What would an Obama or McCain presidency do for the arts? Or will the new President’s hands be tied by the economic turmoil?
Michelle Obama recently took some relatives to see a revue at a Chicago theatre. Her husband did not accompany them. He’d already been to see a production of The Color Purple a few nights before, and anyway, it probably wasn’t appropriate: the show was called Between Barack and a Hard Place, and it made comedy of the last days of the primaries as Hillary Clinton fought vainly to knock down a man who, the show suggested, somehow managed to be black, white, Jewish, Latino, gay and, if needs must, a soccer mom too. He was something to everyone, and a liberal’s dream.
Liberals may or may not see their dreams come true tomorrow, but whether Obama or McCain is elected the 44th President of the United States, we might wonder what will unfold in the arts in the coming years. Won’t many writers and artists lose their muse – along with their enemy – when Bush disappears? We’ve had countless Bush-era movies, from Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss to Oliver Stone’s W.; we’ve had books such as Nicholson Baker’s Bush-assassination novella Check-point and Curtis Sittenfeld’s roman à clef, American Wife, wondering at how Laura Bush turned from a liberal-leaning librarian into the Republican First Lady.
The past eight years have also produced a flourishing of political art, so much so that when a Los Angeles print publisher decided to produce a portfolio to be sold in aid of the Obama campaign it managed to extract designs from the likes of Jasper Johns, Richard Serra, Ellsworth Kelly and Ed Ruscha, and raised $3 million.
No, creative liberals won’t be sorry to see the back of Bush. But might an Obama presidency be just too much of a good thing? Happiness writes white, after all. John Lahr, the theatre critic of The New Yorker, says: “Historically, in times when there is change or hope, there is much more protest and wideranging opinion and activity in Broadway’s experimental theatres. People feel that someone will listen. What we’ve had for the past eight years is a kind of torpor and resignation, and that’s made theatre lose a lot of heat. I think there will be a lot more political, polemical stuff.”
He might have a point. The last time America pinned its hopes on a young president, John F. Kennedy, we saw the release of first albums by Joan Baez and Bob Dylan (the latter admittedly shortly before his election); Joseph Heller published Catch-22 and Ken Kesey put out One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Visual art, meanwhile, turned away from the introversion and darkness of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art flourished.
Of course, the 2008 election isn’t over yet, and the arts may have to look to John McCain for support. Would he be so different? Perhaps not. Coincidentally, both Obama and McCain have cited Ernest Hemingway’s 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls as one of their favourite reads. In particular, they identified with the tough American hero, Robert Jordan, who hides out in caves during the Spanish Civil War, trying to wage guerrilla war on the fascists. “Robert Jordan was everything I ever wanted to be,” McCain once said.
But the similarities probably end there. McCain’s tastes in the arts aren’t well publicised, but Obama gave an interview to Rolling Stone in July in which he revealed a few of his desert island discs, and they aren’t likely to be the same as those of his septuagenarian opponent. Springsteen is a favourite, naturally: the Boss is a stalwart Democrat. Dylan he also likes. And he’s loved Stevie Wonder since his youth. More incongruously, he also says that he is on friendly terms with Jay-Z (though he hastens to add that he worries about his daughters listening to the rapper’s music).
Whatever it might do for the music business – probably not much, given the deep problems in the industry – Lahr has high hopes for an Obama presidency. “I think the very existence of Barack Obama says something profoundly hopeful about the American experiment. He himself has said it’s going to be slow. But I think what we’re going to see is a redefinition of the relationship between the individual and the community.” And Mike Goodridge, the US editor of Screen International, believes that an Obama presidency will make a difference in Hollywood. “I do think that in the past eight years American cinema has become a lot bleaker. There have been films such as No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. The classic example is the Batman film The Dark Knight, which is a horrifying indictment of contemporary America.”
These are changes that may happen no matter what direction Obama steers the arts (assuming, again, that he wins). But he does have plans. Early on in his campaign, he convened a 33-strong National Arts Policy Committee, including the novelist Michael Chabon and the founder of the American Film Institute, George Stevens Jr. The team then issued a two-page document laying out Obama’s vision for the arts. There’s much talk of arts education, “to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society”. Obama wants an “artist corps” to go into schools and ginger up disadvantaged schoolchildren, and there’s talk of more money for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Over several months McCain was prodded to release a similar document, until finally, two weeks ago, he issued four sentences including a some ominous murmuring about “priorities” in spending: “Where local priorities allow, he believes investing in arts education can play a role in nurturing the creativity of expression so vital to the health of our cultural life.”
Of course, Obama’s talk of boosted funding may be moot now that America is facing recession. McCain’s “priorities” may have to be Obama’s as well. But even without an economic downturn, the arts could probably expect lean times under McCain, as he has a record of voting to abolish or cut funding for the NEA.
The NEA has proved divisive over the years: when commentators speak broadly of “the culture wars”, they refer to a battle of values between liberals and religious conservatives, yet some of the fiercest fighting in the 1990s was over the NEA’s funding for exhibits by artists such as Andreas Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe. In 1992 funding for the NEA stood at $175 million; today, as a result of those conflicts, it’s $125 million. Bush did little to encourage the NEA during his presidency, though he made headlines in 2004 by increasing the budget by $18 million – the largest increase since 1984 – to fund American Masterpieces, a contentious scheme to promote canonical American culture.
In any case, it’s fair to suppose that economic pressures will trump any kind of political influence in shaping the next few years in the American arts. Some have already been speculating about it. New York magazine recently had fun predicting the state of the arts under this “New Great Depression”: maybe artists will revisit Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photo Migrant Mother to record the fates of migrant bankers; perhaps R.Kelly will resurrect the Gershwin classic as Porgy and Bitches; or Gone with the Wind will be reshot in hipster Brooklyn, where a
“battle of the bands” will replace the Civil War setting, and Brett will say to Scarlett: “Frankly, O’Hara, whatever.”
More seriously, Lahr predicts hard times on Broadway. “In times of fear, people don’t want to think, so you tend to get musicals, spectacle, documentary. It tends to lower the literary quality of work. And producers aren’t going to take risks with unknown products.” Similarly, Goodridge sees poor fare at the cinema. “Film is the cheapest form of entertainment and it has ridden out recessions repeatedly, but Hollywood as a corporate society has suffered terribly over the past year; there have been massive lay-offs.” And that is going to have an effect. “Mamma Mia! is about as mindless as you can get in terms of escapist entertainment, and look how successful that’s been. Whereas the failure of the Iraq war films has just made the studios more keenly aware that they just have to produce blockbusters.”
And in the contemporary art market the balloon is ripe to burst. The New York art critic Jerry Saltz last week predicted casualties: “Forty to fifty New York galleries will close… An art magazine will cease publication… A major art fair will call it quits… Museums will cancel shows.” Nevertheless, he thinks that some of this might be a good thing. Too many artists have been getting away with murder.
Even the New York-based Japanese artist Takashi Murakami agrees – and he hasn’t exactly missed out on the highcotton years. “Maybe we can have a conversation about the concepts,” he says. Earlier this month the comedian Stephen Colbert wondered if things might get so bad on the high street that some American shoppers may have to stop shopping, visit libraries and borrow books. It would be awful, it would be un-American, but if things get tough, they are ready.
BURNING BUSH – THE LEGACY OF W
Roseanne Barr, comedian I think the world is about to change for the better. Bush ruined it and now people have no choice but to try to put it back together. He’s like Humpty Dumpty.
Edward Albee, playwright I see no cultural legacy from Bush. After 9/11 writers were bombarded with requests to write about the event, and the great majority of us said: “Something’s going to come out of this, probably, but let’s wait until it happens; hysterical journalism doesn’t really help much.” I’m more interested in the deep malaise in this country that has permitted us to have eight years of George W. Bush.
Brian Dennehy, actor There’s been a tremendous amount of what I guess you’d call outraged art, an anti-Bush industry on hand ready to fulminate about how disastrous he is. But the conclusions are often more complicated than the left has wanted to hear.
Tony Kushner, playwright Bush is a person, as far as I can tell, without culture, though there was some weird moment when he was inviting philosophers and historians to the White House for late-night conversations about the meaning of life and how he’d be remembered. Most of those who went were very closed-mouthed about it.
Tim Robbins, actor, director I said when Bush was re-elected that it was a good day for satirists and punk rockers, and I do think that when things get this bad that it leads to stronger art. But at the end of the day I’d rather see civil liberties than kick-ass art.
Oskar Eustis, artistic director, Public Theatre, New York The Bush administration has been disastrous. The kind of isolationism he has promoted has tremendously increased the difficulty of the cultural flow of traffic: it’s much harder than it once was to get foreign nationals into the United States. The other thing that can’t be underestimated is the time bomb he has left in terms of the deficit: the economic crisis that is just beginning to spread its toxin is going to leave this poison where the arts are going to be one of the first places that suffer.
Justin Bond. writer, performer, and drag artist I’ve never really gone after George W. Bush as a target because I felt he was too easy. It’s the forces behind him of fundamentalist religion and of greed – the power structure behind the neocon movement – that has made me really angry. It’s become very clear how damaging that entire agenda has become to the country and to the world.
Margo Lion, Broadway producer and Obama volunteer I probably don’t think George W. Bush is a bad guy, though I have other feelings about other people. I just feel so disheartened by what’s happened in the last eight years. I’m sure this all sounds so touchy-feely, but when Barack came on the scene it was almost as if someone was watching over us. He always said, “If I make a good enough argument to the American people, I believe they’re a good people and I can win.” All I want to say to him now is, “God bless you; this is one big job.”
Wallace Shawn, actor and playwright I grew up in a country where my parents thought of Americans as benevolent people who were greeted joyfully by Europeans when they arrived in their jeeps at the end of World War II. Now we live in a time where you have to say that politicians openly proclaim the law of viciousness and trampling over people they didn’t like: Bush has openly mocked law and proclaimed a certain pleasure in sadism and exulted in holding prisoners and mistreating and torturing them, really. Of course this affects one emotionally: my emotional life has been very strongly affected by the fact that Bush was president and my writing life is affected by my emotional life.
Christopher Shinn, playwright The majority of my career has taken place in the Bush era so I’ve really known no other time as an artist. If anything strikes me, it’s the continuity between Clinton and Bush having to do with the relative strength of the economy, and the change is not that Bush is leaving but that the economic crisis and the coming recession might be severe enough to shake things up.
If anything the Bush era inspired less political art in that there was such a monolithic opinion that Bush was bad, which in fact opened the way for apolitical plays to thrive; it would be rude to name names. Many of the more notable plays of the time really have little to do with social or political issues. I just think it’s really important that those of us who are creating political art are doing more than dividing the world into black and white, the good guys and the bad guys. It’s been very clear, for instance, that Obama has been running to the right of McCain on the issue of Pakistan, for example, and equally clear that the left is going to have to ask tough questions about its candidate, which I don’t think we’ve done yet. These are the kinds of contradictions I am interested in exploring.