The Value of Art in a Post-Fact World

A reflection on windows, mirrors, and the way art — and art criticism — is more important than ever in the age of Trump.

It’s clear that when we in the reality-based community yell, “These are the facts!” at our political opponents, they simply don’t believe us (well, not without smoking guns like actual recorded phone calls to Russia, anyway). This state of affairs is dispiriting at best. If we are so polarized that we cannot even agree on the same set of basic circumstances, it’s hard not to feel helpless and frightened — especially when so much of the right’s denial of reality enables powerful people to shrug in the face of others’ experience. You had an abortion for medical reasons? They don’t care. You’re a loving LGBT person/immigrant/Muslim family? They don’t care. You’ll lose health insurance for your tiny child? Don’t care. That child is threatened by the police meant to protect him? Don’t care.

What can we do except scream into a void?

There are many answers to that question, and the activists, lawyers, media figures and others who are pushing hard against our new regime are providing many different pathways of resistance — we’ve tried to highlight them here. Yet I have found it difficult, in the last few months, to feel like anything we cultural critics do makes the same kind of difference. As a general rule, much of our milieu was lulled, by the Obama years and the small but measurable progress in our own sphere (feminism was so cool it was actually commodified!), into thinking the arc of justice was bending the right way.

After the elections, I experienced a lot of animus towards this so-called bubble we operate in; too insular, too obsessed with internecine quibbles, too celebrity-focused, and too quick to conflate taste with character (seriously, taste is subjective, so it’s okay to have been moved by La La Land and also to take issue with its white jazz narrative). When it’s deployed carelessly, feminist and social justice-tinged cultural critique can read like a contest to see who can savage an uncool artist and their fanbase most cleverly. But when our work is done with thought, it has a purpose. That purpose is using art’s flaws as a lens to look at society’s flaws — which, as we know by now, are too numerous to count.

And we arts-mavens, both creators and audience, have another own role to play. Ironically for a community that tends to stand against mawkishness and simplicity, our role can be that of the asserters of values without dogma — asserters of our values: look deeper, reject easy answers, love others across borders. Nuance and caring aren’t a set of coastal elite preferences bred in censorious university classrooms and on angry Tumblrs. They are precious, important qualities, qualities of which we all need more if we’re going to survive the Trump regime. Even if the folks who knowingly ushered a racist lunatic into office won’t listen to our facts, the very least we can do is continue to tell our stories and reiterate what is meaningful to us.

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Last week I zipped down overnight to the Association of Writing Programs conference in Washington, D.C. Wandering around the convention center, I found myself, unexpectedly, sitting in on two panels featuring many of Flavorwire’s favorite writers: first Ann Patchett and Emma Straub, who spoke about kindness in fiction and bookstores as havens, and then Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who had a complex conversation about race, colonialism, national identity and the legacy of slavery.

The next morning, I dropped on a panel of female essayists, and one of them distilled everything that I had found in all the disparate panels, the protests, the conversations at the bookfair and receptions, and many of the articles we publish every day on this very website, into a single kernel of thought. “Embrace complexity,” she said. To do so in the face of a regime that wants everyone to swallow a facile narrative — “us vs. them, good vs. bad, terrorism scary!” — is in and of itself a political act.

It was a heartening message to take away from a brief trip to D.C., currently the seat of the most dangerous government of our era (I was last there three weeks ago with my protest signs). Don’t get me wrong; there were plenty of reason to roll one’s eyes — and consider more serious criticism — of the newly-woke white attendees muscling their way into the Coates/Adichie session, perhaps as smug as we were worshipful.

However, thanks to those two authors and their expansive, intelligent writing, those attendees all understand just a little bit more the visceral fear black men have of the police (and the justified suspicion of white people who condone those police), the experience of the new immigrant puzzling over American society, and the crucial role of feminism in today’s world. Empathy is a word that gets overused to the point of glibness, but the concept for which it once stood remains crucial: an attempt at understanding, the kind of attempt we undertake when we consume art made by those different from ourselves and really turn our minds to it, the kind of feeling that suffuses us when we look at someone else’s child, detained in an airport, and say, that could be my child.

In many ways, we pussy-hat wearers, internet essay readers and writers, book club joiners, hashtag warriors and Netflix bingers are stumbling around in the dark, inadvertently or thoughtlessly replicating the social structures we claim to critique. But unlike those on the other side, we have the capacity for growth and self-awareness, and we want to see beyond the Trumpian binary of real Americans, real men and women vs. the rest of us. Saying this isn’t to pat ourselves on the back; it’s a way to identify our best impulses and declare we can and must do this more, and do it better.

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When I think about the role of culture in terms of defining what our values ought to be, I keep thinking about MoonlightMoonlight is an exquisite piece of art because it is so specific; it’s a story that could only apply to this one made-up character, in all the minute circumstances of his social and personal strife. Yet one could describe the film in many different ways. It’s a film about a boy named Chiron growing into a man, and the helpers and tormenters he meets on the way. It’s a film about being gay and black and growing up in a certain Miami neighborhood. Or just about being gay and black and growing up. It’s about growing up on the margins of any society, and what gets lost in mere survival.

The story hinges on how Chiron buries his childhood self, then tries to excavate it. And who hasn’t buried their childhood vulnerability somewhere, and then wondered how to find it again after the hardening of adulthood? Human beings are selfish and simplistic; we can’t fully escape the walls of our own experience. Culture is one of the great ways, the only ways, to pass through and transcend those walls. Chiron’s story offers a window through the walls of personal experience; it allows every audience member who has the courage a chance to look squarely into the reality of someone else’s life, a life shaped by social oppression and by its own contours, and see a little bit of ourselves looking back.

When I reported about the movement to make children’s literature more representative I was introduced to the educational concept of windows and mirrors: art that helps kids understand others and art that allows them to their own reflection. Every kid deserves a mirror that makes them feel see; every kid needs a window into others’ lives in order to grow up to be a good citizen of the world. In Trump’s America, we need far, far more mirrors and windows, and not just for children. Art, and the discussion of it, can fill that role. After two and a half years at Flavorwire, I’m moving on — but I’ve been proud to be in this community, where we ask questions, seek subtlety, and look for shared humanity. The best art is honest about the forces that drive us apart — greed, selfishness, subjugation, misunderstanding — and the ones that keep us together, too.