The Collapse of Artistic Criticism Under Trump

by Benjamin Studebaker

The Trump presidency has been bad for art and the way we evaluate it. Yes, there’s newfound popularity for far right art forms that speak to dark impulses. “Martial industrial” music–often set to images of Nazis marching–is spooky stuff, and in the last few years it’s quietly spread all over YouTube:

But mainstream art critics have mostly ignored the niches of material which are nakedly far right. They prefer to focus on more popular stuff. And here they have done us a number of disservices, aiding the right even as they attempt to resist it.

I’ve noticed three key ways art critics accidentally hurt us:

  1. The Cult of the Marginalised Badass
  2. All Art Must Be Defined in Relation to Trump
  3. Black Artists Must Conform to a Particular Understanding of Blackness

Let’s take these one at a time.

The Cult of the Marginalised Badass

When an art critic watches a movie or a TV show in which a white male character punches the bad guys and saves the day, they sometimes point out how overly simple this is. The world isn’t just about dividing people into two categories and siding with the good ones against the bad ones. That ignores context, structures, and systems–the experiences and socialisation that shape who we are. Increasingly, movies which feature white male heroes will try to complexify their stories a little bit to avoid being accused of shallowness. Movies like The Incredibles 2 and The Lego Batman Movie do end with bad-guy punching, but they spend some time thinking about how their characters interact with society.

But in the post-Trump world, there’s a way to earn praise from critics without doing that legwork. If you simply replace the white male hero with female hero or a person of colour, critics will consider your decision to represent a marginalised group to be in itself a radical intellectual contribution. You don’t have to complexify the story or think about social context–the inclusion of the marginalised character is itself taken to be an interaction with social context.

Take for instance the character arc of Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones (some spoilers follow). In the books–the most recent of which was published in 2011, during Barack Obama’s first term–Daenerys frees several slave cities. But once she does this, she discovers that these cities’ internal politics are much more complicated than she anticipated. The slaves aren’t sure what to do with their freedom. The masters are angry with her for freeing the slaves. Her political support base is shaky, and the masters use guerilla warfare and terror tactics to undermine confidence in her regime. When she leaves one city, the masters restore control and treat the slaves with more brutality than ever. The freed cities begin to feel very much like Iraq, and Daenerys begins to feel very much like George W. Bush. She comes in with good intentions, but her efforts bring violence and death to the people in these cities, and the positive changes are fleeting at best.

In the HBO series–which aired its most recent season in 2017–the insurrection in these cities isn’t an opportunity to have a think about the consequences of military interventions and regime changes. The rebel factions aren’t compared to the militias and terrorist organisations which drove the Bush administration up the wall. They are instead simply bad people–wannabe slavers who refuse to get with the times. Daenerys doesn’t need to learn to understand the politics and people of these cities better. All she needs to do is burn all the deplorables alive. In the books, Daenerys is George W. Bush. In the show, she’s Hillary Clinton–righteously refusing to understand those who do not support her, answering their defections with fire and blood.

The show glorifies Daenerys when she destroys the masters, and the viewer is encouraged to celebrate her violent solution:

Daenerys is there to be the glorious hero, the one who alone can solve all the problems of the kingdom by identifying the bad people and rooting them out. She will drain the swamp, she will make the kingdom great again. It’s a simple, Trumpian narrative–but she’s freeing slaves and she’s a woman, and therefore we’re meant to view it in a radical light. It totally annihilates the complexity of the books upon which it is based. But if you point that out, you’re undermining the representation, and therefore your critique is suspicious. Are you upset with the show because you don’t like strong female characters? No one wants to undermine that or to appear to be looking to undermine that, so everyone stays quiet, and the bar for what passes as sophisticated art falls a little bit.

This is very clear in the case of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. There are a lot of Star Wars fans who don’t like the show. Some of them are genuinely sexist–they just don’t like Rey, the main character, because she’s a woman. But a lot of them don’t like it for other, more intricate reasons. They point out, for instance, that Rey is often able to develop her skills much more quickly and with fewer setbacks than Luke has in the original trilogy, and that this makes her development feel less meaningful and her successes feel less earned. They call her a “Mary Sue”–a character for whom everything is too easy. They suspect that Rey’s character is being written poorly because the writers feel they don’t have to write women well for them to be well-received. For them, the problem is not that Rey is a woman, it’s how the fact that Rey is a woman influences the way the writers handle her. They give her unearned, Daenerys-style “badass” moments, and the art critics let them get away with that.

The two arguments are really very different, but they are often conflated together. Some Star Wars fans don’t like Rey because she’s a woman and they have a problem with women. Some Star Wars fans don’t like Rey because the fact that she’s a woman enables the writers to handle her character in a lazy way. The first group is expressing a misogynist sentiment. The second group actually wants better female characters. But it’s hard to tell the two apart, and so the emphasis inevitably gets put on the first group–the toxic, sexist people. The more the emphasis is on these people, the less possible it is to have an open conversation about how the cult of the marginalised badass so thoroughly limits the development of female characters and characters of colour. Worse, because people who watch these movies and make these complaints feel they’re being dismissed as bigots, and they feel this dismissal is coming from critics who are part of liberalism or part of the left, they associate being dismissed in the artistic realm with being dismissed in the political realm. When we tell people they are sexist for criticising the characterisation of Rey or Daenerys, we cause them to think “if that’s sexism, then maybe there are other things we call sexist that aren’t really sexist or aren’t actually bad”. They rally against “political correctness” because they feel terms like “sexism” or “misogyny” are being used to silence their artistic opinions–opinions which in many cases may well have originated in a desire for better written female characters.

In this way we take people who are ready and willing to participate in our projects, misunderstand them, ostracize them, and push them to the right. The artistic community should respond by writing female characters better, by holding their female characters to the same storytelling standards they hold their male counterparts. A strong female character can still come off as tokenistic if that strong character is written like a Mary Sue.

All Art Must Be Defined in Relation to Trump

Since Trump’s election, there are some art critics who feel artists have a duty to explicitly and publicly oppose Trump. For them, the “what does this mean in the context of Trump” lens is always paramount, and whenever an artist doesn’t explicitly address their concerns the work is condemned. Taylor Swift has received this treatment from music critics for a while. The Guardian wrote an editorial going after Swift for her “silence” on Trump. The issue wasn’t that Swift said anything explicitly pro-Trump, merely that she has not yet attacked the president in public. They weren’t alone in this–a vast array of publications have gone after Swift specifically as the poster girl of the apolitical artist who must be publicly shamed into taking a stand.

The thing is, it’s not obvious that overt artistic political stands really help us, especially when they’re so heavy-handed. Many artists don’t have anything especially clever or moving to say about the president. When they speak out against him and make art which mocks him, it often comes off as cheap propaganda. At this point, I don’t know many people who genuinely love Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression on Saturday Night Live. There were some people who loved it in the beginning, but increasingly these people seem to be pretending to love it.

It’s become a perfunctory thing, because while we may like the idea of making fun of Trump, it’s quite hard in practice to do it in an interesting way which says anything new. No one turns in their MAGA hat over Baldwin’s Trump impression. In the beginning, it rallied the base a bit. Now, even committed members of “the resistance” are struggling to feign interest. In the meantime, Trump supporters constantly point to content like this as evidence that Hollywood is out to get the president and cannot be trusted. It feeds into Trump’s persecution narrative, in which he and his supporters are out there trying to do their best for the country and the press and the liberal media elites will say or do anything to make them fail. Nakedly anti-Trump art feeds into this narrative–it does not challenge it. By attacking the president in this blatant way, we do not erode his strength–we reinforce it.

So the demand that artists make their art about Trump is, in most cases, a demand that they make propaganda that feeds into powerful narratives which Trump uses to prevent his base from even considering outside information or points of view. If an artist doesn’t have a clever, well-crafted political message, it is usually better for us if they say nothing. Many Americans want some refuge from the constant barrage of political propaganda on the airwaves. These artists can make content for them. That’s okay. Apolitical art is better than bad political art. As I write this, Trump’s approval rating is up to 42%–its highest level since May 2017. Anti-Trump propaganda hasn’t been working, and Taylor Swift’s participation wouldn’t change that.

Black Artists Must Conform to a Particular Understanding of Blackness

I’m a big fan of The Ringer‘s basketball coverage, but the way they cover rap music is strange. There seems to be, implicitly, an understanding of blackness which some of their critics expect rappers to have. If they don’t talk about race in this very specific way, they are condescended to as naive, uninteresting, or even traitorous.

The rapper Logic produced a Trump-era album called Everybody. Logic is a biracial rapper and he understandably thinks that whiteness and blackness are too often essentialised in an oppositional way. He raps:

White people told me as a child, as a little boy, playin’ with his toys
I should be ashamed to be black
And some black people look ashamed when I rap
Like my great granddaddy didn’t take a whip to the back
Not accepted by the black or the white
I don’t give a fuck, praise God, I could see the light
Everybody talkin’ ’bout race this, race that
Wish I could erase that, face facts
Everybody people, everybody bleed, everybody need something
Everybody love, everybody know, how it go
Logic includes a skit featuring Neil DeGrasse Tyson as God–Tyson informs a recently deceased individual named “Atom” that Atom is reincarnated, again and again, living all of the lives of all of the people who have lived. All the suffering that has been inflicted has therefore been inflicted by Atom on Atom. Tyson tells Atom he wants Atom to learn the value of each of the lives Atom lives, so that Atom may one day have the moral understanding necessary to perform Tyson’s role for another being. Here Logic draws on a short story from science fiction writer Andy Weir entitled, “The Egg.”

Logic draws–perhaps inadvertently–on a long tradition of anti-essentialism in race theory. Anti-essentialists argue that it is not merely the case that races are or ought to be equal, but that the concept of race and the racial categories it relies upon are themselves illusions. We socially construct racial categories and attribute expectations and demands on people on the basis of the racial groups to which we assign them. These expectations circumscribe their behaviour and ensnare them in cultural boxes, encouraging them to think of themselves and those in their group as having separate, discrete interest from those in other groups. This enables right wing political movements to split poor, working, and middle class people along racial lines and use those racial antagonisms to prevent them from forming strong coalitions. Adolph Reed is one particularly prominent example of someone with this sort of view.a

But Lindsay Zoldaz at The Ringer is strikingly dismissive of this whole perspective, calling Logic “out of his depths” and calling the sentiment that “we are all one” a “logical crutch”. Zoldaz quotes Sheldon Pierce, from Pitchfork, who writes in response to Logic that “Equality without identity is merely inactivity.” But there’s no argument in either piece as to how racial equality is meant to be achieved when egalitarian coalitions are so easily split along identity lines. Adolph Reed argues that we build coalitions by finding shared interests and needs which cut across these divisions. When we think of racial divisions as essential and unbridgeable, we make it harder for people to work together. Zoldaz and Pierce don’t seem interested in the kind of political movement which can actually do something about racial inequality–they are more interested in rappers who identify more expressly as black and position their politics as first and foremost a black politics. But most importantly, they have decided that those rappers who don’t express that kind of self-understanding are out of their depths.

They do something similar to Childish Gambino. Gambino used to rap about how, as an African-American kid, he was often bullied for not being “black” enough.

This rap stuff is magic
I used to get called “Oreo” and “Faggot”
I used to get more laughs when I got laughed at

The Ringer‘s Justin Charity expresses contempt for the young Gambino:

In the early 2000s, Glover—at the height of his stand-up comedy career—was the black nerd, bullied and misunderstood among his own people, left to vent his frustrations with the supposedly rigid confines of blackness to any white girl who might listen. He’s vented about black people to white audiences, and white audiences have loved him for it.

But then Gambino made songs like “Redbone” and  “This is America” and became associated with what Charity calls “unapologetic blackness”.

Charity calls this a “racial awakening”–Gambino (whose real name is Donald Glover) is dismissed as a child until he recognises himself first and foremost as black. The only question is whether Gambino is to be trusted. Charity calls the awakening a “mysterious development”. He writes:

…he’s never explained why he came to resolve his alienation from other blacks. Most charitably, one assumes Glover, whose earliest work suggested an obsession with childhood, matured. Least charitably, one assumes Glover realized that a black artist who disavows his own blackness renders himself largely useless to white audiences, who clamor for blackness as American pop culture’s most valuable resource.

Charity’s analysis comes entirely from within a race essentialist box, in which there is a thing called “blackness” which Gambino either disavows or embraces. Any attempt to get outside that box–to be an individual, distinct from being a black individual–is disavowing. Because Gambino has a history of failing to embrace blackness, critics like Charity must surveil him, watching him carefully to ensure he does not betray blackness. Charity, and the other critics who handle rappers this way, have appointed themselves the police of black identity. They demand black artists put black identity first, and those artists who refuse to do this will not be taken seriously as artists until they comply.

Kanye West–who actually expressed support for Trump–is the great example of the black artist they feel betrayed them. Having for years written that Kanye was a genius, these same critics now stage a revisionist purge, treating West and his work with the same contempt they once criticised the right for showing. Charity writes that Kanye revealed himself “to be obsessed with white power as the ultimate arbiter of his esteem.”

He’s not alone at The Ringer. Zoladz writes:

the unavoidable rankness of West’s recent statements have had an air of flatulence, the kind that prompted quite a few of his listeners to take an uncomfortable look back over his legacy and conclude that now, even the tuxedos seem kind of fucked up.

Sean Fennessey adds:

The Kanye West delusion is not one from which he’s suffering, but we are. It’s the lie that he — or anyone — is just like us, struggling against a machine, aching to express ourselves as clearly as possible.

Matt James jumps on him too:

We’ve witnessed the ignorance and obliviousness of an isolated man in an ivory tower surrounded by yes men, and it not only colors the art he’s releasing in 2018 but the entire back catalog. Perhaps I’m still giving him too much credit by claiming that he’s oblivious rather than mean-spirited and recklessly insensitive.

So does T.C. Kane:

I used to think Kanye had the potential to be profound, but his recent behavior has clarified just how gleefully uninformed he is. I don’t feel outraged about his comments, but I do feel like I can’t take what he says or does seriously anymore.

Kanye got behind Trump because he agrees with Candace Owens, who feels that the Democratic Party uses race to compel African-Americans to support it without delivering any substantive material benefits in return.

Kanye and Candace are right that the Democratic Party has a poor record in recent decades of actually helping African-Americans, but they are mistaken in their belief that Trump or the Republicans will do better and should instead devote their political energies to transforming the Democratic Party into the kind of institution which can deliver meaningful benefits. The writers at The Ringer might have helped make the case for this–instead they decided to vilify a black artist as a traitorous fool. It was a profoundly missed opportunity to positively intervene in the discourse. I did my bit, but this blog’s audience is only so big.

We appear to be dismissing and mocking voices which highlight–even if at times unskillfully–the need for the Democratic Party to do more than just oppose the Republican Party. When we tell people that the Democratic Party is enough, that it doesn’t have to be any better or do anything more for people, that every black person who questions it is a race traitor, we feed Candace Owen’s narrative that the left conspires to hide from them the benefits of embracing the right.

The problem, in all of these cases, is that our art critics have fallen into a very basic, unsubtle understanding of their role in the Trump era. They think the primary issue with Trump is that he’s a racist and a sexist and a bigot, and their role is to urge artists to represent strong female characters and characters of colour, to repeatedly and explicitly point out how bad Trump is, and to stridently stick up for a highly particular, narrow conception of racial politics.

We need so much more than this from our leading lights–we need them to hold female characters and characters of colour to the same literary standards they hold white male characters, so they don’t look tokenistic and breed resentment. We need them to help us address racial injustice in a manner which comports with the need to reshape the Democratic Party into an effective apparatus for pursuing justice and the need to construct a broadly based egalitarian coalition that can win throughout the country. And we need them to give those artists–and those art critics–who cannot make positive contributions in these directions the space to do their own thing. Because when they get politics wrong, they lock us in the same old boxes the Clinton campaign locked us in. She was a woman, and if you didn’t think that was enough, you were a sexist or a racist, and if you were black and you didn’t think she was enough, you were a race traitor, and if you didn’t speak up for her early and often, shame on you. It was this kind of discursive climate that led Clinton to call her opponents deplorables and led so many of her supporters to affirm and defend that language. If they want to help, our artists and art critics need to contribute to building something more effective, something which reaches out instead of digging in.