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Activist art needed more than ever as we head into Trump's presidency

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God gets even in her own sly way. How else could it be that exactly a three-minute saunter from gaudy Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, just along 57th street, two different Manhattan art exhibits stand as a rebuke to all the malice Donald Trump represents?

One, called Nelson Mandela: The Artist, includes some of the art created by Mr. Mandela after he retired as South Africa's president, along with his ruminations about life. The other is called You Say You Want a Revolution: American Artists and the Communist Party, and is dedicated to the progressive American artists who were moved by the great social causes that roiled the world during the Great Depression and the Second World War.

Trump's America badly needs activist artists again today, and the good news is that some of them are already responding. The recent appeal to her peers from the acclaimed American author Toni Morrison soon went viral: "This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity."

Sure, we can be pretty confident that President Trump (do you know how awful it is to write those two words consecutively?) will never take that brief stroll on 57th, and would likely not be moved by these exhibitions if he did. Too bad for us all.

Mr. Mandela proved to have a real talent for painting. Many of his finest and most affecting creations were scenes from Robben Island, which he painted after his visit there. You can't view them without recalling his incarceration on that harsh, isolated piece of land for 18 years.

What in the world would Mr. Trump make of a case where a great man really was locked up, fulfilling his brazen prescription for his opponents?

If he then walked up two more flights in the same building at 24 West 57th, Mr. Trump would have found the social realist art, the protest art, of the 1930s. This was a time when many believed capitalism was doomed, extreme right-wing demagogues flourished in the U.S., and many progressive artists became openly politicized. Art became a weapon in the "class struggle" about which Mr. Trump ranted during his campaign. The many cruel inequities that characterized the U.S. in those years were highlighted and lampooned, often with creativity and biting satire.

Subtle their work was not, for the Dirty Thirties were not a subtle time. Workers were heroic. Fat cats were bloated, often tentacled, more octopus-like than cat-like. Politicians were corrupt and indifferent. Of course, ironically enough, this was the basis of Mr. Trump's own presidential campaign. But almost a century ago, such art was marshalled in the battle against men just like him. Now it's begun to be turned against Mr. Trump himself.

It's not been widely enough noted that artistic imagination has flourished and political cartoonists have had a field day in the past 18 months, as Mr. Trump made himself the irresistible target for all those prepared to employ their various creative talents in the cause of social justice.

Now, the gang that Mr. Trump has pulled together is more likely than not to create the very conditions that some Americans honourably protested against through their art in the 1930s -- starvation-level minimum wages, almost no state-provided health care, homelessness, poverty-level pensions. How those working-class Americans who apparently supported Mr. Trump against Hillary Clinton will react to their certain betrayal seems to me impossible to predict. Since they fell for his con once already, their faith in him might still prove unshakeable.

But there's the beginning of good news. American artists are already on the job, determined to make sure that the better angels of America are not crushed in the next several years. We all know about the eloquent lecture that the cast of Broadway's Hamilton gave Mr. Trump's vice-president-elect at the theatre a few weeks back. Less known is the important work that several mainstream media outlets have done in giving artists the opportunity to speak out and be heard.

Soon after the trauma of election night wore off, the Huffington Post reached out to 21 American artists. "We call upon artists as activists, optimists, truth-tellers and revolutionaries, to resist the normalization of hate and prejudice, to stand up for the communities that have been marginalized, and advocate for an America that serves all of its citizens." All 21 bought in, emphasizing their determination not to be silenced.

The New Yorker offers "Sixteen New Yorker writers on Trump's America.” Several are well-known. All are frightened, but thoughtful critics of the new president.

Time magazine, quite counterintuitively, also gave space to several artists who are equally determined not to be bullied or silenced by Mr. Trump, as he already tried to do with the Hamilton cast.

Knowledgeable, talented, gutsy, these artists are providing the early leadership in the anticipated battles that Mr. Trump seems intent on waging on American democracy. Can they succeed?

Under the circumstances, only a damn fool or a pundit would make predictions, especially positive ones.

But here we can invoke the spirit of Mr. Mandela again: We can stress the optimistic side. Sure it's schmaltzy, but even a devout atheist can hope. After all, what else is Christmas if not the time for miracles and wonders?

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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