Four years ago, as Donald Trump prepared to be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, his incoming administration faced a serious hurdle: booking any big-name artist to perform at his inauguration. Several artists declined or pulled out of the event; whereas Barack Obama had Beyoncé, the Trump team eventually secured country artists Lee Greenwood and Toby Keith, whose rah-rah patriotism and jingoistic lyrics fit the bill for an agenda the New Yorker writer Andrea K Scott called “America First, Art Last”. The performances drew middling crowds (ones flatly denied by then White House press secretary Sean Spicer) dwarfed the following day by the Women’s March, which drew a bevy of A-list stars to protest the Maga president.
The combative, mutually bitter relationship between Trump and most artists and creative organizations has only deepened since. Though the Trump administration – called a “worst-case scenario” for arts groups – has largely failed to dismantle the federal arts programs it promised to defund, the Trump White House has been largely hostile to the arts, from Hollywood stars to political comedy down to local arts programs in cities, towns and rural areas across the country. Support of the arts, broadly construed, has understandably not been at the forefront of a rancorous and bruising 2020 election, as the economic crisis and ongoing pandemic imperil everything. But with Joe Biden’s election win, however unacknowledged by the current president, it’s worth looking ahead: what would a Biden administration mean for the arts?
First and foremost, handling the coronavirus pandemic which has grounded most live performances to a halt, shuttered Broadway and theaters across the country, and tipped millions into unemployment. The Covid recession is the most unequal in modern American history, ensnaring society’s most vulnerable – including all but the biggest name artists – in prolonged, stagnating financial hardship. Without coronavirus under control, most efforts to resuscitate art economies are for nil.
Once in office, Biden will undoubtedly call a cease-fire on executive attempts to destroy the cornerstones of federal arts programs: the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), long a target of the conservative culture wars since the late 1980s, and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which supply funds to programs and institutions ranging from the Met, to regional theaters, to art classes for rural preschools.
For four straight years, the Trump administration proposed budgets that would eliminate the NEA and NEH; the 2021 proposal, titled “Stopping Wasteful and Unnecessary Spending” and released in February of this year, included both agencies under a subsection called “Eliminating Programs with No Proper Federal Role” with programs “not considered core federal responsibilities.” The NEA’s $162m budget in 2019 was a mere 0.0034% of the federal expenditure, about 49 cents per capita; Trump’s budget added $4.8tn to the military budget and $2bn to his largely symbolic border wall.
The worst-case scenario never came to pass – Congress soundly rejected Trump’s wrecking-ball budgets each year, as public funding for arts programs remains one of the few olive branches left on Capitol Hill, in part because the agencies fund local arts ventures in all 50 states. But the unrelenting pressure to argue for its existence in a hostile financial environment wasted time and taxpayer dollars, and conditioned state and local arts organizations already operating on the edge of solvency to even more corrosive financial uncertainty. And though Congress actually increased funding for the NEA and NEH by $2.2m last year, it’s only creeping up to levels of support enjoyed 25 years ago.
More broadly, Trump fostered a White House and cult of personality hostile to artists not explicitly loyal to him, which in turned fueled a cycle of symbolic protest – ribs at the president in Oscar acceptance speeches, the ceaseless Trump focus of late-night comedy – that chained attention to the President’s Twitter-addled, pettily unfocused brain. The enmity by conservative news such as Fox News for creative expression, especially from artists of color – think outcry over Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s gloriously filthy song WAP, or manufactured outrage over the Netflix film Cuties – found a receptive and vocal audience in the president.
The removal of Trump from office is unlikely to stop the rightwing media apparatus, on-air and online; under Biden, Fox News will continue to Fox News, but without the amplification of the White House. Though Biden has not been particularly known as an arts aficionado like the late supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who regularly attended operas, he is generally considered favorable to art and artists (and a reliable backer of dad-favorites, from his Beatles and Bruce Springsteen summer playlist to his favorite film, Chariots of Fire).
As a senator from Delaware, Biden consistently supported arts funding and voted for legislation favored by arts executives: co-sponsored a bill creating the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, and co-sponsored legislation that founded the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2001. As Obama’s vice-president, Biden was the lead White House negotiator for the 2009 stimulus bill that supplied $50m for the arts in response to the global financial crisis.
The Biden transition team has not yet announced a formal platform for the arts, but unlike the Trump administration, they are at least likely to have one. Obama was the first president to release a presidential platform for the arts, which included increased funding for the NEA, attracting “foreign talent” with a streamlined visa process, affordable healthcare for artists and development of public-private art partnerships through federal grants.
Should he need to call on star power, Biden will have access to far more mega-wattage than Trump’s roster of Lil Pump and Kid Rock. As a candidate, Biden garnered endorsements from such high-profile names as Taylor Swift, Cardi B, Brad Pitt, Lady Gaga (whom he introduced at the 2016 Oscars), Bruce Springsteen and Billie Eilish. Biden’s White House is likely to resemble Obama’s in its celebrity symbiosis: a revolving door of who’s-whos and incubation of talent. (The smash Broadway hit Hamilton, for example, began as an experiment by Lin-Manuel Miranda at a 2009 White House evening for poetry, music and spoken word, and developed into the stage show thanks in part to an NEA grant.)
Biden’s least quantifiable but perhaps greatest divergence from the Trump era, however, is the unshackling of attention from a single president on to … anything or anyone else. Though protest art, from Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman to collages built from the testimonies of separated migrant children, has flourished under the Trump presidency, a relatively stable figure in the White House – not to mention the nation’s first black, south Asian, or female vice-president in Kamala Harris – relieves some pressure from artists to “respond to the current moment”. Without Trump’s oxygen-sucking presence in Washington, so the thinking goes, artists are untethered from a reactive cycle, of responding explicitly or in escape to the horrors of, say, family separation, or “very fine people on both sides”.
How will culture flourish when not buffeted by the demands of attention, “resistance”, exhaustion? One new (old, white) man in the White House does not, of course, change everything, nor relieve the immediate and extreme pressures – the pandemic, climate emergency – facing the country and shaping its art. But Biden’s presidency will, at least, offer breathing room and an orientation forward, rather than the distracted present or mythical past. As the president-elect himself put it in an interview with Miranda this August, in a tone unfamiliar to the Trump ethos: “The future of who we are lies in the arts. It is the expression of our soul.”