Art Under Pressure: Artists Respond to Creating in Trump Era

Amanda Palmer, punk rock musician and member of the Dresden Dolls, stated that in the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration, the United States would become an incubator for great art, and that Trump—with whatever tumult he would bring with him—would “make punk great again.”

Photo: Us Weekly

This sentiment, though supported by some examples in the past, elicited mostly negative responses from artists and journalists, who

that Palmer—successful and white—neglected to consider how this administration and climate would affect artists of color and artists who were not as financially secure and recognized as her. On top of this critique, Palmer and her husband, novelist Neil Gaiman, had recently applied for visas that would allow them to spend extended time outside of the US, and thus, would allow them to create their art from a distance. Their art could be reactionary to the US political climate, yes, but they would remain largely unaffected by what would be happening here.

Habitat and Stomping Ground, devoted to including and amplifying voices in the margins, spoke to artists themselves—LGBTQA individuals, artists of color, and those most at risk because of this climate—to find out if Palmer’s claims were true.

The first in these series of interviews is with Arabella Breck, a journalist and former employee of CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations.)

How has art helped you find a place in the world?

BRECK: While I call myself a journalist now, I have also practiced fine art, theatre, dance, and poetry throughout my life. These were the things that helped guide me through difficult transitions in my life and while I know journalism is absolutely what I want to do with the rest of my life, I think that without these other outlets for self-expression I would not be where I am. I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to explore these creative outlets as they have helped me and continue to help me understand myself and in turn have made me want to understand the experiences of others.

Has art shaped your opinions about the world? What are some examples?

BRECK: My parents are both artists in their own ways. My mom was a choreographer, dancer, and poet for many years before she became a teacher. My dad is a journalist, but he has also worked as a designer, photographer, documentarian, writer, and at one point ran an art gallery. Being raised by two individuals who are part of the artistic community exposed me to many different perspectives and opinions expressed through art. I believe art in any form is the most provocative way to present information as art has challenged me and my opinions more than anything else.

As a journalist, what are your fears/anxieties about the way this administration is handling media members?

BRECK: One concern I have more with the industry than with the administration has to do with objectivity. I consider objectivity to be one of the most important values of journalism as the job of a journalist is to present information to the public so they can be educated voters, citizens, and human beings generally. However, I think that many people inside and outside the media industry are confusing objectivity with laziness. I see a lot of journalism that shows both sides of an issue for the sake of being “objective” when they are not providing any analysis or fact-checking of what is being said in the political sphere. I want to be a part of an industry that is not only providing accurate information, but is providing information that will actually make people more educated and more equipped to not only understand, but criticize the systems they are part of.

My main fear is that I will be considered biased for standing up for myself. Recently I have been confronted by people who are scared to be considered biased by supporting things like the Women’s March on Washington. This has really started to bother me and has led me to question what is it really that I am biased about by being a feminist? Why is it considered a bias to want to be treated as a valid person with rights? Why is it a bias to want other people to be treated as equal to myself? I believe that it is because the standard for what is considered unbiased is based off the perspective of white, heterosexual men who arguably have never had to fight for any of their rights or go through a movement like feminism or the civil rights movement. I believe and will continue to believe that human rights issues are not partisan issues or issues you can be biased on and that I have a responsibility to stand up for the human rights of myself and others.

In the past month I had the opportunity to cover former President Barack Obama’s Farewell Address and the Women’s March in Chicago, and being there for those historic moments has reignited my passion for journalism which had been slightly dampened on Election Day when a president was chosen who has actively criticized and attacked the media. Recently Hrishikesh Hirway, a musician and composer who is also involved in podcasting and radio, perfectly summed up my feelings on journalism when he tweeted “In 2017, being a reporter is the most punk as fuck job there is.”

What art is helping you currently? Examples?

BRECK: The art that is helping me the most right now is the art of my peers. My best friend recently created a book that took text from our old journals from college and high school and combined that with photography and design. Seeing how she took pieces of our lives and formed them into a book that retroactively explored and explained themes in our lives was incredibly helpful in my ongoing process of dissecting my life and my experiences. Political art is also important to me, but I think that the value of personal art should not be lost just because we are going through a time of political unrest and uncertainty.

In your work with CAIR, what did you see/experience that you think would be useful for other Americans to know about Muslims? Or anything that you learned that helped you empathize with their experience.

BRECK: While I was working at CAIR I was struck by how in the midst of hateful comments, phone calls, and emails every day, everyone from the paid staff to the interns to the volunteers to the law clerks put in an amazing amount of time and work to serve the Muslim community in the Chicagoland area and achieve the mission of CAIR.

I think that empathize is the wrong word for how I feel toward the Muslim community and pretty much any marginalized community. The word empathize doesn’t bind you to a community or entail any commitment to a community, and to me it implies that you are somehow different or removed from that community. Working with a community that I admittedly do not have any personal connection to made me realize that everyone, including myself, has the capacity to care about issues that affect others as much as they care about issues that affect them personally.

The responsibility of solving issues that affect the Muslim community is not the burden of Muslim people alone. While the Muslim community’s voice should not be raised and not stifled in the creation of solutions, it is important for people outside the Muslim community to recognize their involvement and their obligation in helping to solve these issues which are not just Muslim issues, but American issues.

One of the most important things I learned at CAIR is that I am still learning and I should not be embarrassed that I do not know everything. I think a lot of times people get embarrassed when they realize something they believed is wrong, so they double down on their views instead of being open to learning and evolving. At CAIR I was learning every day and not just things like coding and social media management. Every day a new issue would come up or a discussion would occur that would make me think more critically about myself and the world around me. I will always be extremely thankful for my time at CAIR and the ways that my time there has continued to impact my life.

How do you stay motivated to create in a place that continually discourages creativity and compensation for artists?

BRECK: In an industry where unpaid internships are the norm for young people starting in the field, it is admittedly hard to remember the value of your work. Because unpaid work is a reality, I made the decision to not take on opportunities that do not mean something to me which is one of the reasons why I decided to work with humanitarian organizations. What keeps me motivated—whether I am getting paid—is doing work that makes me feel fulfilled.

Also featured in this installation is Beyza Ozer. They are a trans, Chicago-based poet and artist. Their newest book of poetry, Fail Better, was released earlier this year by Fog Machine Press.

How has art helped you find a place in the world?

OZER: Art has made me feel less alone in a society where people are constantly feeling alone, especially in the current political climate. It gave me the opportunity to meet some amazing people who have shaped my life for the better. I never really knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, not that I'm really sure now anyway, but art gives me ideas.

In what ways has art shaped your opinions about the world? Examples?

OZER: I think it's important to realize that artists can be shitty people. I've been considering the idea of separating an artist from their art, and that is totally impossible for me. This is really true of my view of the world. I tend to attract my attention to voices and artists who are marginalized such as women of color and trans folks. I don't really read work by white men anymore because that's a narrative I can't relate to.

What art is helping you currently? Examples?

OZER: The art of poetry makes me feel like we're all going to be okay. Poets and writers such as Aziza Barnes, Danez Smith, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, T Clutch Fleischmann, Jamie Mortara, Jess Rizkallah, Morgan Parker, and so many more. I've also been reading a lot of Angela Davis who is totally my hero.

How do you feel artists should react to this administration? What have you been doing personally?

OZER: Artists should be angry. Decent human beings should be angry. Art is available to us so we can use it to make a change. Those with privilege should be using art to make their thoughts known, because that's the art the public is paying attention to. Personally, I've been reading voices that are oppressed, specifically women of color and even more specifically, Black women. Reading is one of the simplest things you can do, but can make the biggest impact on the way you think. In high school, I was only taught books by white men that I never cared about. It wasn't until I read Beloved by Toni Morrison in a class taught by a Black feminist that my worldview opened up and I saw how literature could change your mind.

How do you stay motivated to create in a place that continually discourages creativity and compensation for artists?

OZER: I look at the people I admire and see that they continue to stay motivated. I run. I watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I spend time with my family. I try to live and feel alive as often as I can or am allowed. I realize that my work is constantly fluctuating because that is how work grows.

As a poet, what do you feel your responsibility is during this time?

OZER: My responsibility is to make my voice heard and to listen to voices that don't have the same privileges that I have. That's also just what any human should do, artists or not.

Do you have advice for other artists who are struggling? What advice has been helpful for you?

OZER: Be brave if you can help it. Cry as often as you need to. I think it's okay to feel alone and helpless sometimes, but don't try to stay in that place. Organize and find people you love to lean on. Read work that makes you feel fire. I love you.

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