Last night, I fitfully checked CNN’s live feed in between restless naps, each time waking up to more nightmarish news. At 6:30am I was finally awakened by a text from a friend in the US (where I was born and lived until moving abroad 15 years ago). ‘holyshit,’ it read. For the next few hours, I cycled through the stages of shock, confusion denial and anger at warp speed, to arrive here, a few hours later, at self-blame. The election of Donald Trump to the presidency strikes me not only as a blow to a democratic system I was raised to believe in. It also feels like a collapse of my personal belief system – the values that have determined what I do for a living, what I write and read, even what and whom I love. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the things I’ve immersed myself in for all of my adult life – art and the artists who make it – embody everything I thought to be meaningful. To me, art has always stood for the embrace of uncertainty, doubt and contingency, even uselessness and failure – all things I have chosen to value above their opposites. After all, these are what distinguishes art from pursuits that have hard and fast goals and outcomes, clear and certain rules, a path toward defined results or causes. Art can skirt those other worlds, operating between them or without them – it questions, exposes, guesses, suggests, and often fails.
I have consumed media voraciously throughout this election season. I considered myself well informed. But I was reading The New Yorker and Slate, listening to NPR’s political podcasts and relying on FiveThirtyEight. I considered their voices inherently more objective than outlets like Fox News or the National Review. And I thought believing that was enough. But in doing so I was tacitly dismissing other views as invalid, even ignorant. Even when my own father told me he was voting for Trump, I reassured myself that because he was in California, it wouldn’t matter anyway. That was just a microcosm of the way I chalked up Trump’s apparent popularity to the old American love of spectacle, our guilty pleasure of reality TV. Even writing this recent piece for frieze, I sort of delighted in the media’s skewering of Trump. But I was mostly consuming the meta-criticism of Trump, enjoying Samantha Bee’s and Saturday Night Live’s cunning spoofs. I was missing a much larger reality – I wasn’t in touch with, talking to, or trying to understand that huge electorate of Americans – including my own parent – who cast their votes for Trump yesterday.
That makes me feel guilty. Sure, my guilt might just as soon turn back to anger and denial, but for now it makes me feel culpable for ignoring people who saw things differently than I did. Trying to think more generously, I could think of some of those citizens as ‘like-minded’, in that they also see themselves as ‘anti-establishment’. They resent institutional power and are suspicious of government writ large. While I’ve aligned myself with artists and journalists and others who are angry about government surveillance or the use of drones, people like my father or other Trump voters are just as angry about the cost of health care and the loss of manufacturing jobs. Perhaps what they consider collusion, corruption and the ‘rigging’ of the system is of a piece with my anger toward the same system’s persecution of whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. In turning my attention to the government’s wrongdoings and miscarriages of justice in these arenas, I was missing so many other injustices and disparities, and all the victims of them. Clearly there was a huge blind spot in my worldview. Is it that I may have willfully dismissed the ‘other side’ because I thought Trump supporters’ apparent ignorance was ‘harmless’?
Maybe I haven’t earned the right to my shock and indignation. My belief and reliance on and consumption of intellectual criticism feels futile and empty. Checking my Facebook feed, I can see that others around me feel the same. So should we – those of us who are posting that we’re ‘horrified’ or ‘speechless’ – take this moment to turn as quickly from those words to something more tangible? Something like action? If you have the same feeling I do right now when you click through press releases in your inbox or scroll through Twitter that we – our community of artists, critics, curators – may have wildly missed the mark or had a fundamental misunderstanding of what was possible; or that we missed our chance to galvanize, to organize a movement, to demonstrate, to protest; let’s try to hang on to this feeling. I’m not saying we should drop our pencils and paintbrushes or dismiss or eschew our commitment to individual artistic practices. But maybe we should try to turn our critical and curious and creative minds toward the people who aren’t part of that inner circle, the people who voted for Trump – or maybe more to the point, didn’t vote for Hillary. They are part of a tide. And while I was, until this morning, someone who took pride in swimming against the flow of mainstream culture, I woke up to the realization that if I expect it to change, I’ll have to stop drifting. I might have to pick a direction and start paddling with all my might.
Main image: A Hillary Clinton supporter at an election night party at Wellesley College (Clinton’s alma mater) in Wellesley, Mass., 9 Nov 2016. Photograph: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images