It was undeniably great theater when U.S. Vice President-elect Mike Pence got a surprise lecture during the curtain call at the hit multicultural hip-hop opera “Hamilton.”
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The unexpected encore - U.S. President-elect Donald Trump lashing on Twitter, charging that Pence was “harassed,” that the “highly overrated” cast was “very rude” and demanding that they apologize for their “terrible behavior.”
The incident felt all too familiar to Esti Zakhem, chairwoman of the Israeli Actor’s Guild. “These are the same extreme reactions to free expression that we are dealing with all the time, she said.”
After a year and a half of public clashes with the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Zakhem and her colleagues know all too well what it is like to be demonized and scapegoated by politicians who campaigned on a platform of sticking it to the cultural elites, and use the arts to exploit ethnic and racial divides.
Her advice to her American counterparts: “They need to get ready to fight.”
Some pundits and activists have argued that Trump was setting a clever trap for his political opponents - distracting the public and the media’s attention to frivolous culture wars, away from the substantive news of the day.
As Zakhem will tell you, there are indeed real issues at stake in this confrontation. The “Hamilton” cast has good reason to feel “alarmed and anxious” as they face a future Trump administration, and not simply because they are people of color, immigrants or LGBT, but when it comes to their lives as working artists.
Politicians on the Israeli right could easily give Donald Trump a run for his money when it comes to transforming resentment of latte-sipping urban left-wingers into political popularity.
The most prominent and successful of the crowd is undeniably Culture Minister Miri Regev. Regev staked out her position loudly at the very beginning of her tenure in the spring of 2015, announcing that “the government doesn’t have to support culture. I can decide where the money goes.
The artists will not dictate to me” While Regev does have sole discretion over where government subsidies for the arts, she wields power and influence over how government funds are and are not spent on the arts, and frequently threatens to defund art institutions that aren’t sufficiently patriotic in her eyes.
Such threats haven’t been just talk - or tweets. Regev has substantively carried through on her promise, actively vetting plays for problematic content, punishing performing arts entities who refuse to perform in the occupied territories.
In an orchestrated incident last September, Regev stormed out of the national film awards because of a reading by Palestinian poet Darwish she deemed unworthy, and artists responded.
When she returned, she was heckled by audience members and boycotted - some refused.
Regev announced at her Tel Aviv news conference that she has directed members of her ministry's staff to set up the committee "to oversee and examine what is happening” at the film funds and at the Israel Academy of Film and Television," which sponsored the award ceremony, saying she wished to "put things in order" prior to consideration of her ministry's funding for the Israeli film sector for 2018.
At first, there were rebellious vows by artists to stand up to Regev. In an early meeting, there was a “Hamilton”-like statement declaring that artists “will continue to look directly at reality, and to express our opinions, and to adhere to the dictates of our conscience, even if we are forced to pay a price for doing so.
Despite the direct threat to our livelihood, we will not censor and will not neuter our work because of threatening laws, intimidation and threats..”
Brave words, but when Regev’s ministry put policy muscle behind the grandstanding, arts institutions these performers and creators work for have had no choice but to surrender.
Earlier this year, Regev introduced new funding criteria, which included a 10-percent bonus in government funding to cultural institutions that appear in settlements and a penalty of about 30 percent to those that refused.
This led the Habima National Theater not only to perform a play in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, but to fall in line and issue a statement expressing “disgust” for “cultural boycotts.”
More recently, the Fringe Festival is fearing for its budget, after Regev vowed to investigate its behavior at a festival where some artists left at the end while the national anthem was sung.
“This is doing huge damage to culture in the long term, directly and indirectly. There’s all kinds of self-censorship happening - theaters that won’t do certain plays or hire certain actors because they are afraid. It’s terrible what is happening,” says Zakhem.
The only silver lining she sees is that when there is repression, as in the communist era, interesting and creative underground art often emerges. Overall, though, “it is terrible what’s happening.”
And so, American artists and those who care about the arts will have to remain vigilant in Donald Trump’s America, particularly those who depend on any kind of government support.
Far fewer are able to receive that kind of support, as a direct result of politicians decades back who sounded a lot like Miri Regev and Donald Trump.
In the 1980’s and ‘90’s spearheaded by a Republican congress, which succeed in slashing NEA funding by 40 percent, selling it politically as supporting art they characterized as depraved and obscene. It was a blow from which the arts community in the U.S. still hasn’t recovered.
As prominent art critic and curator Andy Horwitz observed on the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts, the gradual disappearance of arts funding represents “an unrelenting and highly successful conservative assault on the public sector that began with the election of Ronald Reagan and continues to this day.”
He warned that arts were really just the tip of the iceberg. “Controversy over cultural issues was used as cover to continue the Reagan Era pursuit of privatization and dismantling of the public sector, and continues to this day” and that “when the war is over they will have won, with the government in shambles and the damage irreparable.”
Anyone who thinks that such efforts are decades-old 20th history, and all the possible damage that can be done has already happened should think again.
As recently as 2011, a group of conservative Republican legislators proposed decimating the budgets for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Their proposal, if passed, would have shrunk these institutions to near non-existence.
Broadway hits like “Hamilton” are lucky enough not to depend on government largesse. But continued development of the creativity and talent, the kind that gave us the show’s creators and cast are a direct result of government investment in public arts education and free artistic expression.
Provocative broadsides by Donald Trump against the arts community should be viewed as a red flag that such support must be protected and can’t be taken for granted. Israeli artists have learned this the hard way, and continue to struggle, both for free expression in theater, film, and currently, in the battle for the new public television and radio broadcaster.
While they may often feel powerless, Zakhem says that artists – particularly performers – do have an important tool in their kit – the ability to make politicians look good or bad.
Personality-driven leaders like Trump or Regev can often be convinced to retreat from damaging moves to preserve their image, she says. The important thing, she says is to be organized.
“You have to unify all of the community - actors, writers, producers, you all have to get together, get up and send the message that freedom of speech is more important than anything else in a democracy,” says Zakhem.
“We try hard to say that to our government, to people like Miri Regev. They have to serve all of us, not just those who agree with the Likud. Democracy is about a variety of views. American artists will have to send the same message to Donald Trump - that he must really be everybody’s president.”