Art in Trump's America

Naren Weiss

The New York City Department of Education (DOE) and the Mayor’s Office are committed to protecting the right of every student in New York City to attend public school, regardless of immigration status. The United States Supreme Court has also recognized the importance of public education for all students, including undocumented students. Your child is our top priority, and we will do everything in our power to protect that right and ensure all students get a quality education. We take pride in our diversity. Immigrant parents, students, principals, teachers and other staff are a part of what makes our schools, and New York City, the amazing, strong, vibrant places they are. Whether you or your family arrived 100 years or 100 days ago —you are New Yorkers— and we stand with you.

As teachers of arts programmes in New York City, my colleagues and I received this letter from the Chancellor’s (Department of Education) office. It was an important one. It has held our faith against the America we all live in today: President Trump’s.

I teach a number of different classes but the one I gravitate most towards is the one I’ve had the longest; an improv comedy troupe composed entirely of girls between the ages of 8 and 11. In this time period, it is not lost on me the world they are being thrown into. Interestingly enough though, it is not lost on them the world that I am being thrown into as well. This by virtue of having a misogynistic, xenophobic President: we are all very much in danger.

Of equal importance is these girls’ right to an arts education, which is in danger. With reports from The Hill (and others) of Trump-backed cuts to federal budgets for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, arts education programmes are very much in danger of being axed altogether. [1]

These agencies have always been hotly contested by conservatives but the debate has been massively reignited since Trump’s move to the White House. With the Trump presidency looking to cut federal budgets, arts and arts education programmes seem to be areas upon which he has turned his attention.

In reality though, do budget cuts here make a massive difference? Earlier this year, the New York Times did a report on what such a cut to federal funding for the arts would look like and crunched numbers on the subject. These three agencies account for $741 million of the United States’ federal funding a year, which is less than one-tenth of one percent of the U.S.’s annual federal funding. [2] (To put that in perspective, for every thousand rupees you spend, that’s the equivalent of less than one rupee going towards the arts).

The fate of funding for the arts may be very much up in the air at the moment, but President Trump’s position on it is not. Maybe related, maybe not; the Washington, D.C. headquarters for both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2014 was located in the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue. As of last year, there is a new institution in its place: Trump International Hotel. Call it a metaphor, if you will.

Funding (or lack thereof) is not the only move against the arts that has been introduced under President Trump’s regime. Earlier this month, The Hollywood Reporter reported a new “Right to Work” bill that was quietly introduced in Congress. The bill, Democrats say, is a “backdoor attempt at bankrupting labor unions” and could starve and ultimately end up crippling Hollywood.

At present, workers of non-right to work states (like New York and California) can opt for financial core (or “fi-core”) status, which means they are not required to join a union. If they do choose to go fi-core, they are then required to pay “agency” or “fair share” fees in lieu of dues (less than 1% of Hollywood union members opt for this, and dues are around 90% of full dues). These dues finance the political work a union does, from which these non-union (fi-core) members still directly benefit. [3] In layman’s terms, this means that workers will no longer be under any obligation to pay for a union’s political work but may continue to receive the rewards/benefits of that very same political work.

“This legislation clearly has one purpose: to undermine the capacity of unions to protect workers and defund them,” Representatives Peter DeFazio and Bobby Scott said in a joint statement, breaking it down even further. “Studies show that diminishing unions leads to lower wages and salaries for union and non-union workers alike. This is why wages are lower in so-called right to work (RTW) states than those that are not, costing families up to thousands of dollars each year."

Should the “Right to Work” bill be passed, many of Hollywood’s unions will be in danger of going under in the years to come, thereby eliminating a source of protection for many working artists. The fact that the bill has been introduced with little to no fanfare makes it all the more dangerous for all.

The stifling and crippling of art has long been a defining trait of fascism and its occurrence in present day America is very telling of the times that we are in right now. In fact, Theatre of the Absurd itself was borne out of the ashes of a ruined Europe in the first half of the 20th century and continues to feel especially relevant today.

Art for art’s sake has become obsolete in today’s society. The role of the artist is all the more important, given the political figureheads who seek to silence it. The role of a seemingly inane show such as Saturday Night Live has become even more important, showing that the world’s most powerful man can be effected by simple sketches targeting him. Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump is caricature-like in many ways, but so is President Trump himself.

This is the power of art. Out of war-torn Europe emerged absurdist theatre. Out of fascist America comes something else. We are yet to discern what it is, but it is happening right in front of our very eyes.

For my own part under such a monumental regime change, and as an artist out here, I was determined to contribute with artistic statements of my own. As an actor whose very claim to fame came from playing a terrorist (Osama bin Laden in Kamal Haasan’s film Vishwaroopam), the concept of stereotyping never inherently bothered me. After all, I’d been stereotyped in India. It was bound to happen in America and I didn’t plan on taking it personally.

That said, as President Trump came into power, I began to question my own role in all of this. What stories was I telling? Which stereotypes was I perpetuating? How was my voice being perceived by my students as well as my contemporaries?

I vowed to be more cautious with the roles I was going out for and to start turning away the terrorist roles I was being asked to portray (which were a lot). I also decided to no longer go out for parts that portrayed immigrants/outsiders in even remotely negatives shades.

As it turns out, the industry was already ahead of me. Since President Trump’s inauguration, I have not been asked to audition for a single terrorist role. The roles I have been going out for are both timely and relevant: refugees; a Muslim man being deported; a foreign individual subject to American oppression; roles exploring misogyny, and so much more - roles that are layered and that are good, pertinent expressions of freedom. Many of these are studio-backed, not just indie artists-in-the-trenches.

The role of the storyteller has always been defined by our times, and it is happening now more than ever. Art has stopped being about our inherent fears and has started being about how we can overcome said fears. In my class of 8 to 11 year-old girls, comedy is no longer a tool to hide behind but a weapon to utilise. Each and every one of us out here has realised the power we have and our inherent responsibility in utilising it.

Donald Trump’s America is a scary place to live in right now, but we are all striving to make it an even scarier place for him in return.

This is the power we have. It is the power of each individual.

Most importantly though, it is the power of art.

*Naren Weiss is a playwright whose plays have been performed throughout India, Singapore, South Africa and the United States.

[1] http://thehill.com/policy/finance/314991-trump-team-prepares-dramatic-cuts
[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/30/arts/design/donald-trump-arts-humanities-public-television.html?_r=0
[3] http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/new-national-right-work-bill-threatens-hollywood-unions-971345

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