With speculation having begun for the next Academy Awards season, one wonders if last year’s unintended finale– with the wrong film being announced for Best Picture– can ever be outdone. But, apart from being one of the most memorable Oscars moments in years, one reaction to the incident provides an unexpected opportunity to explore a connection as controversial as it is extensive– that between art and politics.
In the aftermath of the error, Donald Trump, for once, stayed off Twitter. That revolutionary streak was broken, however, at an interview with Breitbart the day after the Oscars, when Trump blamed the mistake on the frequent use of this Academy Awards by the participants to make a political point: “I think they were focused so hard on politics that they didn’t get their act together in the end.”
As Meryl Streep said earlier at her Golden Globes commencement speech, one of the most shocking “performances” that year among so many brilliant actors was Trump imitating a disabled journalist during his campaign. This performance of shortsightedness and historical ignorance that Trump gave to Breitbart might have been his crowning role—except he wasn’t acting. As should be obvious by now, he didn’t have to.
Of course, Trump’s claim is completely false. The Guardian reported that the mistake was due to a human error at PricewaterhouseCooper, the accounting firm that counts the Oscars votes. It certainly had nothing to do with host Jimmy Kimmel making jibes about the president, several nominees (including Lin-Manuel Miranda and “Loving” star Ruth Negga) wearing ACLU blue ribbons on stage, an Iranian director nominated for Best Foreign Language Film refusing to attend in protest of the travel ban, or Emma Stone wearing a pin with the Planned Parenthood logo. The envelopes had been mixed up before most of those things even happened.
While, in terms of pushing an agenda, the comment is comparatively innocuous, the problem is its implication that art should not be used as a medium for political discourse. Once again, however, history is not on Trump’s side. Art and literature have always been a reflection of the environment they were made in, and that has invariably included social and political discourse.
In fact, if remaining studied by future generations is one measure of quality, the present relevance and appeal of any political messages in an older work can be what makes it “good.” Anyone looking for a swashbuckling plot or captivating characters in “1984” will be disappointed, but sales of George Orwell’s 1949 illustration of government distortion of the truth skyrocketed after the “alternative facts” comment from Kellyanne Conway.
Orwell himself said in “Why I Write”: “When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
Throughout history, whenever oppressive governments made it difficult to publish openly dissenting socio-political treatises, art and literature became the only method of political discourse, concealing their messages behind their entertainment value. The freedom to express political messages in art can never be taken for granted.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film “Spartacus” was a direct reaction to the 1950’s Red Scare and the Hollywood blacklist. The film was based on a novel by blacklisted author Howard Fast, which he wrote while in prison for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC); the film’s screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, was one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten.
In the film’s most famous scene, with Spartacus’s slave rebellion against the corrupt Roman Republic defeated and his army trapped, all of Spartacus’s followers shout “I am Spartacus!” when the Romans demand they identify their leader. While the line has since been endlessly parodied in pop culture, in 1960 this was a direct allusion to HUAC’s demanding that suspected Communists reveal their associates, and theaters showing the film were picketed by anti-Communist radicals as a result.
There is no difference between expressing a political message through the art’s content, and using the presentation of the art as a platform to make a point (as was done at the Oscars)—messages given through the presentation of the art are simply a reiteration of political messages that have a treasured place in the content. One doesn’t have to look far to find a background for the points made by the Oscars attendees, with the amount of critically praised movies released just this year that have themes of tolerance, cooperation, and respect for civil rights.
Art and politics have been inseparable for as long as both have existed, and each is an integral part of the other. What Trump doesn’t understand is that this connection will never go away, no matter how many times he criticizes it. In fact, the more he is perceived as attempting to censor political messages in art, the more political art will get in response. Hopefully, this will be one more reminder that being president will be much harder than he thought.