Ushering in a new era of populism should be an inspiration to create art that matters
To wake up to a Donald Trump presidency is to wake up on the wrong side of a nightmare mirror world. Our definitions of populism and elitism have gone haywire. The people have spoken, and roughly half of them want this guy: The rich businessguy who’s actually nothing like them and isn’t likely to be able to deliver even one-one-hundredth of what he has promised them. He also seems proud of the fact that he hasn’t read many books. Meanwhile, roughly half of America favored the well-educated candidate with years of experience and a track record of public service, a person who openly admitted that she’s more comfortable sitting at a table, hammering out policy, than she is speaking in front of large crowds—but she didn’t win. Trump, crass and bold, captured a swath of the public imagination in a way she couldn’t. Now, a lot of us are asking, Where did we go wrong? If this is democracy in action, can we send it back in exchange for something else?
A few months ago I was fantasy-shopping at the fine jewelry counter at Barneys, looking, for the pure enjoyment of it, at beautiful things that I will never be able to buy—or would never buy even if I could, given the way I was brought up by my Depression-era parents. I was carrying around my subway reading, a paperback copy of Clive James’ translation of The Divine Comedy. The lovely young woman behind the counter spotted it and said, “A little light reading, eh?” We laughed about that, and then, because the store wasn’t busy, she proceeded to show me, one by one, all her favorite pieces of jewelry—feats of artistry in miniature, beautiful in their precision and sense of proportion, extraordinary little reveries that some human being dreamed up and then, literally, turned into gold. These were things she couldn’t afford to buy either.
Barneys is awful, you might say, a place where only the elite can shop. And what was I doing, carrying around a 14th-century epic poem like I’m hot shit or something? (And now I’m writing about it? Please.) Yet Barneys is the only place—outside of a concert—I’ve ever seen Bruce Springsteen in the flesh. Who knows if he was actually buying anything, but who cares? Springsteen, a performer who straddles the entwined optimism and heartbreak of Woody Guthrie and Elvis, and who has given the world more pleasure than it’s possible to weigh, can shop anywhere he wants as far as I care.
We’re most comfortable thinking of elitism—of the cultural or financial kind—and populism as opposite poles. If I’m shopping in Barneys—even just fantasy-shopping—I’m an elitist who’s out of touch with working people. If I’m reading a book, I’m assuming a kind of superiority over people who don’t make time to read. The things lots of people like are better than the things only a few people like, because there’s always safety—even just safety of taste—in numbers.
But maybe today, of all days, it would help to think of democracy not just as the result of casting a vote, but as an organism that’s constantly expanding, contracting, pushing back. Springsteen, the hardworking guy’s troubadour, performed at Hillary Clinton’s Philadelphia rally the night before the election. The next day clueless Trump supporters took to social media, expressing their shock and dismay to learn that Springsteen is not a Republican—he’s not regular, like us—before boldly announcing that they’ll never buy a ticket to one of his shows again. Their definition of populism is just a form of bullying. Meanwhile, Bruce Springsteen will continue to sing for the rest of us—lots of us—and will still make enough money to be able to poke around Barneys if he feels like it. Both of these are fine things. And anyway, do artists belong to their audiences or to their era? Or is it a little of both? The key, maybe, is that artists, no matter how popular they grow to be, can’t let their audience define them.
What kind of art can grow from a nightmare moment, and who will be the one to make it? Hal Ashby’s Shampoo, made in 1975 and starring two of the most beautiful humans who then graced the Earth, Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, is one of the great films of the just-post-Watergate era, a picture brushed with awed despair that America could be brought so low by just one wretched, duplicitous president. Ashby was a bit of a weirdo, an outlier—he’s never included in the first tier of great 1970s filmmakers, a la Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. He isn’t part of what we now see as something of a cultural elite among filmmakers, people who made the big, defining statements about the era. But to the people who love his movies, Ashby occupies his own exalted little space. What will the first great post-Trump film be, and who will make it? Is it someone we already know, or someone we’ve never heard of? Will it be a person of color, or a person whose gender doesn’t strictly conform to the humanoid figures formed out of stiff rectangles and triangles on restroom doors everywhere? (Who came up with those, anyway?) There is a future here, because there has to be. Even as the Sex Pistols were telling us there was no future, they were creating one.
Young people sometimes don’t realize that punk didn’t spring to life as a response to Margaret Thatcher—it preceded her, a seedling that took root in the restlessness, boredom and grayed-out despair of 1970s Britain. Its uniform could be a specially bought silk-screened T-shirt (if it came from Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm Mclaren’s first boutique, Sex) or it could be a shirt you’d owned for years, torn to rags. No matter how punk came dressed, it was as if it had heard Thatcher’s footsteps coming down the hallway and, cosmically, tried to prepare us for her. (Just as, maybe, a show like Transparent was cosmically preparing us for the rise of Trump.) If the Sex Pistols were the first bold, blurted-out expression of the era’s ragged rage, the initial call, then bands like Gang of Four and the Mekons—whose work was pushback against the ruin-in-progress that was Thatcher’s Britain—were the response. And Dante’s “Inferno,” The Divine Comedy’s first section, was a shout, in terza rima, against a storm of religious and political turmoil in medieval Florence. In telling the story of a naïve wanderer whose eyes are opened by the terrifying, wretched souls—
It held its severed head by the bunched string
Of its own hair, and swung it with its hand
As if it were a lantern
—he meets as he wends his way through the nine circles of hell, Dante invented a story, and practically a whole new language, to make sense of the unspeakable. (If you’ve read “Inferno,” aren’t you thinking about rereading it today? And if you haven’t, why wait?)
There’s a rotating group of doo-wop guys, in their 50s and older, who busk on the New York City subways, practicing a dying art. Doo-wop used to be the music of Brooklyn and Bronx stoops, a thing you could do if you had the gift for it—and you didn’t need to have money to buy instruments. Who sings doo-wop anymore? But I listen in wonder every time the doo-wop guys show up in my subway car, and give them as many singles as I can dig out of my wallet. I’m also struck by the fact that some of them have very few teeth. I don’t know how people sing so beautifully with so few teeth, but that’s a question for another day.
No, wait—it’s a question for this one. Let’s set aside today, November 9, 2016, as the day we spend wringing our hands about all the possible horrors the next four years have in store for us and for people we care about, both those we know and those who are strangers. But tomorrow, November 10, is the day we begin redefining populism and elitism, wresting them from anyone who has hijacked them for their own evil or stupid reasons. Be elitist when that means trying to wrap your brain around a book or a painting or a piece of music that somehow feels just a little beyond you, and be populist when you hear “My Girl” for the millionth time, sung by subway singers, and realize that neither you nor any of the people around you will ever get sick of hearing it. Preserve the dying arts and push the thriving ones further. Take your smallest idea and turn it into gold. Turn it into something that will long outlast him.