Stop Telling Artists They Shouldn’t Be Political!

Since President Trump’s inauguration, many Americans have been vociferously speaking out against each and every regressive move he’s made. Protests are constant, and none of us can escape political posts on our social media feeds. Included in this bevy of outspoken, outraged Americans are many famous actors and musicians, much to the chagrin of those on the Right. Every time a well-known movie star publicly declares their distaste for Trump, conservatives are quick to denounce said star and proclaim: “Celebrities should stay out of politics!” We’ve all heard this talking point—time and time again we hear conservatives declare that “actors should just stick to acting, and singers should just stick to singing,” and every time I hear this tired canard I cringe.

It seems to me there’s a lack of understanding on the Right about the purpose of art and how artists function. Actors and musicians aren’t just entertainers; they’re artists, and artists seek to do a whole lot more than just superficially entertain the masses. People become artists because they have an overwhelming need to express themselves, and their outlook on life is included in this expression. Artists want to move and inspire people through their work. They want to provoke thinking, incite discourse, and have a real impact on the broader culture.

Artists have long been punished for authentically expressing themselves and standing for what they believe in. In more modern times, for instance, Ellen DeGeneres’s character came out of the closet as a lesbian in a 1997 episode of the ABC sitcom Ellen, triggering a wave of controversy surrounding her and the topic of homosexuality. Religious groups protested outside of their local ABC stations in an attempt to get Ellen taken off the air. ABC put disclaimers at the beginning of each episode warning that viewers might encounter themes that are “inappropriate” for children. DeGeneres came out in real life shortly before this episode, and the combination of these two coming out events was seen as a political act, turning many people off and resulting in a ratings descent that eventually led to the cancellation of the once popular sitcom. While the comedian’s creative decision to insert gay themes into her show brought a temporary interruption to her career, it created a much-needed national dialogue about sexuality during a less progressive time, and her coming out will now forever be seen as courageous and historic.

James Baldwin remarked, “Life is more important than art, that’s what makes art important,” and his good friend Nina Simone said, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” Artists have always made sociopolitical commentary in their work, so it should be no surprise to anyone today when an artist publicly makes a political statement. Some may say that it’s fine for an artist to make a film addressing a certain political issue but that an artist would cross a line if they were to speak out on political issues outside of the art itself, like when Ashley Judd delivered a killer anti-Trumpism speech at the Women’s March on Washington or when a plethora of musicians and actors tweeted their outrage over Trump’s executive order on immigration. To this I say that an artist does not stop being an artist when they leave the recording studio or film set or the canvas or the page. Their role as instigators of thought, reflection, and inspiration remains, and it is the artist’s prerogative to be vocal about what they stand for whenever and wherever they prefer.

With that said, in a democracy like the United States, it is every citizen’s prerogative to speak out about anything at all. In a liberal democracy, everyone has a voice in the decisions that affect their lives, and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution ensures that everyone’s right to utilize that voice is protected. So how could any person on the Left or Right reasonably insist that actors and musicians should stay out of politics? It can’t be done.

So, conservatives, lose the “celebrities should stay out of politics” talking point, and do what you did when Clint Eastwood would bash the president during the Obama years: say nothing and go about your day as free citizens of a democratic nation.