If arts and culture has felt unremarkable or lacking passion for the past eight years or so, there might be a reason for that.
A Democrat in the Oval Office.
Oftentimes, the best art isn’t created when there’s plenty of food in the fridge and ample stacks of cash in the bank. No, it’s when under distress or dealing with horrible circumstances (somebody dying, a breakup, general angst about the direction of humankind) when the real stuff emerges.
For some, Donald Trump’s surprising victory over Hillary Clinton on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning felt like one of these terrible life episodes. It should become a gift for American creatives.
When the country is stressed out and controlled by conservatives, liberal-minded artists and kicked-to-the-curb people seem to rise up and do their best work. Ahmir Thompson aka. Questlove aka. drummer for The Roots riffed on this theory in an August 2003 interview in The Believer while George W. Bush was in office.
The Believer: So you have a theory that black people make better music when Republicans are in office. Explain the theory and how it’s playing out now, in the midst of this regime—I mean, administration.
Ahmir Thompson: My theory is that nine times out of ten, if there’s a depression, more a social depression than anything, it brings out the best art in black people. The best example is, Reagan and Bush gave us the best years of hiphop. I think had Carter and then Mondale won, or if Jesse [Jackson] were President from ’84 to ’88, hiphop wouldn’t have been the same. Hiphop wouldn’t have existed. I think you would have more black Tom Waitses. Marsalis would be goin double platinum. There would be more black Joni Mitchells. [Gets impish grin.] The Roots would sell ten million.
BLVR: You think that if the Democrats, instead of Reagan and Bush, were running America in the eighties, then hiphop would not have been invented.
AT: Probably, but it would depend on who was replacing them. I don’t know if Gary Hart really had a special place in black people’s hearts.
BLVR: But hiphop was already being built as early as 1972, and some even say ’69.
AT: As a result of Nixon.
Though the percussionist supreme was specifically talking about black artists, this concept can be applied to bold and compelling art made by people of every race and gender. (Important distinction: This isn’t a discussion on politically-themed art because that’s a whole other deal. Same for federal funding for the arts — a completely separate topic.)
The middle-fingered-minded abstract expressionism and the over-the-top pop art genres took flight in the United States while Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican, ruled the nation’s affairs.
The first wave of nihilistic and primal punk rock by The Ramones, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and the Dead Boys created a sea change in music – which was then followed by the first planted seeds of new wave and no wave/post-punk – while Gerald Ford, a Republican, was the country’s commander-in-chief.
The new and exciting styles of hip-hop, postmodern and contemporary art ruled the 1980s and the first part of the 1990s when Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, both Republican, were in the White House.
There are, of course, exceptions. For instance, the resurgence of steampunk, perhaps the worst art style of all-time, took place while George W. Bush led the country. And as Questlove points out in The Believer interview, Nixon was in charge during the golden age of 1960s and 1970s soul music.
Aside from television, which has been the best it has ever been over the past eight years (Breaking Bad, Orange is the New Black, Parks and Recreation and so many other shows), what has been mind-blowing from the time of Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2008 to now?
Shepard Fairey’s easy-to-execute H.O.P.E. graphic? Ta-Nehisi Coates’s James Baldwin-esque essay Between the World and Me? Richard Linklater’s Boyhood or the more indie-feeling film Nebraska? Kanye?
Good art, certainly, but nothing redefining. Not even close. Maybe it’s because life has felt a bit too cush with a liberal in charge.
That’s likely all about to change.
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