In the Trump era, artists need to do more than make protest speeches

Steve Bannon – Trump’s brain – believes in a single US culture. His white-nationalist ideology gives that notion some sinister echoes

Last month I went to see the pianist Keith Jarrett at Carnegie Hall, in New York. As a paid-up member of the Jarrett cult I can attest that his solo concerts, in which he improvises music from scratch, are mesmerising experiences.

There’s something magical about the way he conjures notes from the air, and when he’s in full flow he comes across like a shaman communing with spirits invisible to the rest of us.

Devotees know that Jarrett generally says very little beyond a few enigmatic lines of introduction and more than a few complaints about those who are disturbing the act of worship by coughing or (the ultimate taboo) taking photographs.

But this time Jarrett began the evening by making quite a long speech about Donald Trump. He wondered whether the framers of the US constitution might have stayed alive for hundreds of years had they known that during four of those years the country would be governed by “two things that very rarely come together: fear and embarrassment”.


He invoked Trump’s claim to be the smartest person around: “How stupid do you have to be to think that?” He urged his audience to “stay alive, stay awake”.

When he finally sat down at the piano Jarrett said, “I had to do that.” He was highly emotional, and the emotion seemed to feed in to his playing: it took him quite a while to settle into the zone of deep concentration he must occupy, but when he did so there was a passion and an edge that seemed somehow related to his state of agitation.

Except perhaps it wasn’t related at all. Music is abstract, but when it is framed by a political statement it is hard not to start hearing things that might not be there. Is the deep Americana that Jarrett was drawing on a rebuke to Trump’s narrow nationalism? Or is that just not what Jarrett has in his bones anyway? Would he really have played much differently if Hillary Clinton had won the election?

This slightly odd experience is a kind of microcosm for the larger question of how the arts in the United States are supposed to respond to Trump’s reactionary revolution. Jarrett clearly felt that he had to say something, that there is a moral obligation to acknowledge the new context in which any cultural event now takes place. But feeling the need to say or do something is not the same as knowing what can usefully be done.

The Carnegie Hall audience mostly responded to Jarrett’s outburst with applause and encouragement, but so what? If there were any Trump supporters in that audience – and the percentage was probably a few places to the right of the decimal point – they were probably just annoyed that the musician wasn’t sticking to his music. No one’s mind was changed.

In the narrow sense Trump will undoubtedly be an enemy of the arts. Draft budget proposals suggest a slashing of funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the nearest thing to a federal arts council. This is in line with the crudeness, vulgarity and anti-intellectualism of the administration as a whole.

But its real impact is limited by the fact that the budget for the endowment is already beyond pathetic. Under Obama it was $148 million last year – 0.004 per cent of the federal budget. Slashing that budget is a way of sticking a middle finger up to the liberal, decadent, disloyal artists. An offensive gesture but a gesture nonetheless.

Much more important in Trump's agenda is the notion of a "national culture" that his brain, Steve Bannon, has begun to promote. The far right is actually very interested in the idea of culture. The paranoid style it favours is predicated on the belief that there is some kind of culture war in progress – between "our" indigenous and inherited civilisation and the alien, cosmopolitan culture that is out to destroy and replace it.

Last week Bannon spoke to a big conservative jamboree about “the centre core of what we believe, that we’re a nation with an economy, not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders, but we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being”.

In itself there is nothing objectionable about this; many Irish artists would say the same. But in the context of the multicultural US the sting is in that tiny word "a" – one nation, one culture. And in the context of the white-nationalist ideology that Bannon promotes that idea of a single American culture acquires its soundtrack of sinister echoes: ein land, ein volk, eine kultur. Who would constitute this culture? Who would be outside it? And would those who are outside it have any "reason for being" at all?

This is serious stuff, and artists can’t simply ignore it. It encroaches directly on their territory. But it also invites them to think deeply about what American culture really is and how it is expressed in art. Is there a unity beyond its obvious diversity, and, if so, is that unity more than a lowest common denominator?

Making speeches at concerts and award ceremonies may be necessary, but it is a long way from being a sufficient response to the radical challenge that is being laid down.