In a December 1925 letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway famously referred to war as “the best subject of all” for the way it “groups the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get.”
Though at the time Hemingway had not published much — on war or otherwise — war would indeed prove to be a ripe subject for the author. The things he experienced and witnessed as an ambulance driver for the Italian front in the first World War would inform much of his fiction — most notably, his 1929 novel, “A Farewell to Arms.” The novel, Hemingway’s second, was written from the perspective of Frederic Henry, an American expatriate who served as a lieutenant in the Italian Army’s ambulance corps, was wounded and carried on a love affair with one of his nurses. It was Hemingway’s first best-seller and a book that his biographer, Michael Reynolds, dubbed "the premier American war novel from that debacle World War I." Of course, Hemingway’s successes be damned — whether or not war is the “best subject” is entirely subjective and will eternally be up for debate. But by classifying it as such, Hemingway was arguably hitting on something bigger: that extraordinarily bad times are rich material for great art.
But what about Trump? The election of Donald Trump to the American presidency being both symbol and harbinger of bad times was the catalyst for Salon dedicating a series to the question of whether bad times make great art at the start of this year. Now, as we near the end of Year One of Trump — a year that saw the empowerment of white nationalists, sweeping deregulation and unprecedented mendacity — can we say whether these bad times make for great art?
On a macro level, probably not — or not yet, at least. Though I’ve written several times about how 2017 has felt like a particularly strong year for cinema, the truth is that it’s tough to say for sure whether any year is good or bad for any artform — let alone all artforms — until a decade or so has passed. On the one hand, there are likely some brilliant YouTube videos or Soundcloud songs made this year that have yet to be discovered. On the other hand, there are likely some movies and novels released to great acclaim that will fail to hold up in the future. Will the Trump era be better for art than, say, the Obama era? Only time will tell.
But things get more interesting on a micro level. Trump’s short fingers have centimetered their way into so much of this year’s art that we can begin to spot some trends and evaluate a first wave of Trump-inspired art.
And, by and large, it ain’t been gold. Although all of the richness that Hemingway found in war could be found in Trump — he too “groups the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get” — unlike serving in a war, the experience of living under Trump is not a tactile experience, nor is it full of gallantry or even much ambiguity.
As a result, the art that has aimed to tackle Trump head-on has tended to be didactic, repetitive and lacking in emotional resonance. Take for instance the current number one album in the country, Eminem’s “Revival.” On it, the 45-year-old MC’s ninth, he raps with his trademark verbal dexterity. But Eminem directs his venom at Trump, and many of his lyrics wind up sounding like they were lifted from a rejected New York Times op-ed: “Didn't wanna piss your base off, did ya? / Can't denounce the Klan, 'cause they'd break off with ya / You stay on Twitter, way to get your hate off, Nazi / I do not see a way y'all differ, at all,” he raps on one song called “Like Home.”
To be fair, Eminem is far past his prime, and he didn’t produce any gems during the Obama years either. But arguably because of his Trump verses, “Revival” has been just that for Eminem. (His freestyle Trump dis on the BET Hip Hop Awards in October went viral and kickstarted hype for the album.) And his clunky Trump rhymes have been illustrative of the problem with a lot of Trump art.
Comedy, for instance, has similarly suffered from a preoccupation with Trump. The nation has looked to comedians to make sense of — and provide comedic relief from — Trump. And while Trump has provided ample material and led to massive ratings spikes for political satire and impressions shows, the jokes have tended to be homogeneous, providing surface-level insights and cheap laughs. As entertaining as it is, there’s nothing deep or affecting about Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression, for instance.
And comedians have talked a lot this year about why joking about Trump is difficult. Shortly after Trump was elected, Janeane Garofalo expressed reluctance to joke about Trump, telling me “you can’t parody it, because it’s self-parody.” In a piece published in the Scotland Herald this summer, the stand-up Sara Schaefer added that the rapidity with which Trump creates material poses problems: “Comedians are now struggling to get the distance needed to make something awful hilarious.” But Vulture’s Jesse David Fox hit on the heart of the problem in an excellent year-end piece about “Our Year of Bad Trump Jokes”: “Currently, our political comedians are doing a fine job of telling their audience what is true and what is false, but it’s difficult for them to find something deeper — ‘a truth’ — because Trump isn’t deeper. His lies are transparent.”
The works that have succeeded in going deeper have been ones not necessarily inspired by Trump but, rather, inspired by the same forces that elected Donald Trump. Jordan Peele’s horror-satire “Get Out” and A Tribe Called Quest’s “We Got It from Here . . . Thank You 4 Your Service,” for instance, captured contemporary racial tensions, fears and hypocrisy. And, as such, each felt like a profound response to the Trump era. But in reality, each was composed before Trump was elected.
Kendrick Lamar and Kara Walker were similarly successful at aiming their efforts Trump-adjacent. The election of an egomaniac inspired Lamar to look inward and be self-critical — to great effect — on his April-released “DAMN.” And Walker took a historical view in a series of powerfully frightening and funny cartoons — described by the art critic Jerry Saltz as a “mad Boschian American Babylon of race, irredeemable evil, barbarity, hatred, demons, white people self-cretinizing, lynchings, dominance, submission, rage, modern Black Power figures, shuffling black cleaning ladies, beneficent whites, Civil War soldiers, plantation owners drawn and quartered by rebellious slaves, pickaninnies and Sambos sexually servicing white masters or being castrated” — she crafted this summer and displayed at Sikkema Jenkins Co. in September.
Though it feels like Trump has been president for an eternity, it’s important to remember that it’s actually still quite early in his tenure. For comparison’s sake, “A Farewell to Arms” was published more than a decade after Hemingway served in World War I. Trump will likely inspire very much art for very many years. At this moment, whether it winds up being great or not seems dependent on whether it can operate at a remove from Trump himself.