The dashing 19th century poet Percy Shelley once referred to artists such as himself as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” The notion that artists have a special platform—and a pressing duty—to shape public policy has never been far from creative minds, even as pop musicians elbowed poets aside as celebrities and movie stars superseded novelists. And perhaps that has never been truer than now, when a star from the lowbrow world of reality TV has swaggered to the threshold of the Oval Office.
In this spirit Meryl Streep, the first lady of Hollywood, delivered a speech denouncing President-elect Donald Trump at the recent Golden Globes ceremony. It was, as you might expect, a beautifully crafted speech, delivered with the winsome charm and natural cadences that audiences have come to love from an actor with 19 Academy Award nominations. And although many Americans were likely put off by Streep’s suggestion that Hollywood’s adored and wealthy stars are among “the most vilified segments of America,” millions more lapped up every word.
Of course, Trump leaped at the chance to respond. Streep, he declared, is “overrated,” which is like calling a dolphin a daffodil. And in today’s knee-jerk social-media climate, the gauche billionaire dissing the gifted and famous artist was like tossing a stun grenade into a darkened room. Everyone jumped at the flash and boom.
This was to Trump’s advantage. Prior to Streep’s speech, newscasts had been buzzing with genuine issues. What was the nature of Russia’s election meddling? Would Trump’s Cabinet choices bother to complete the customary ethics disclosures? What would the Republicans offer to replace Obamacare? Now the country was debating Trump’s qualifications as a movie critic. Whatever Streep’s intentions may have been, her words enabled Trump—and us—to indulge in yet another distraction.
For Hollywood, this is a hard lesson to learn: the well-spoken wisdom of beautiful people in glittering gowns and bespoke suits rarely has lasting effect. The cause of Native Americans was not appreciably advanced by Marlon Brando’s boycott of his Best Actor Oscar in 1973. Nor were many minds changed when Vanessa Redgrave rambled in 1978 about the threat of Zionists and fascism. Clint Eastwood’s weird conversation with an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention failed to spark a fire for Mitt Romney.
What does move the public is the genuine art of passionate artists. And as Shelley’s contemporary John Keats suggested, the most powerful and effective artists efface themselves in their art. Whatever Shakespeare thought about the politics of Elizabethan England is a bare footnote to history, but the whole world still lives in the sunlight of his ideas about life and what it means to live it.
The political influence of popular art is immense, but it is not direct. It works by showing, not telling. Tom Hanks humanized the AIDS crisis not with a speech, but with a performance. The ideas of Henry Fonda and James Stewart matter little compared with the philosophies of Tom Joad and Jefferson Smith. Likewise, nothing Meryl Streep can say in the voice of Meryl Streep about the brutality of bullies or the beauty of compassion can match what she has said in the voice of Sophie in Sophie’s Choice.
Art derives its power not by being timely but by being timeless, for timelessness outlasts division. One of Hollywood’s most influential artists spoke to exactly this point when he, like Streep, received a lifetime achievement award. As the world’s first black leading man, Sidney Poitier was an inestimable force in the cause of civil rights, but at the 2002 Academy Awards he chose to salute the writers and directors who created his great roles and made his celebrated films.
“They knew the odds that stood against them,” he said. “Still those filmmakers persevered, speaking through their art to the best in all of us. And I benefited from their effort. The industry benefited from their effort. America benefited from their effort. And in ways large and small, the world has also benefited from their effort.”
Speaking through their art. Given a dose of patience and enough humility, it’s the loudest voice around.
This appears in the January 23, 2017 issue of TIME.
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