In a year defined by pandemic, racial reckoning, economic crisis, and a bruising political campaign, a brief video released in early November after the Associated Press declared a winner in the presidential election was seen by many artists as a vision of hope — as well as a sign of a repudiation of the Trump administration’s disregard for cultural institutions across America.
The two-minute clip produced by the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris campaign is set to Ray Charles’ rendition of “America the Beautiful” and features people from across the country posing inside gilded picture frames. Based on “Art Is …,” the 1983 work by artist Lorraine O’Grady that captured portraits of African American Day Parade attendees in Harlem, the 2020 film presents a montage of an inclusive America, full of movement and light, and hints at the role the new administration may see for the arts as the nation emerges from a time of turmoil.
“I think with the references to the work of Lorraine O’Grady in their campaign video, [President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris] are already are seeing arts as a source of healing,” said Makeda Best, the Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography at the Harvard Art Museums. And she is not alone. Several Harvard experts said they too see the incoming administration using cultural resources to help unite a nation devastated by pandemic and economic loss and divided by partisan rancor.
“Drawing on the expertise of humanists will be critical in restoring the faith in democratic norms and institutions that have been undermined over the last four years, as well as in bringing about social justice and equality that this country so urgently needs,” said Suzannah Clark, director of the Mahindra Humanities Center.
Though it is too early to tell exactly how the cultural landscape will fare under the new administration, it seems a safe bet that creative communities can expect brighter times ahead. Biden co-sponsored 2001 legislation that helped establish the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and secured stimulus job funding for arts groups as vice president in the Obama administration. As a member of the Senate Cultural Caucus, Harris fought proposed cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and co-sponsored the bill to establish the Smithsonian National American Latino Museum.
By contrast, Trump’s proposed budgets for the past four years sought to eliminate NEA and NEH funding. His spending plan for fiscal year 2021 lists both groups under the heading “Stopping Wasteful and Unnecessary Spending.” (Congress has repeatedly voted to keep such funding intact.)