The “Hamilton” cast’s address to Vice President-elect Mike Pence at Friday’s performance is likely to be the first of many artists’ dissents to the Trump-Pence administration’s stated values and priorities. And it’s inevitable that artists who speak out in the future will be attacked, and perhaps even marginalized, as the Dixie Chicks were after Natalie Maines’s criticisms of President George W. Bush on the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
We can debate whether or not President-elect Donald Trump’s Twitter tantrum in response to the plea from the stage of the Richard Rogers theater is a distraction from more important issues, like Trump’s extremist Cabinet choices and his immediate disregard for the basic ethics standards that govern the position that will soon be his. But a moment like this one offers us an opportunity to think in a clearer and more sophisticated way about the relationship between art and artists and politics and policy.
There’s a tendency to treat artists, as well as professional athletes, as immune from the vicissitudes of politics. Because they’re wealthy, that reasoning goes, reversals of policy won’t really affect them. They’ll always be able to pay lawyers who can secure their legal status in the country, or afford birth control, or they live in atmospheres so rarified that they’re protected from the everyday grind of racial discrimination.
And even if artists do feel personally affected, this line of thinking continues, artists and athletes are obligated to confine themselves to entertaining. Daring to use their platforms to do or advocate for anything that might mildly perturb their fans is a violation of an unspoken contract.
This is a silly and fundamentally immature line of thinking, one that tries to shrink the roles of people who have a unique capacity to expand our thinking beyond partisan canards. If you’re so vulnerable that you can’t tolerate any opinion or action in your cultural idols that doesn’t conform exactly to your preferences, then your relationship to art is fundamentally brittle anyway.
Beyond the question of our ability to see artists as individuals with personal stakes in politics, this is a vital time to remember that art doesn’t simply appear in a vacuum. What art gets made, who gets to make it and how it gets distributed are all questions that are determined by politics.
A show like “Hamilton” came to fruition in New York in part because the city and state have the theatrical infrastructure — in this case, Vassar College and the Public Theater — to incubate the musical, and to give Miranda time to fine-tune it before it made the jump to Broadway. (Tax policies that give wealthy people incentives to donate to nonprofits like the Public are a help, too.)
The show has been able to draw on the talents of actors like Jonathan Groff and Javier Muñoz because of the theater community’s historical status as a welcoming place for LGBT people. “Hamilton” catapulted performers like Phillipa Soo, Leslie Odom Jr. and Daveed Diggs to national prominence because Miranda didn’t feel that he had to limit himself to white actors in casting the white Founding Fathers.
And when “Hamilton” became a massive Broadway hit, with tickets to sold-out shows going for extortionate prices at resale, and jammed lotteries for the small number of tickets available daily, Miranda and his colleagues designed performances for the hopefuls. Live theater is expensive to produce, and it relies on people who can pay high ticket prices for support, though some theaters that will be hosting the “Hamilton” national tour have been more extortionate than others. It’s difficult to make a production like “Hamilton” fully accessible to everyone who wants to see it, at least not in person. But even if they couldn’t bridge the gap between the ticket haves and have-nots, the daily performances were a lovely democratic gesture.
Political concerns aren’t, then, some distracting canker eating away at the arts. Political concerns are fundamental to the circumstances in which art is produced. It’s entirely proper that the cast of “Hamilton” should defend the values that informed their work, and the circumstances and institutions — including the First Amendment — that made their show possible.