On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing · On Politics · Uncategorized

The Terrible Thing Has Happened: Three Questions About Creativity in the Time of Trump


The terrible thing has happened.

This is what Roger Langeron, prefect of the Paris police wrote in his journal on the day when city was handed over to the Nazis in June of 1940, part of surrender/compromise by the French government. I copied it into my own journal, both in the original French (l’affreuse chose s’est realisee) and in translation at the Mid-Manhattan Library on November 16th, 2016.

Like the majority of American voters who did not vote for Donald Trump, on that dark afternoon I was reeling from the election of the crudest, coarsest, most unqualified disgrace of a person to the highest office in the land. I was, and remain, deeply terrified of his fascist and authoritarian proclivities.

So, at the library, I was continuing an urgent project I started on the morning after election day: researching life in Paris during the Nazi occupation. I needed to know how to survive an authoritarian regime in a large city with a deep history of creativity borne of the freedoms that dictators abhor. I figured that this project would help me pick up a pointer or two.

World history is replete with authoritarian regimes. So why Paris under Nazi rule?

The Nazis were an easy pick, since they’re the authoritarian regime I’m the most familiar with. I’m from a family of Holocaust survivors and have read a lot about it throughout my life. Like most people of Jewish descent, I’ve thought a lot about what I would do if I was there, if now was then. Of course, in these imaginings, I’ve always cast myself in the role of public enemy number one. I’ve never seriously considered what life was like for everyone who wasn’t in immediate mortal danger.  Since I’m not a Muslim, Mexican, disabled, an illegal immigrant, or, I guess, Meryl Streep, I assume I’m not on the tippy top of the Trump hit list.

Paris was also a natural choice.  As a cosmopolitan city, Paris had many residents that Hitler wasn’t terribly thrilled with — but weren’t marked for immediate murder. Hitler also had a special feeling about Paris — he didn’t want to destroy its character, which he had no problem doing in other cities.  In fact, he wanted to show the world he could “keep Paris Paris.”  I have a feeling Trump nurtures similar sentiments about New York City. Also, I’m particularly interested in how  artists and writers survive in authoritarian regime, as my immediate decisions will be about resistance, creative expression of protest, and economic self-defense. Few cities are as identified with the arts as Paris.

For a few weeks, I wondered whether Paris was the best analogy, because there’s a difference between a foreign occupation and a democratic-ish election by some of your own citizens —  but since we’ve since learned that the Russians were deeply involved in the outcome of the election, and because the French government brokered the occupation of Paris, I now think the fit is quite comfortable.

Anyway, what I’m learning from this study is what I think are the right questions to ask. So in the weeks ahead, as my research progresses, I’ll share these questions and some of my answers. Let’s hope I’ll be able to continue to do so.

Question One: Should Writers and Artists Still Do Their Thing?

The first question I wanted to address in the wake of this catastrophe was whether to keep on creating: writing, making art in any form. Is this the right way to spend time now? Are there better, more practical ways to spend my time?

In easier times, creatives also struggle with this question, which is really one of permission: who am I to write, or make art? Why do I take time away from people and other worthy causes for my art? In good times we excessively worry about causing offense — or, for the particularly dramatic, that we’ll die, just die, because of something we make.

In times of political repression, when you actually could face severe consequences for self-expression, the invented drama becomes more real. But in crisis, the arts become much more obviously important, urgent, moral.  We’re chronicling, we’re bearing witness. Picasso, upon returning to work at his studio in Occupied Paris, said with evident self-admiration:  “It was not a time for creative men [sic] to fail, to shrink, to stop working…there was nothing to do but work seriously and devotedly, struggle for food, see friends quietly and look forward to freedom.”

The very important question, then, isn’t whether you work. Creative people are going to create, drawings were scratched into the walls in Gestapo prison cells. And it’s important that they do so for future generations,

The real question is what you do with your creative output — how, or whether to make it publicly available. And so…

Question Two: Should Writers and Artists Share Political Criticism Publicly?

In most dictatorships, political criticism becomes illegal and dangerous. So, every creative person has to think about her own tolerance for risk.

There’s actual risk — what the law says. There’s practical risk — are there extra-legal consequences for making critical work public, such as financial retribution?  Certainly there’s some sense that this currently exists, as PEOTUS rails against the cast of Hamilton, Alec Baldwin, Meryl Streep, Buzz Feed, although it’s unclear what that will actually accomplish.  And then there’s an assessment of future risk, which gets weighed against how much trouble you’re already in for actions you’ve already taken.

When it became apparent on election night that Trump would win, I thought about the “Fuck Trump” stick pins I made in filigree vintage metal during the campaign. I wondered if I could take them off the web and hide that they ever existed. That’s a question of future risk, I’m in no trouble for these right now. I’ve learned that people are now afraid to wear them, so that’s a bit of extra-legal consequence already occurring. The real question here is about the risk I’ll face in the future if the Trump regime cracks down on critical expression.

In this, I’ve become fatalistic. I don’t think I’d easily shed that electronic trail, so, why stop now? In other words, if I’m going to be screwed by this, I am already.

With this is mind, at this moment, I decided to keep making art that directly comments on Trump’s policies and is explicitly opposed to Trump and Trumpism. At about this time, I was asked to participate in Unstitched States, a digital quilt of reactions to the election. For it, I embroidered a vintage handkerchief with the “terrible thing” quote I referenced at the beginning, Donald Trump’s anti-democratic tweets on flag burning, an analogous passage from the Nuremberg Laws, and my own notes from visiting the memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau. (This was my inspiration.)  It’s pictured above.

Questions Three: Should Writers and Artists Continue to Make Non-Political Work Public?

There’s always a demand for art that is non-political. In Nazi Paris, the presses kept printing magazines, newspapers and books, movies were screened, theatrical and dance productions were staged. This required the participation of creative people. Is this unacceptable collaboration? And if so, and if you make your living in the arts, what are you to do?

The writer Jean Guehenno, whose journals became Diary of The Dark Years, 1940-44. Collaboration, Resistance, and Daily Life in Occupied Paris, decided not to publish anything during the years of occupation, when all publications were controlled by Nazis. His translator, David Ball, writes this:

“He was one of the few intellectuals in occupied France who sensed that what one writes takes on its full meaning only in the context of a historical situation, and that its meaning depends in part on where it is published, and the conditions of its publications.

For writers to accept Nazi control of their publications is a fundamental choice — not to publish at all is another — and it is far more important than the choice of words in their writings. When Paul Valery, whom Guehanno admired enormously published a new poem in the most important literary review in France, which [was] edited by a fascist, Guehenno writes in his diary “I can’t help being sorry to see him go along with the ploy of our occupiers who want everyone to think everything in France is continuing just as it did before.”


In our current terms, this is the question of “normalization.” (Colloquially, “this is not okay.”)

Personally, I don’t have an answer to this one at this moment — I need more information about what forms of expression become legally restricted, if any, what becomes practically dangerous to publish or make public. But I will say that while I do admire Guehenno’s absolutist answer to this question: “…never, ever play {the} jailers game, never do what he hoped we’d do, appear in print, for example — appear as if we were still living and enjoying ourselves as we used to, in the time when we were free,” I’m not sure that silence is the most effective response.  My initial thought is that should it become difficult to make critical work, it’s possible to subtly communicate criticism in any form of art that could pass under a censor’s nose. (I’m thinking here of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, nominally about the Salem Witch Trials, actually about McCarthyism.) So I suppose the next question is, is it worth the appearance of normalization to communicate a subtle message?

More as I have it.







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