushner writes about, and creates, in that play may be possible only at the margins of society. Power may always remain with the Roy Cohns (not coincidentally, Donald Trump’s mentor); but it is the Louis Ironsons and Prior Walters who we remember with love—not for what they did, but for what they were.