Visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in late October, in that odd period of presumed normalcy before the national elections when it was broadly believed that plurality would win the day, I wandered among the centuries and eventually landed in the pair of rooms that contain America Today, the glorious set of murals that Thomas Hart Benton created in 1930 and ’31, during the depths of the Great Depression, for the New School for Social Research.
Looking back on that visit from the brink of the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, it seems a premonition, or at least a fascinating chapter, in a tangled tale that weaves through hope and cynicism and disease and demagoguery and the politics of outrage and the demonization of the outsider and the role of art in culture and the tottering of the great American experiment, and if that seems like an unlikely jumble of loose ends, let me try to tie them together for you.
BENTON WAS PROBABLY THE MOST PROMINENT of the American Regionalists who flourished from the 1920s through the ’40s until Abstract Expressionism largely swept them off the contemporary map. With his brawny approachability and celebration of everyday life and work, he seemed an ideal candidate for making America great again, in an unspun sense: a vigorous hero of the people (even if his family background was American patrician), a chronicler of the virtues of the good anonymous men and women who used to make the nation work.
For decades Benton, despite his years in Paris and long tenure in New York, was largely dismissed as an agrarian, an anti-modernist, and a nostalgist, out of step with the push and power of the contemporary world. He was alternately praised as an upholder of traditional values and panned as a sentimentalist and a reactionary: very bad readings, as it turns out, from both the right and left, each of which misunderstood him in its own way.
On that October day at the Met, the America Today galleries were crowded practically cheek-to-cheek, and they were crowded with what struck me as a magnificent sampling of the hopeful nation Benton’s murals chronicle: young, old, middle-aged, black, brown, white, native speakers and immigrants and visitors from other countries, all gathered to marvel at a vision of a country of opportunity. It was an expansive vision, and one of its time: locomotives steaming, propeller planes whirring, blimps flying, steelworkers sweating, loggers sawing, construction workers building, bootleggers selling, dancers dancing, jazz bands playing, boxers slugging, secretaries holding onto subway straps, mothers and children playing, women sitting at a soda fountain, a bowler-hatted gent reading his newspaper, acrobats soaring, lovers kissing, farmers checking their cornstalks. Benton’s depiction of the nation was celebratory but far from naïve. He saw the flip sides. He painted black lives and white lives, but rarely together: It was a segregated and unequal nation. Outreaching Hands, a startling strip running more than eight feet wide across a doorway and just about a foot and a half high, is Depression realism approaching cynicism: a woman’s hands raising a coffee percolator on high and pouring into a cup; desperate workers’ hands grasping toward it, a businessman’s hands offering a buck or two; a top-hatted plutocrat holding out a fat wad of bills; and guess who’s going to get served first (and possibly only)?
Benton’s America was not a perfect America, but it was an America to build on: a bustling, forward-moving America, built on diversity and difference into a collaborative vision of what a dynamic and progressive culture could be. In Benton’s America – which seems so painfully elusive now, slipping like that cup of coffee from so many people’s grasp – there is room for all sorts. In his America everybody has a story, and everybody’s story is worth telling.
And that, in late October of 2016, was the America I thought would prevail in this most tendentious and dangerous of elections in my lifetime. Like so many others, I was wrong. Lulled by all the stories, I missed the Story.
I AM A CHRONICLER OF OTHER PEOPLE’S STORIES, not a teller of my own, and I do not like the idea of telling the particular story this is leading toward, because it is private. But the invasion of the private, and the unleashing of resentments and fears that has ridden shotgun with it, has been one of the major stories of the election campaign and its aftermath that we have just endured, and haunts the future we face. We will invade your body. We will invade your movements. We will invade your private information, and use it against you, and pass it to whomever we please. We will incite violence against our opponents, as with Trump’s notorious campaign suggestion of a renegade solution by firearm to keep Hillary Clinton in her place: “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people – maybe there is, I don’t know.” We will keep lists. We will take names.
The attack on privacy, in the form of the great cultural shift that we as a people have now endorsed (and never mind the popular vote: like it or not, it’s the electoral vote that counts), is largely an attack on The Other, and it is now plain that The Other is not equal, is not “us,” and might indeed be you. Or me. Are you black? Are you Jewish? Is your heritage Mexican? Are you Muslim? Are you coastal or academic or old or infirm? Are you a woman, part of that majority that seems forever a minority? This transgression – in some cases against the very right to exist, at least within the borders of these United States – has been built into Donald Trump’s message from the very beginning of his campaign, and has not abated during his transition, and seems all but certain to carry into his presidency. It is an angry message, and exultant, and seductive, and it feeds the demons. You might be part of America Today. You might not be part of America tomorrow.
It didn’t take long, once we got past the “this is a joke” stage of the campaign, to understand that Trump represented a different order of things, an amping up of dishonesty and instability to almost unrecognizable heights. Every politician (and every writer or performer or any other public figure) is narcissistic to a point. We may love what we do, and believe that what we do is a form of public service, but we also love the glow of recognition: oh, look, is that me in the mirror? Trump takes narcissism into pathological territory. He needs, craves, feeds on attention, and will do anything to get it. His self-love is autocratic and cult-like, streaked with disdain for others, and he expresses his disdain in the form of mockery, punishment, and exile. Perhaps of you. Perhaps of me. I am far from the first to note this: Donald Trump is the schoolyard bully, and the concept of the schoolyard bully sitting in the Oval Office is a frightening thing.
Am I being melodramatic? Do I need to “just get over it,” a phrase that has rapidly become a mantra among his triumphant followers? I don’t think so. Because there are things I can’t forget. Or forgive. And some I can’t forgive because they feel like personal threats, aimed at me. Like I’m being painted out of the picture. Like I’m being shunted to the side of the story, or turned into one of its convenient villains.
In brief, Trump has stolen the story, and we are in his tale now, a ceaseless and addictive barrage of adrenaline-pumping nerve-bruisings that seems to take its cues from teen slasher movies. More, more, more. Slash, slash, slash. We hate it, and yet we can’t take our eyes away. Love him or loathe him, we are in Trump’s thrall. We have reverted to a faith in social Darwinism, which of course is not survival of the fittest at all, but survival of the most ruthless and propitiously advantaged. And as story is the heartbeat of art, Trump has become the most significant artist of the day. Never mind that his art is sham. He’s very good at it, and it’s sucked up all the air. It’s a religious reimagining, in essence, and a new religion is a difficult thing to fight. One way is simply to combat the story with counter-stories, stories from the real world, stories that chip away at the new mythology, stories that insist on holding the myth to the specifics of real lives and real facts. Saturday’s mass marches by women across the country, from the nation’s capital to Portland with many stops between, will be a counter-story, a signal of something fierce and determined waking up and beginning to write itself.
IN THE MEANTIME, THE GROUND SHIFTS. The aftermath of the election, with its seemingly endless parade of fringe-right figures being chosen for high administrative positions and its astonishing accusations of Russian manipulation of the campaign process, has the grotesque feel of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Yet the indelible image of the past several months, for me – the detail that rivets my attention from the master fabulist’s sweeping opus-in-the-making, The Garden of Earthly Outrages – remains that of Trump, his scrunched-up face making little rabbity chewing gestures and his arms and hands flapping around uncontrollably as if they’ve lost all motor skills, mocking a reporter for the New York Times named Serge Kovaleski. Kovaleski has a disease called arthrogryposis. It affects the movement in his joints, and, yes, results in an involuntary loss of control, a “flapping,” of his right arm and hand. It’s a condition that I imagine is sometimes difficult to live with, and it is highly visible, and so an easy target for mocking by anyone who lacks basic self-control and common decency.
Kovaleski is me. Or like me. I am him. Or like him. We’ve both spent our adult lives as journalists. We both, for physical and medical reasons, look different from the norm. And because of the accident of who and what we are, we are both, at least in Trumpland, The Other. In my case it’s a matter of poliomyelitis, which struck me (as it did my sister, more severely) in 1948, when I was eight months old. It was still seven years before the mass release of the Salk vaccine, which in combination with the release a few years later of the Sabin vaccine has changed the world. I emerged from polio with a radically atrophied right leg, a right foot that flops (I can’t control my ankle or move my toes) and a left leg that, while also weakened, for decades has taken the brunt of my simply moving around. Due to various surgeries I am three or four inches shorter than I would be otherwise. I walk with an odd gait, and I am self-conscious about the pants I wear, because many fabrics fall in such a way that they accentuate the extreme skinniness of my right leg. I never wear shorts. Oh: and I do not like telling you that. As I’ve aged, mobility has become harder, and someday I won’t be able to walk on my own. I’ve made adjustments. A few years ago I got a disabled parking permit and use it occasionally, when there seems no alternative (my family and I refer to it jokingly as “playing the cripple card”). I have a cane, which I detest because it seems proof that I am somehow not capable, but which is also often extraordinarily helpful. Sometimes we resent the things we need.
Here’s the thing: It is what it is. My condition is not abnormal, in any meaningful way; it’s simply a restriction that happens to be a bit more visible than the restrictions that many other people live with every day. Most of the time I don’t think about it at all, much less write about it. It’s not even in the background. It’s just … there; part of me. I don’t feel tragic and I don’t seek pity; I don’t feel pitiable. I don’t look in full-length mirrors, either, but that’s just vanity. It doesn’t really mean much. I’ve come to terms with my restriction long ago, and I’m comfortable with it.
But here, too, is the thing: by openly mocking a physically handicapped man, Donald Trump has openly mocked me, and millions of others like me. He has plotted to steal our story. And he has opened up, in me and no doubt many others, chasms to the past, trap doors to things that had been forgotten or outgrown but that lurked, waiting to come out. In my case it is the rising memory of a certain kind of taunting, the sort of incivility that in other places and other times has been the nutritional yeast of demagoguery. Let’s just call him Eddie, for convenience, because he was the worst, a pretty boy and teachers’ pet who away from doting adult eyes was slyly savage. On the playgrounds he would taunt, and needle, and jab, and wait for my rage to build, and when I finally lunged at him he’d dodge away and laugh, and mock some more, and leave me lying on the ground. Encouraged by his example, others emulated him, and I, inflamed, took the bait, and usually they got away, but sometimes I would catch them, and when I did my fists were a whirlwind and my enemies were helpless and their lips puffed and their noses bled. And that, for a time, would be that. And it became a kind of poison, that rage, and sometimes I’d take it out on someone even weaker in one way or another than I was, and afterwards I would feel deeply ashamed, and the cycle would go on, because that’s how abuse works, but the wheel would slow down. Because gradually I grew out of it, under the influence of many kindnesses from many people, and by realizing that for most people, my limp was simply not an issue, and I needed to just get over myself. In a word, despite an occasional backslide, I grew up, as most of us do, and today I both resent that trap door opening and wonder what it is about Donald Trump that has kept him from ever growing up, from ever filling his emptiness, from ever becoming civilized or learning simple human empathy, that has left him a 70-year-old Eddie, believing in nothing and approaching happiness only when he is causing humiliation and pain in others, which he does in part by telling whoppers that win him adulation as a master storyteller.
Trump is not an untalented man, but he is twisted, and unstable, a thrill jockey, lacking in prudence and patience and depth, and those things, more than his particular brand of politics, make him unsuitable for leadership. He has been a creator, or enabler, of dreams – a demented artist, but an artist nevertheless – and for many on the wrong side of his divide the dreams are nightmares. They are nightmares because his demeaning broadsides encourage the morally weak and emotionally impressionable to take things one step further, and who knows when or where the flint might spark? In the murder of nine people in an African American church? In a string of bomb plots against Jewish community centers? Trump’s incitements have the potential (though many others are more immediately in the line of fire) to put me, personally, in danger. It is difficult and inadvisable to forget that one of the lesser-known depravities of the Nazi regime was the T-4 program, which carried out the euthanasia of mentally or physically handicapped citizens. Although I highly doubt that such a thing could happen here, well, I didn’t think that Trump could happen here, either.
And here, thirdly, is the big bad thing: I am not alone. I am joined in the long line of those to be despised and ridiculed by the Tweeter in Chief. Trump’s violation of the private has gone beyond his boast of “grabbing them by the pussy” and his obvious and oft-repeated lies, including his tendentious “birther” assault against Barack Obama, about who people are and what they have done and what rights they do and do not possess. Trump’s great sin has been to demean and denounce the very right of vast numbers of Americans to be who they are – to have a private existence and also participate freely in public rights. He has rewritten one of the foundational tenets of the American myth, that all humans are created equal and have equal, fundamental rights.
Trump’s radical realignment of the meaning of America has taken the form of creating enemies of the state out of anyone and everyone considered somehow different, often for reasons utterly out of their control. It goes beyond the tell-all mischief of Julian Assange and his imperiously anarchistic lot, and even beyond the apparent meddling of Vladimir Putin and his apparatchiks in the American presidential election, and the strong financial ties that members of the Trump In Crowd have with the Russian regime.
And yet the revisionisms have begun; a cry for conciliation has let loose across the land. America has spoken, the voice says. Now we must put aside our differences and unite. Thank you, but no.
IT IS EASY TO SMASH SOMETHING APART. It is much more difficult, and takes far longer, to piece it back together, and the fracture marks will always show. The Japanese have turned the process into an art form, known as Kintsugi or Kintsukuroi, golden joinery or golden repair, in which broken pottery is reassembled and cemented with a purposely visible gold- or silver- or platinum-laced lacquer that creates a greater beauty from the fault lines, like traces on a map or creases in the skin of an old and experienced face. The beauty lies in both the brokenness and the survival.
Art is like that. It traces histories and rearranges realities, asking questions more than seeking answers. One foot in the past and one foot stretching toward the future, it advances the story and opens it to multiple possibilities. It reuses the pieces. It does not leave the pieces smashed. At the moment the pieces of the story are smashed, and what will be done with them is anybody’s guess. We the people have messed up mightily. To use the biblical analogy, we’ve sold our birthright for a mess of pottage, except the pottage isn’t even real.
Can this last? In a successful representative democracy, the story that prevails does not hammer down from the top but bubbles from the bottom. It is a web of voices, a weave, a tapestry, perhaps a crazy quilt, taking its shape from its many disparities and the stitching that brings them together. There is no superhero, there is only us, and our stories, and the way we tell them and insist that they be heard. We tell them even if we don’t particularly want to tell them, because they are important; they count. And so, as artists and as citizens and as human beings, we speak. Because there is no other way. And that is what art will do.
A few days after experiencing the exaltation of Benton’s America Today at the Met in New York, I was in Connecticut, visiting the New Britain Museum of American Art. There I saw The Arts of Life in America, a similar series of murals that Benton created a year deeper into the Depression, and it deepened the vision, too, shading it a little more toward the frailty of the times, but still with that hardscrabble optimism. Here he painted the highs and lows of economic disparity: beauty queens strutting, flappers flapping, cowboys gambling in a saloon, Native Americans dancing and hunting (the images are a little simplistic from today’s perspective, but the land’s original human inhabitants are actually included in the nation’s story), a neat rogues’ gallery of corruption, with Wall Street fat cats, stogie-puffing fixers, and pistol-toting thugs.
Those latter figures might have been continuations of Benton’s Outreaching Hands at the Met, that narrow strip in America Today of desperate and clawing hands. Are they mere reporting, or commentary, or a call to action? In art as well as politics and science we glorify revolutions, and yet the truth is that most of the time what seems like a radical break or breakthrough is actually built on connections to the past. When a demagogue overthrows tradition and castigates the past, substituting a whole new mythology to take its place, bad things tend to happen. Yet often a “revolution” is only the next step in a process. Trump may represent a revolutionary change, but he became possible because of a process of polarization and demonization in the political arena that began to put deliberate stress on the body politic a good forty years ago. The major parties discovered, with the help of pollsters and social scientists, that the way to keep their bases radicalized and active was to create a constant sense of alarm and outrage, to overstress the great cultural divide and create an illusion of cultural brinksmanship. As it happens, if you cry wolf long and loud enough, an actual wolf is liable to heed your call and start feasting on lamb. In a way, Trump is the logical result of a mostly artificial crisis that became real: the story devoured the storytellers.
It was not inevitable, this trashing of the tale. In politics, Obama echoed Eisenhower in demeanor. In science, increment is essential. In the arts, Stravinsky deeply admired Tchaikovsky. And it must have come as a surprise to many people who considered Benton irrelevant or old hat to learn that he was the early teacher and longtime mentor of Jackson Pollock, and the two men – American regionalist, pioneering Abstract-Expressionist superstar – maintained a close and tangled relationship until Pollock’s early death in 1956. The two painters ended in very different places, but they were acutely connected, and it’s likely that without Benton, there never would have been a Pollock as he came to be. That is one of the natural ways in which a healthy culture progresses.
Art plays a long game, and it is intimately entwined with politics but not usually in an immediate or even immediately obvious way. Perhaps the greatest literary movement of the 20th century, magical realism, grew in part as a response to the disruptions of private life by corrupt governments in Latin America. Laws and suppressions begin to crumble when a Mae West or Bette Midler sends up sex and sex roles and laughs at them, or when a John Waters flip-flops gender expectations and mocks the absurdity of mainstream fears. The long reach of harsh regimes led directly to the fabulist and elaborately encoded novels and plays of the past century’s great Eastern European writers, from Kafka and Jaroslav Hašek to Bohumil Hrabal, that gave hope and resistance to citizens and a sly thumb in the eye to officialdom: writers were heroes, and once the chains were broken, the Czechs even made Vaclav Havel their president.
Thanks to basic rights including a broadly honored (but today endangered) freedom of speech, the tradition in the United States has mostly been more straightforward, without gamesmanship. It’s ranged from the muckraking treatises of Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair, to the satires of Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce, to the interior tales of undertold lives by the likes of Willa Cather and Zora Neale Hurston and Harper Lee, to the sharp searing tales sung by a Billie Holiday or Betty Carter, to the pointed movements danced by a Josephine Baker or an Agnes de Mille, to the quiet nightmare of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, a “realistic” novel that until a few months ago we mostly considered simply a cautionary tale. Will that plainspokenness survive the coming years, or will American artists and writers need to learn the veiled sidestep? It is not, after all, entirely unknown, as Kurt Vonnegut’s masterful Slaughterhouse-Five, a story that could only approach its horrific subject through the distancing of fantasy, so amply illustrates.
CAN ARTISTS SAVE THE WORLD? In the short run, at least, it’s highly doubtful, and maybe even presumptuous to ask. Artists, after all, are really no better ethically as a group than politicians or anyone else. They can be, and often are, vain and shallow and exploitative and thick-skulled. Nevertheless, there’s something about the enterprise itself – the asking and raising of questions, the seeking of possibilities – that can transcend the purely personal.
The committed artist, like the committed scientist or teacher or simple citizen, represents the antithesis of Trumpism. I am not speaking here about specific political stances or decisions, though of course they matter deeply: strong opinions abound in the information passageways about such things, and I have little to add to what you’ve no doubt heard or read dozens of times. I am speaking about moral suitability, and I do not mean that in the specific sense of drug use or abortion or religious conviction – honest people have honest disagreements on such things – but rather in the sense of basic decency and regard for other humans. I am thinking of the day-to-day ability to consider public good over private profit, to make good compromises and refrain from throwing out babies with the bathwater, to control one’s impulses and not strike out with little or no provocation, to pay attention to matters such as stewardship and kindness, to grieve over harsh decisions that must be made, to understand the difference between fact and fiction, to laugh with people rather than at people. I mean determining to seek and follow truth, even when you know you’ll fail. Such things matter, and they matter crucially.
It’s nothing foolproof. Artists can explain, and describe, and even prescribe, and so they should. But even a Twain or a Swift can’t force the medicine down the patient’s throat. And the patient’s in an angry, sullen mood. Arts move slowly, events move fast: a television comedian can respond more quickly to political swerves than a playwright or painter or novelist can, and that’s why Jon Stewart and Samantha Bee are both loved and loathed. But art can remind us to seek and cling to what’s true. Art moves at the speed of James Baldwin and Margaret Atwood and Walt Whitman and Käthe Kollwitz and Colson Whitehead and John Coltrane and Quiara Alegría Hudes and Samuel Beckett and Naomi Shihab Nye and Langston Hughes and Gabriel García Márquez and Gwendolyn Brooks and Michael Chabon and Faith Ringgold and August Wilson and Helen Frankenthaler and Thomas Hart Benton: with all deliberate depth and speed. Over time, it can change minds, or maybe not minds so much as approaches to life.
I am reminded, as we move into the Trump Era and its deification of the sneering putdown and marginalization of the merely different, of that so elegant phrase, meant to belittle those who object to thuggery, “grow a pair.” There is little in life I would like more, in the abstract, than to grow a pair of ordinary legs – just turn these damned things in for a new, improved model. I know that’s not going to happen. I’m an adult. I live with what I have, and rarely make a big deal of it. I resent that I feel a need to write about it right now. Because the triumph of Trumpism makes anyone like me and possibly you believe that the mere fact of who we are imperils our right to basic American freedoms and respect, I feel I must. I will not have my story stolen. I refuse. After all, what is a nation but a collection of individual, private stories? If we tell our stories, greater truths will emerge. To quote a fellow whose followers Trump has co-opted, although he understands nothing about the man or his message at all: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”