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A Safe And Special Place

27/02/2017 17:00 GMT | Updated 27/02/2017 17:00 GMT

'The theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!'

So tweeted Donald J. Trump on 19 November 2016, eleven days after his election as the next President of the United States. This nugget of Trumpian outrage appeared after then Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended a performance of Hamilton: An American Musical, the wildly popular Broadway production about the life and times of the eponymous Founding Father.

During the curtain call, actor Brandon Victor Dixon addressed Pence directly. After welcoming him and making clear to the audience that there was 'nothing to boo here', Dixon made a short and polite appeal to the Vice President-elect. At the crux of this appeal - a group effort by the cast and creators - was the hope that '[the] show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.'

Not everyone was pleased with this turn of events. #BoycottHamilton sprung up on Twitter. An indignant Trump not only accused the cast of 'harass(ing)' his former running mate, but remarked that he had 'heard' that the sell-out show was 'highly overrated'. Pence, in the meantime, maintained that he was not offended by the speech, and said that he had reminded his children that the mix of boos and cheers from the audience were 'what freedom sounds like'. He also said that he would 'leave to others [to decide] whether that was the appropriate venue'.

Trump is by no means the first person to respond with annoyance when an artistic type has spoken out about politics. Shortly after Benedict Cumberbatch made his first of many impassioned appeals to theatre-goers to donate to Save the Children, during which he criticised the government's handling of the refugee crisis, the Daily Mail called his speech a 'four-letter rant', while journalist Michael Buerk condemned 'feather-bedded thesps [who] pay flying visits to the desperate to parade their bleeding hearts'. When Game of Thrones actor Sophie Turner tweeted about Trump, responses included 'stick to acting sweetheart', 'explains why you're an actress and not a politician', and 'You should just stick to acting, and keep your pretty nose out of politics and things that out of your area of expertise. Not smart'. The recurring message: stay in your lane. We don't follow you for politics. Don't talk about things you don't understand.

The Hamilton controversy is also not the only occasion on which Trump has personally described someone's creative output as 'overrated'; he called Meryl Streep 'one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood' following her speech at the 2017 Golden Globes. That's at least twice that an incensed Trump has attacked the art in response to the actions of the artist.

meryl streep

Two questions arise from this. First: is there any chance that Trump has a point? Should a venue like the theatre, where people have paid to be transported and entertained, be a 'safe and special place' where we can hide from politics? Is a place designed for the performance of art ever an 'appropriate venue' for opinions, or must it be a hall of pure escapism?

Let's look first to history for answers. When I visited Prague last year, my tour guide took me off the beaten track to a graffiti-covered wall near the Charles Bridge. Known as the John Lennon Wall, it became a thorn in the side of the Communist regime of Gustáv Husák, who later resigned after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. After Lennon was killed, his portrait appeared on a wall in the district of Malá Strana, accompanied by messages of pacifism and liberty. Each time the paint was hidden, it returned. The artists were decried as dangerous allies of Western capitalism. Overlapping layers of hope and defiance smother the John Lennon Wall to this day, a luminous rainbow in the heart of the Czech capital.

The John Lennon Wall is one of thousands of examples of the age-old ties between art, revolution, and politics. When dictators rise to power, they have historically taken steps to suppress the creation and distribution of art and supplant it with state-controlled propaganda. The Nazis created the phrase Entartete Kunst ('degenerate art') to describe modern art that did not uphold their twisted vision of the world. They burned thousands of books and arrested those whose self-expression they deemed a threat. Tyrants understand that whoever controls the ink and paint can colour the lens through which their people see the world. Even in functioning democracies, art is vulnerable to moral policing. In Britain, government censorship of the theatre under the Lord Chamberlain only ended in 1968. I could name thousands of examples.

So art can be used and abused for political means. We know that, I hear you say - but when you pay hard-earned money for art, nobody has the right to shove their unsolicited opinions down your throat with it. Can't you have a night off politics?

Not everyone can afford to have a night off politics, of course - but to answer your question, it might depend what you mean by politics in this context. One of the definitions of the word is 'the complex or aggregate of relationships of people in society, especially those relationships involving authority or power.' And a hell of a lot of art - perhaps all art - can be said to be about relationships between people in society.

A statement at the end might not be de rigeur at the theatre, but when you watch a play, you are absorbing politics. When you view a painting, you are absorbing politics. When you listen to music, you are absorbing politics. When you read a book, you are absorbing politics. No matter how well-hidden, and whether or not you paid for a ticket, it will be there. You will find personal experience, opinions and bias, much of which will fall somewhere on the political spectrum. Toni Morrison summed it up best: 'All of that art-for-art's-sake stuff is BS [...] All good art is political! There is none that isn't. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, "We love the status quo."'

We can bicker endlessly about the purpose of art: escapism, entertainment, instruction, the formation of empathy. Whatever we individually believe to be the point of it, it often fulfills many of those roles at once. It can lift us out of life, change the way we think about life, and give us a glimpse into how other people see life. Whatever its intended purpose, all art is created by people - and people inevitably instill their own views into their creations. In short, if you choose to consume art - whether in a theatre or a gallery or your own living room - you run the risk of encountering politics.

But perhaps none of this is what Trump meant by the theatre being a 'safe and special space'. Perhaps he didn't mean that it should be apolitical per se, but that it was not for the actors to directly address any individual in the audience. Their job was to entertain. Nothing else.

This brings to me to the second question that occurred to me after the Hamilton dispute. Should artists ever discuss politics outside the context of their work - on social media, for example? Do they have a duty to hold a never-ending dinner party around themselves, free from religion or politics, to provide escapism and avoid alienating people of opposing views - people who just want to enjoy their creative output in peace?

There's a critical theory, put forward by Roland Barthes in 1967, called 'The Death of the Author'. It suggests that a written text should always be interpreted as separate from the intentions of its creator. Nowadays, it can be difficult to do that when actors and authors are airing their views in real time on Twitter, and the traditional media is reporting on their tweets. Better, you might think, that they keep quiet so their art can be considered in isolation from their left-wing or right-wing views. Better for Dixon to have said nothing to Pence. Better that he had passed on a golden opportunity to underline the message of Hamilton to someone with the power to nurture - or destroy - the America it celebrates.

'My reaction [to being asked to deliver the speech] was: "I'm happy to step forward and to speak about this at any and every opportunity,", Dixon said in response to the debacle, "because people globally feel a need to hear that they are not alone in their desire to have their voices heard."

Reading that took me back to Prague and the John Lennon Wall, where the desire of the people to have their voices heard has accrued over decades to create that multi-layered mural. Although the original John Lennon portrait has long since been swallowed in the kaleidoscope, new messages are still appearing. During my visit, I spied the word Brexit in the chaos, crossed through - clearly a recent addition.

As a Remainer myself, I felt it belonged there. Still, it occurred to me that not everyone who was viewing, or even adding to the mural, would share the same anti-Brexit sentiments. Some people might think it had ruined the wall; that this particular graffito was unwelcome in a corner of the city reserved for peace and hope. Yet the artist, whoever they were, had seen a platform in the John Lennon Wall, and had used that platform to reinforce what they personally saw as the philosophy behind the art as a whole - just as Brandon Victor Dixon and the cast of Hamilton did. They highlighted and strengthened a message they passionately believed was already in the musical. And frankly, I can't think of a single reason why they should have done otherwise.

All art is political, Jonson, otherwise it would just be decoration,' the Earl of Oxford says in the 2011 film Anonymous. 'And all artists have something to say, otherwise they'd make shoes.'

It is not in the nature of the artist to be silent. The Death of the Author theory is one way among many of interpreting a text, but despite its name, it does not demand that the author stops existing. If your enjoyment of art rests on the silence of the creator on issues of importance, that is your prerogative. Turn away if you choose; mute them on social media; try your best not to read anything about how they vote - but never think that they have any sort of responsibility to stay in one lane. Art and politics have been in the same lane for time immemorial, and that isn't going to change any time soon - for Donald Trump or anyone.