Prominent writers, poets and editors gathered Friday in the Whitney Humanities Center as part of the annual Windham-Campbell Prizes to discuss how the policies and persona of a U.S. president influences the nation’s — and Yale’s — artists.
“Art in the Age of Trump,” a panel discussion featuring Windham-Campbell Prize winners André Alexis, Ike Holter, Maya Jasanoff GRD ’02 and Carolyn Forché, shed light on the difficulties of writing in a social climate dominated by politics and polarization. The prizes are global English-language awards that allow authors to further discuss and celebrate their recent work. Moderated by Knopf Doubleday editor Erroll McDonald ’75, the discussion focused specifically on how the production and consumption of art and writing continues to be affected by the rhetoric of President Donald Trump. For student writers and artists in the Yale community, Trump’s presidency and the charged political climate has likewise shaped the tone and content of contemporary art.
“Art is a great platform for expressing political views,” said Jyot Batra ’21, because it allows artists to speak their minds without getting trapped in a heated political debate.
The panel discussion made it clear that few presidents in recent memory have held as much influence over popular culture as Trump. From his prolific use of Twitter to daily references on comedy programs and late-night TV, Trump’s words and appearances have proliferated throughout the internet, and have crept into some art as well. His ubiquity, combined with his threats to cut federal funding for the arts and humanities, have sparked conversations between artists about how to respond.
His presence in all aspects of daily life was felt by all members of the panel. Canadian fiction author Alexis said that given the pressure he feels as a person of color to produce political work in such a polarized time, his personal avoidance of politics could be seen as evasive and problematic. And for Forché, the sole poet on the panel, Trump’s actions also have the potential to disrupt the poet’s writing process. Forché said that she “stuffs a poem into a bottle and tosses it into the sea. In the hopes that somebody on another shore … will read it.”
In response to a discussion of identity politics, nonfiction writer and Harvard history professor Jasanoff explained that “artistic products [are themselves] products of personal identity… and politics itself is a projection of someone’s personal identity.” This personal component of art makes people more directly invested in its meaning and political stance, she said.
Trump’s presidency has also affected Yale student writers. Event attendee Lily Dodd ’21 noted that “you write about what you feel. The closer something happens to you, the more prevalent it will be in your writing.”
For artists who feel personally attacked or threatened by Trump’s words, it only follows that current political events will flow into their work. In the lead-up to the November election, for instance, Dodd, a first year in Silliman who was writing a modern retelling of Robin Hood at the time, subconsciously modeled the “tyrannical” Sherriff of Nottingham character after Trump, she said.
Consumers of art have also enjoyed the recent flourish of Trump-inspired work. Batra told the News that he has loved the renewed attention to politics of comedy shows like “Saturday Night Live” and political cartoons.
Attendee Krista Arellano ’21 said that although she does not think of art as necessarily having political undertones, she views art as an incredibly revealing and personal way of making political statements.
In the end, the panel did not arrive at a unified artistic response to Trump. However, Dodd offered that there are some artists who may feel the need to focus on more overtly political topics, but also proposed that other artists could be driven to write about inherently “joyful,” apolitical themes in reaction to Trump as well.
“Art in the Age of Trump” was a part of Yale’s Windham-Campbell Prize Festival, which ran from Sept. 13 to 15.
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