Since their inception in 1978, the Kennedy Center Honors, which recognize lifetime achievement in the performing arts, have always been attended by the president or the first lady, and usually by both. Their presence is largely symbolic, but that does not make it token. Having the leader of the free world in attendance sends a crystalline message about the importance of the arts. I can still picture Barack and Michelle Obama in their box, grooving to the live performances onstage, or just sitting there, quietly beaming. Their evident pleasure was no mystery: They were both at home in the world of the arts.
What of Donald Trump this year? He’ll be breaking with tradition and, with Melania, skipping the ceremony altogether. President Trump has also, for the first time ever, canceled the pre-ceremony reception for Kennedy Center honorees at the White House.
The official stated reason for the snub was “to allow the honorees to celebrate without any political distraction.” At least two had vowed to boycott the White House part of the ceremony after Trump’s staggering response (blaming both sides) for the recent Charlottesville violence.
The Kennedy Center publicly thanked him for his “gracious decision” to bow out, but all of this, too, was its own performance, a play of optics. Staying out of the political fray is not exactly Trump’s modus operandi.
This, after all, may be the most arts-hostile president in modern American history. In “The Art of the Deal” he recounts that, as a second grader, he was nearly expelled for literally punching his music teacher in the face — not a glancing swat but a blow that, according to Trump, gave the teacher a black eye. Since his election victory, Trump’s cultural pugilism has many new avenues for expression. He has attacked individual actors, the cast of the Broadway smash “Hamilton,” and, repeatedly, television’s “Saturday Night Live.” Most notably, he has proposed a budget that would eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. Meanwhile his own President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities recently resigned en masse, citing his “hateful rhetoric” in an open letter that stated forcefully “your values are not American values.”
Sure, the NEA has long been a favorite target of conservative activists, who claim that it subsidizes the art of coastal elites on the backs of middle-American taxpayers. Never mind that the NEA actually funds many vital projects in the heart of red-state America.
But there is more going on here than a politician simply playing to his base. Nor can one shrug this off as a mere difference in taste, of preferring beauty pageants to Balanchine.
To get at Trump’s deeper, possibly unconscious motivations, we have to consider not just whom the arts serve, but what powers they hold, and which habits of mind they cultivate.
The best works of art can sharpen our sense of empathy, they can force us to imagine a perspective other than our own. These are dangerous qualities for a leader who manifestly prefers division to unity. What’s more, art can sensitize us to irony and ambiguity, and it can encourage the admission of complexity — again, dangerous traits for a president who plays on voters’ gut impulses. No wonder that, looking back over the 20th century, it has been totalitarian governments that have been most keenly attuned to the supposed dangers posed by the arts, and therefore most committed to silencing them.
On the more positive side, this is part of what accounts for a certain urgency, even an explosive quality, that has been coursing beneath certain arts performances in recent months. If Trump, with his love of pageantry and spectacle, has aestheticized politics, his tenure has politicized art.
For instance, take Opera Saratoga’s recent NEA-funded production of Marc Blitzstein’s 1930s opera “The Cradle Will Rock.” The show,with its pungently affecting score, summons our sympathies for the downtrodden workers of Steeltown, USA, as they try to unionize in the face of overwhelming obstacles. The local plutocrat, named Mister Mister, pulls all the strings around them, manipulating the legal system, the church sermons, and the local newspaper against the cause of organized labor. We not only see but we hear — we feel — that the workers’ struggles are manifestly not their fault; they are victims of unchecked capitalist greed and a system built on protecting it.
“The Cradle Will Rock” of course started its life as sharp-edged political art. Blitzstein himself was a dreamer who carried a vast faith in music’s ability to provoke change. “He almost believed,” Orson Welles once recalled, that his opera “had only to be performed to start the Revolution.”
But while the work’s Depression-era origins came through clearly in Opera Saratoga’s ambitious production, so did a newly re-catalyzed spirit of relevance. Director Lawrence Edelson did not attempt to glibly update the piece with topical references, perhaps because doing so would have been redundant. Present-day reality already felt like the third act Blitzstein never wrote, in which the legitimate grievances of Steeltown’s workers are so skillfully manipulated by Mister Mister that they elect him president.
It was a reminder that, while we tend to think of our artistic classics as timeless and immutable, even the most august works can take on new layers of political meaning through the prism of the present. And Blitzstein’s blend of modern political feistiness and touching sincerity is hardly required. One might recall this summer, when National Public Radio tweeted out the Declaration of Independence line by line, some Twitter users did not recognize the text and blasted NPR for its liberal bias. I’d wager that tweeting some lines from Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” as set in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony — “All men will become brothers!” — could well solicit the same charge.
Of course, even without words, purely instrumental music can seep into one’s sensibilities in ways that have political implications. This is why Vladimir Lenin claimed he had to carefully manage how often he listened to Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata. He described it as “amazing, superhuman music,” but also as a score that “affects one’s nerves, makes one want to say kind, stupid things and stroke the heads of those who, living in such a foul hell, can create such beauty.” By contrast, decades later, on the other end of the tragic Soviet experiment, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich spoke of Russian society as hungering for music like the “Appassionata” in the way a sick patient craves his medicine.
When it comes to classical music, President Trump has tried to have it both ways. After placing the NEA in the crosshairs, he proudly told a crowd of thousands in Warsaw that “We write symphonies.” In context, he was proposing symphonic music as a hallmark of Western civilization itself. Ironically, the actual musical works to which he was no doubt alluding came from countries where the arts are supported by the government at levels undreamed of here.
In the end, the Kennedy Center Honors will go on without presidential imprimatur, and news from Capitol Hill suggests that Trump’s proposal to eliminate the NEA will not succeed on this occasion. But Trump’s position is crystal clear, as is his impulse to punch the arts in the face. As the new season begins, keep your ears open for the moments — sometimes subtle, sometimes not — in which the arts punch back.