The Power and Limits of Political Art in the Time of Trump

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The Power and Limits of Political Art in the Time of Trump

If you’re as masochistic as I am and spent 2016 checking Twitter even though you knew it would be filled with bad news about the election, then you probably noticed the trend of comparing popular fictional characters to presidential candidates and attempting to find any possible connection between a piece of art (usually a TV show or a movie series) and the presidential race. There is no harm in that, of course, and a few laughs can be had when a particularly adept comparison comes up. However, as the election wore on, this trend began to grow and websites, especially liberal websites and liberal writers on Twitter, began almost incessantly comparing Clinton and Trump to characters from television shows or movies, crafting a narrative that the political world was just like Harry Potter or Star Wars. This was a problem because it also assured the readers of these articles the election would end in a victory, just like in the stories. Considering what ultimately happened, this approach looks even more ridiculous in hindsight.

By the time Election Day arrived, you’d be forgiven for thinking Hermione Granger, Darth Vader, and Daenarys Targaryen were running for president. The obsession with Daenarys sparked one of the oddest comparisons. Websites and magazines tried to make a positive link between her and Hillary Clinton. For those of you who watch Game of Thrones or who have read George R. R. Martin’s novels, you might be scratching your head. Daenarys Targareyn is a monarchist and an imperialist, neither of which are characteristics you would want in the president of the United States.

This type of lazy analysis would not pass muster in a high school English class. Still, it was prevalent in political discourse and still is today. It would be one thing if these were just memes intent on generating a quick chuckle, but it sometimes feels as if there is a significant set of people who can only understand politics through the lens of their favorite pop culture vehicle. This has not gone unnoticed by other outlets. While we can debate the political capital of Seth Meyers, Saturday Night Live, and Harry Potter, it is clear a political movement reliant on pop culture is going to fail.

Why? Because pop culture is not universal. Most people do not have HBO. A lot of people have not read Harry Potter. Many didn’t see John Oliver “destroy” Donald Drumpf. Therefore, even if the essays written about these aspects of pop culture were politically astute, which they rarely are, they would still be insufficient as they rely on references a lot of the population does not understand. This makes left-wing politics look insular.

Thanks to the over-the-top reliance on popular art throughout the election, there is a tendency to push back and say art has no effect, and we should stop relying on it for any political use. Kurt Vonnegut summed up this viewpoint in relation to the Vietnam War: “During the Vietnam War, which lasted longer than any war we’ve ever been in—and which we lost— every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.”

Yet Vonnegut might be a little too cynical. It is impossible to say how much art influenced the population’s view of Vietnam, because we cannot compare it to a population that had no access to anti-Vietnam War art. Perhaps the war would’ve gone on longer had the artistic community not turned against the war. Perhaps nothing would have changed at all. What can be said is that there absolutely are instances of art influencing politics. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle has been credited as a factor in the eventual passing of the Meat Inspection Act (and if you read the book, you know why). In 1988, when Poland was wrapped up in a debate on capital punishment, A Short Film About Killing was released, portraying a murderer as being no different from the state when it executes citizens. Hell, even Saturday Night Live might help get Sean Spicer ousted from the White House because our president does not like that a woman portrayed a man. On the negative end, Birth of a Nation helped to whitewash the KKK and the FOX television drama 24 made torture acceptable for Americans during the Bush years, presenting it as an almost patriotic duty. Years of police procedurals where all the cops are law-abiding and close every case without a hitch helped brainwash Americans into thinking the police are above question. So, art does have a political effect and needs to be examined in such a way.

The problem with the current mix of art and politics is that comparisons to Daenarys or Voldemort are not designed to dig into what the artists are trying to convey but, instead, to make politicians appear cool or villainous (depending on the day). It is also a spectacular way to get clicks on your website. An article titled “How Game of Thrones Shows Trump is a Fraud” is going to be a lot more popular than an article titled “How Game of Thrones Explores Power Dynamics in a Corrupt System” even though the latter is more honest to the art in question. The former offers an easy answer (here is why Trump is bad) though and lets the reader off the hook.

Articles claiming a piece of art offers all the answers to your political questions should be avoided. For one, no fictional character or situation is completely analogous to our current predicament. They can’t be. Trump is, tough as it is to sometimes believe, a real person and the characters from the Harry Potter books and The Walking Dead are not, which means they do not contain all the answers to Donald Trump. Second, the obsession with art, particularly popular art, being an answer to conservatism in and of itself is a harmful one. It enforces the belief that the very act of watching Saturday Night Live is somehow a political statement and not something you would be doing even if Trump was elected because it’s Saturday night and your social life is non-existent (this does describe my Saturday nights, I admit). A rather convenient form of political engagement, eh?

The popular art associated with politics lately has tended to be art associated with a franchise: Harry Potter, Star Wars, the Marvel films, and so on. Franchises rely on a continuing audience; there is no upside to a franchise making too deep of a political statement because it could drive viewers away. While a franchise might invoke morality, most franchises will not go too far, making their political use limited. If you take a Marvel superhero film, it may well have a political point to it, but it’s first intention is to convince you to come back and see the next big comic book event film. If you leave the film thinking about how drone warfare is terrible instead of wondering what Captain America: Civil War 32 is going to be about then, from the producers’ standpoint, the film did not do its job. Even HBO’s Game of Thrones has softened the political edges of Martin’s groundbreaking fantasy novels. Absent from the show is a character’s speech on how men, through sports and other childhood games, are pushed towards war from an early age. Most ongoing television shows will be reluctant to stake out ground that is too politically controversial because, like film franchises, they rely on a returning audience.

The most effective political art is the type that does not offer easy answers, the type that forces the audience to go away feeling like there needs to be a change, the type that is not afraid to push the audience away. The Jungle was effective because readers were repulsed by Sinclair’s descriptions and did not want to live in the world he painted. FX’s The Shield took on police brutality in a way few other dramas did: it indicted the audience in the first episode. When discussing corrupt cop Vic Mackey, Detective Claudette Wyms remarks that so long as people feel safe, they will put up with non-white citizens being beaten by the police. The Sopranos’ ending infuriated so many precisely because it did not pat the reader on the head and tell them that the bad guys always lose in the end. Ava Duvernay’s Selma did not flinch from showing a police officer execute a black man in public without consequence. This type of drama, one that forces the audience to question prior beliefs, is more uncomfortable to talk about and does not provide the easy narrative that a Harry Potter or Star Wars reference will.

This does not mean the stories of Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter have no relevance or weight. They do. They can inspire and amaze, and clearly have done so, both of which are necessary forms of art. There are moral lessons that can be learned from them too. There’s also nothing wrong with retreating to comfortable and life-affirming art when you are despondent. I’m a guy who owns way too many Star Wars novels, after all, so I understand the desire. The therapeutic value of these pieces of art cannot be discounted. But their use as specifically political instruments is limited, and the reliance on them for political comfort is dangerous. Headmaster Dumbledore is not going to save us from Trump no matter how hard we clasp our favorite Harry Potter novels. Obi-Wan Kenobi is not going to come in from the desert to use the Force to convince Mike Pence to embrace single payer health care. Reassuring art has its place, but it’s complex, challenging, sometimes audience-indicting art that will be needed for the future as this country tries to grapple with the fact that it elected a racist, sexist, authoritarian leader.

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