President Donald Trump, before and since his inauguration, has repeatedly condemned artists and journalists, describing the cast of Hamilton as “overrated,” and attempting to discredit so-called “fake news.” President Trump’s behavior has left many worried given the lack of respect he’s shown towards artists and their right to offer legitimate alternate perspectives to powerful politicians. Whether or not one supports President Trump’s election, his blatant contempt for those who criticize him weakens the foundation of American liberty. The ACLU states that “freedom of expression for ourselves requires freedom of expression for others. It is at the very heart of our democracy.” The United States has historically supported these values, at least officially in its Constitution, and has often been a safe haven for artists who could not express themselves in their own countries. The recent executive travel ban has destabilized the idea of the United States as a beacon of artistic free speech and has pointed to the historical weaknesses of the enforcement of these values. Recent diminishing or delegitimizing statements about artists require us to reaffirm the right to free speech, not because artists should necessarily oppose the current administration, but because a multiplicity of voices and diversity of opinions is essential to the American democracy.
On November 18, 2016, the cast of Hamilton, the critically-acclaimed Broadway musical recounting the founding of the United States, politely addressed then Vice President-elect Mike Pence who was present in the theater that day. The show itself is deeply political, portraying the United States as a land of immigrants and casting Black and Hispanic/Latinx actors in the roles of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, among others. The production thanked Mike Pence for his presence, apparently considering his attendance an “opportunity to express our feelings,” said Jeffrey Seller,the lead producer of the show, and asked the left-leaning audience if they would refrain from booing. “We have a message sir and we hope that you will listen to us.” They asked the incoming administration to protect American values and inalienable rights for all. Beyond their important message, they also “encourage[d] everybody to pull out [their] phones and tweet and post because this message needs to be spread far and wide.” Indeed, this gesture did not matter solely because of its content, but also because it was a demonstration of artists’ right to free speech and the significance of their discourse. It also called for a direct and civilized discussion with the President, utilizing Trump’s favorite means of communication — social media — to do so.
In response, Trump infantilized the cast’s gesture and discredited their professionalism, asking the actors to “apologize!” and calling them “rude.” Trump also confused the meaning of artistic production, suggesting that the theater should remain a “safe and special place,” which is exactly what the cast had intended to preserve. Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor who played Vice President Aaron Burr and delivered the message, tweeted back to Trump saying that “conversation is not harassment […]”
The recent executive travel ban has destabilized the idea of the United States as a beacon of artistic free speech and has pointed to the historical weaknesses of the enforcement of these values.
Artists matter not only as entertainers who lift spirits but also as an interlocutor for politicians and a competing voice through which the public can form its own opinions. Artists — as well as many activists and media groups — make a valuable contribution to the political environment. The public is not only informed by the diversity of voices present but also exposed to new topics of conversation that occur through interactions between art and politics. For example, politicians can lean on artists during their campaigns in order to reach a larger public. Hillary Clinton notably had many pop culture figures on her side during her campaign: Jay-Z, Miley Cyrus, Cher, and Steve Aoki were just some of the musicians who directly spoke on her behalf. Other artists, like Taylor Swift, took their time before siding with a candidate and were criticized by some for not taking on a clear role in politics. Adrienne Elrod, the director of strategic communications for the Clinton campaign, argues that “these artists have a powerful ability to energize, excite, and mobilize our base,” and that therefore, it’s it their responsibility to use their art as political tools.
Beyond the fact that the support of famous people can help win elections, this is also a clear endorsement of artists’ power over crowds. Although some may argue that they want to remain neutral before a heterogeneous public, it is impossible to depoliticize artistic work inasmuch as it is produced and received in a politicized society. Taking a neutral stance is in itself a political statement. Trump himself, despite his condemnation of artists, also played the game, receiving support from artists like Wayne Newton and Ted Nugent in his campaign. He also asserted that there would be “plenty of movie and entertainment stars” in attendance at his inauguration, suggesting that he was aware that their support legitimized his power. Trump’s appeal to artists to gain public support suggests that the United States is a country fundamentally accepting of artists’ wide reach and supportive of their intellectual diversity, whatever their ideas.
Although the US officially supports these values, Trump illustrates a more marked ambiguity in the US’ image as a model of free speech. Both censoring and using artists to protect his own interests, Trump reflects the history of American government control over artistic expression. The Obama administration may have put forth artists on the political scene, but one example of controversies between government and artists is the response to Dixie Chicks’ lead vocalist Natalie Maines comments about President George W. Bush in 2003. Famously, the Dixie Chicks were blacklisted after having criticized the President nine days before his administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. On March 10, 2003, at the opening of their Top World Tour in London, Maines, a native of Texas: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” Following her statement, boycotts ensued in the US, making the Dixie Chicks drop out of the Billboard Top 100 the next week when they were No. 10 before their statement. Due to the relentlessness of her critics, Maine had no other option than to issue a public apology on March 14. While the US’ protections of artistic free speech have been the foundation of the image of the country as a beacon of free speech, Trump’s recent controversies are a reminder that this one-sided idea of the US is partly a myth.
Indeed, Trump’s recent travel ban has made us reevaluate the US’ role as a safe haven for international artists. In the past, artists from other nations, such as Iran and Iraq, have often found a platform in the US, but recently, artists from seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — were temporarily banned from the United States, sparking controversy and questioning if the US has ever been an unconditional patron of the arts. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi became the symbol of the US’ reexamination of freedom of expression, among many other rights that were infringed by the ban. Nominated at the Oscars 2017 for his film, The Salesman, the director announced that he would not come to the ceremony even if an exception was granted by the President. While he previously thought that it was important for him to come and communicate to the US about his work and political beliefs, he condemned the division and “enmity” created by the Trump administration’s ban. Farhadi was not the only one to express his discontent with the US’ shift from a nation that encouraged him to “express his opinions” to one where the presence of certain people is “accompanied by ifs and buts” for religious or ethnic reasons.
Other artists also had a strong reaction to the threat against freedom of expression that the ban posed. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, for example, protested Trump’s executive order by hanging up works from the permanent collection by artists from the countries affected by the ban. The Sudanese painter Ibrahim el-Salahi, the Iranian video artist Tala Madani, and the Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid are some of the artists that they exhibited to show their protection of the right of artists of all backgrounds to voice their opinions and sentiments. The museum reaffirmed American values with a clear message written next to each work: “[…] This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum as they are to the United States.”
The US, since Trump’s inauguration, has given signals to its population and to the international community that it no longer welcomes intellectual diversity — or rather, has uncovered the US’ equivocal history as to its control of free speech. Publicly attacking artists voicing their discontent, Trump has endeavored an operation of delegitimization of artists’ power. Meryl Streep, in her speech at the Golden Globes award ceremony — for which she was attacked by Trump, calling her “one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood” — addressed the advantages and issues with public figures. “This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone on the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing […] Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose,” she declared on January 8, 2017. Artists, like politicians, are inherently powerful because they have access to a public platform. The question is not whether one agrees or disagrees with what notorious individuals say, but whether all people who have this privileged channel of expression make the most of it and create, by complementing and confronting each other, a web of points of view that add nuance the public’s political opinions. Artists have a responsibility to express themselves and to spark discussions among one another; ultimately, they, as much as politicians, have the obligation to secure their right to free speech.