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Why artists’ and writers’ inauguration protests are important

Boycotts, strikes, demonstrations, and public readings are all planned to voice dissent. Is it worth it even when the audience is small?

Entertainers Attend Celebration Of Freedom Pre-Inaugural Event
The Radio City Rockettes performing at a pre-inaugural event in 2005, before George W. Bush was sworn into his second term as U.S. President.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

There’s been no shortage of protests in the face of an impending Donald Trump presidency, and some of the loudest have come from performers, entertainers, artists, and writers — many of whom are prominent in their fields.

But though everyone wants to make a statement, no singular agreed-upon tactic is at play. Instead, protesting artists have proposed everything from boycotts to museum closures to public statements.

Boycott has been the response of choice for most artists asked to perform at the inauguration. Trump’s planning team has struggled to land performers for the big day: According to the New York Times’s latest tabulation, the list of confirmed performers nine days before the event stands at America’s Got Talent runner-up Jackie Evancho, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and some of the Rockettes. But a long list of performers have turned down the president-elect, from Moby and Elton John to Washington-area marching bands, many of whom wish to avoid lending legitimation or their celebrity to the new administration. One member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir quit in protest, and after a furor kicked up over the Rockettes’ involvement, the dancers will now be allowed to opt out of performing as well.

But lower-profile protest movements are also afoot among prominent artists and writers who occupy a less flashy space in American culture. They’re suggesting a few different tactics, too. The reach of their dissent will probably be much lower than those who turned down the inauguration gig — but there’s a case to be made that the attempt is just as valuable anyway.

There are several artist demonstrations planned around Inauguration Day

The J20 Art Strike statement was released on January 6 and signed by prominent artists (including Cindy Sherman, Richard Serra, and Coco Fusco) and critics (including Hilton Als, Hal Foster, and Molly Nesbit). The statement calls for a shutdown of cultural institutions on January 20 to “combat the normalization of Trumpism”:

#J20 Art Strike
An Act of Noncompliance on Inauguration Day.
No Work, No School, No Business.
Museums. Galleries. Theaters. Concert Halls. Studios. Nonprofits. Art Schools.
Close For The Day.
Hit The Streets. Bring Your Friends. Fight Back.

“Let us assemble for the protracted battles that have long been underway, and those on the horizon,” the statement concludes. The call to shut down institutions is intended to be a disruption, “not a strike against art, theater, or any other cultural form,” but rather “an occasion for public accountability, an opportunity to affirm and enact the values that our cultural institutions claim to embody.”

Construction Continues On Inauguration Viewing Standing
Preparations are underway in Washington, DC, for the inauguration ceremonies.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Another protest movement, dubbed Writers Resist, is taking a different approach: On Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday (January 15), the group will stage a series of public events in cities across the country and around the world. The key event is a rally, co-sponsored by PEN America, to be held on the steps of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Here’s how the event website describes the proceedings:

Award-winning authors Andrew Solomon, Masha Gessen, Laurie Anderson, Rosanne Cash, Jeff Eugenides, Amy Goodman, Jacqueline Woodson, Monica Youn, A.M. Homes, Moustapha Bayoumi, Alexander Chee, Michael Cunningham, and others will read from a curated set of diverse writings and seminal texts that embody the ideals of democracy and free expression including excerpts from the Constitution, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermons, George Orwell’s 1984, the Federalist Papers, and other prose and poetry selections. Broadway Kids Against Bullying will perform the new single 'I Have a Voice.'

The event will culminate with participants walking 15 blocks north to Trump Tower, where they will deliver a pledge to defend the First Amendment, signed “by more than 150,000 individuals, including all past U.S. Poets Laureate,” to the Trump transition team.

In tandem with the Writers Resist protest, the literature website LitHub is publishing a series of reflections on the meaning of “resistance” through the end of this week.

Movements such as these gain traction because of the names attached to them, but they don’t have quite the same profile as the informal inauguration boycott. The J20 statement, for instance, kicked up new dust when Joyce Carol Oates opposed it on Twitter, saying that “cultural institutions should be sanctuaries for those repelled by the inauguration.” Others chimed in.

It’s a tricky situation to navigate: On the one hand, as Oates points out, closing cultural institutions would leave many people without a space in which to retreat. On the other hand, it might encourage artists to seek out alternate spaces, as the J20 Art Strike statement suggests — and much as the Writers Resist movement plans to do. But strikes have their own historical and cultural resonance, reminding people that artists and cultural institutions do perform a labor essential to the flourishing of a society. There’s no one clear solution.

Art is worth making, even when it reaches a small audience — and so are protests

Artists have a long history of political protest, from musicians boycotting places to the tradition of dissent in the theater, which stretches all the way back to ancient Greece.

The challenge faced by these attempts to disrupt and protest the Trump inauguration is rising above the din. Entertainers refusing to perform at the inauguration makes the news partly because this is a pop culture presidency, helmed by a reality TV star who is obsessed with his ratings and seems jarred by how pop culture figures are rejecting him.

74th Annual Golden Globe Awards - Show
Meryl Streep spoke against President-Elect Trump in her acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes on January 8.
Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

But these protests are also taking place in a cultural landscape where writers, fine artists, poets, and museums are more often perceived as the purview of the “elite” than that of “ordinary people” who watch TV and listen to Top 40 radio. There are a lot of reasons for that perception — some merited, some not — but it does mean that the reach of any given inauguration protest, whether it’s a strike or a series of historic readings, is necessarily limited. So-called “high” culture is even now often perceived to be reserved for people with a degree of education and privilege, while “popular culture” is intended for a mass audience.

Furthermore, in a deeply partisan political climate, it’s become increasingly easy for observers to simply write off artists as out of touch or irrelevant when their message conflicts with the audience’s beliefs. It’s been a while since novelists, arthouse directors, painters, playwrights, or poets have managed to substantially disrupt the national imagination (Hamilton notwithstanding).

And yet the idea that art and artistic protests are only valuable if they reach a huge popular audience is too utilitarian a view of art. Art is created between the artist and the observer, and it takes on different meanings depending on who’s experiencing it. It’s at its best when it refreshes the observer’s view of her own reality. Its merit isn’t based on how many people experience it, but on the way it reorients and changes the audience — whatever that means for the individual viewers. It may affirm, challenge, and inspire, or it may infuriate. Or it may simply keep space open for more artists to create and challenge.

American artists differ when it comes to the “right” combination of boycott, strike, vocal resistance, satire, and outright political action to advocate for in response to Trump’s inauguration. They stretch across a range of political views. But their aim is still the same — to make their audience see the world in a new way.

And there should be one bipartisan consensus around this issue: Sometimes protests are statements worth making, whether they are heeded, ignored, written off, or even if they’re wrong-footed. Americans’ freedom of speech and expression requires constant exercise to be kept alive.

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