Has Art Turned Its Back On Donald Trump's White Working Class?

Donald Trump supporters cheer as they watch election returns Tuesday night in New York. Trump won the presidency in an upset, after a tumultuous campaign. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Donald Trump supporters cheer as they watch election returns Tuesday night in New York. Trump won the presidency in an upset, after a tumultuous campaign. (Evan Vucci/AP)

It was a rejection of almost every elite in America — Wall Street, the media, pollsters, intellectuals, internationalism, political parties, political correctness, on and on.

It was also a rejection of art and artists — and the role that they play in American lives. The white, isolationist America played to and portrayed by Donald Trump is almost the opposite of the multiculturalist, outward-looking America portrayed by artists.

In many ways that’s understandable and admirable. Art should speak truth to power — it’s one of the most important things that artists can do and in many countries they have paid with their lives. But with the push throughout the arts to tell a diversity of stories, those of the white working class have been given short shrift.

Artists skew left, they probably always have. So there’s no great surprise that artists lined up against Trump almost universally, from the New Repertory Theatre’s production of “Good," a play about conformists in Nazi Germany that begged for comparison to Trump's rise, to a devastating portrayal of Trump by Alec Baldwin on “Saturday Night Live.” And, of course, it didn’t matter (though ironically it was Kate McKinnon’s depiction of an unauthentic Hillary Clinton that better summarized what happened Tuesday). Not that it’s the role of artists to deliver votes or take political stands — some of our greatest artists don’t.

When you think of the artistic landscape, though, are artists and arts organizations as guilty of turning their backs on the white working class as the Democratic Party was? I mean, when’s the last time you saw a “Make America Great Again” red cap at an arts event? It’s something that doesn’t go with the territory, which is nothing new. Art has most often been something of an elite affair, but many of the arts initiatives of the New Deal and later administrations tried to bring art to the have-nots as well as the haves.

Today there are other initiatives to expand art to under-served audiences and to give a variety of artists platforms to tell a variety of stories. But let’s face it, many if not most of these initiatives are based along racial and gender lines, not along class lines.

I’m not promoting affirmative action for junior Rush Limbaughs, but other than the occasional play by a David Lindsay-Abaire (the Huntington Theatre Company’s “Good People,” set in South Boston) or an Israel Horovitz production (many of his Gloucester-set plays like “North Shore Fish” and “Gloucester Blue”), there isn’t much of an effort to talk about white working-class lives. And when they do they can be either grossly sentimentalized or depicted as a basket of deplorables, as in Tracy Letts’ “Killer Joe.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Art doesn’t have to be nice — it usually shouldn’t be. But some of the post-mortems on the election have been interesting in terms of what the media missed. Chris Matthews on election night talked about the rift in the old Roosevelt, or even Obama, coalition when he lamented how the Democratic Party “turned away from the white working class. Helping minorities shouldn’t have meant discarding the white working class.”

New York Times media critic Jim Rutenberg put it even stronger in his Wednesday Page 1 piece quoting conservative writer Rod Dreher “as saying that most journalists were blind to their own ‘bigotry against conservative religion, bigotry against rural folks, and bigotry against working class and poor white people.’ ”

Could you say the same about artists?

At any rate, it isn’t a uniquely American problem. Writing in The Guardian, Karena Johnson, a black British theater artistic director, said:

“Working-class people and culture are an endangered group in our subsidised theatres, invisible in our auditoria and rarely seen on our stages. Where they do appear it’s often in a rather anthropological way with a subtext that says “thank God we don’t live next to those people”. The cultural agenda, from funders through to management, is set by middle-class values that appear to devalue populist working-class culture, while also spending effort trying to get this marginalised group to attend theatre about middle-class concerns because 'it’s good for them' rather than addressing the core reasons for lack of engagement.

“The moral and economic arguments for diversity are well rehearsed but as I sit in a theatre with a largely white working-class and new audience I’m struck by how much more exciting and visceral the experience is when the art and the spectators closely relate. How refreshing it is to bypass cynical response and be met with exuberance and vitality.

“How has theatre become so elitist, from its roots in Sophocles and Shakespeare’s productions where audiences cut across class, to contemporary working-class people deciding theatre is not for the likes of them? This is a tragedy.”

It’s a tragedy that could have consequences when the Republican Congress and president take up NEA funding the next time.

Does television do a better job at putting Trump voters on screen? In spots. There have been working class heroes aplenty — and also baskets of deplorables — on two excellent FX shows, “Justified” and “Fargo,” as well as Showtime’s critically acclaimed “Ray Donovan.” I don’t know, though, that they burrow into class issues the way that books and theater can. Billy Bob Thornton, the star of the first season of “Fargo,” played an incredibly sympathetic prison guard in “Monster’s Ball” with Halle Berry.

As artists turn their attention to the next four years of President Trump, much of their attention should be focused on creating works that dig deeper into his presidency than the media traditionally do. At the same time, when arts activists say that everyone’s stories should be told, let’s remember what the Democratic Party forgot, and really include everyone.


Headshot of Ed Siegel

Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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