It began with a tweet from Kanye West. As ever with West, it was succinct, provocative and unexpected, simply declaring: ‘I love the way Candace Owens thinks’. Owens, a former Vogue journalist who realised that controversy paid better than couture, rejoices in the title of ‘urban director’ at the Turning Point organisation, an operation closely linked to Donald Trump and the ‘Make America Great Again’ movement. It did not take the most prescient of commentators to realise what was coming, and it duly arrived a day or so later, when West declared that ‘you don’t have to agree with trump [sic] but the mob can’t make me not love him. We are both dragon energy. He is my brother. I love everyone.’
Leaving aside the unfortunate resemblance of West’s avowed ‘dragon energy’ to the thespian Charlie Sheen’s much-ballyhooed declaration that he possessed ‘tiger blood’, the reaction to West’s declaration of right-wing sympathies led to turmoil amongst his peers. The musician John Legend was moved to write him a faintly sanctimonious message in which he begged him to ‘reconsider aligning yourself with Trump. You’re way too powerful and influential to endorse who he is and what he stands for … So many people who love you feel so betrayed right now.’ West, after a ritual declaration of love, responded: ‘You bringing up my fans or my legacy is a tactic based on fear used to manipulate my free thought.’ West then chose to share Legend’s missive on Twitter, as if to say, ‘see what I have to put up with.’
There seems little doubt that Kanye West has a finely tuned sense of the absurd and a provocateur’s instinct for causing trouble
There seems little doubt that, underneath his glowering and combative exterior, West has a finely tuned sense of the absurd and a provocateur’s instinct for causing trouble. No man, after all, who can christen his children North, Chicago and Saint is devoid of a sense of humour. It is impossible to judge whether or not he really has set up camp forever in the extremities of America’s right wing; it also remains to be seen whether the brand that he and his wife, the reality TV superstar Kim Kardashian, have constructed is tarnished in any way by association with the most unpopular president in history. Certainly, there have been minor concessions – West declared, ‘I haven’t done enough research on conservatives to call myself or be called one’ – but it is tempting to speculate that, in a highly charged time of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and, indeed, Make America Great Again, West has done the opposite of his peers.
In this, he has few allies in the sphere of arts and culture. Although there are conservative actors, musicians and directors working today within the entertainment industry, most keep their views firmly to themselves. A failed attempt by the Conservative Party to recruit Mick Jagger to their cause at an event in Davos in 2012 was met with a contemptuous response – ‘I now find myself being used as a political football and there has been a lot of comment about my political allegiances which are inaccurate’, he sniffed – and Trump’s inauguration last year was studiedly snubbed by the likes of Beyoncé and Bruce Springsteen, who had happily performed for Obama. Instead, he had to make do with the likes of the Republican Hindu Coalition and the Radio City Rockettes, several of whom boycotted the event in protest at having to perform for ‘a monster’. The event, if it will be remembered in the future at all, seems most notable for George W. Bush’s succinct dismissal of the festivities: ‘That was some weird shit.’
Bush, of course, was pilloried and criticised throughout his Presidency for ignorance, warmongering and a cruel and unusual attitude towards the grammar of the English language. Yet now he is undergoing an odd reappraisal; many of those who mocked him now approvingly cite his brand of nepotistic Republicanism as ‘dignified and decent’ and his repeated appearances shoulder-to-shoulder with Barack Obama have done him little harm in the optical field of public opinion, to say nothing of his explicit disavowal of his Republican successor. It is also notable that one of America’s most influential and performed twentieth-century playwrights, David Mamet, crossed the Rubicon from the Left to the Right during Bush’s presidency, a state of affairs that Mamet announced first with a scabrous essay in The Village Voice entitled ‘Why I Am No Longer A Brain-Dead Liberal’ in 2008, which he then doubled down with a book, The Secret Knowledge.
As he expected, Mamet’s breaking ranks with his liberal peers did little for his career; in a recent interview, he referred wryly to having been ‘blacklisted for ten years’, and, while refusing to make any public declaration of support for Trump, noted that ‘had I voted for him and had I put up a Trump poster here, it would have been torn down and the house would have been desecrated.’ It has now become de rigueur to re-examine Mamet’s oeuvre through his declaration of conservatism, especially his two-hander about sexual politics, Oleanna, which revolves around the relationship between an academic and his student.
Before Mamet’s ‘coming out’, the play was regarded as a finely balanced and carefully ambiguous account of power, of which none other than Harold Pinter said ‘there can be no tougher or more unflinching play than Olenna.’ Now, it is more common to suggest, as the critic Terry Teachout did recently, that Mamet was, knowingly or unknowingly, a conservative all along; the implication surely being that, rather than his earlier work being carefully attuned to balance and ambiguity, it instead represents crypto-conservatism at its most insidious.
The inevitable danger with attempting to reappraise any artist’s work through the prism of their public statements and opinions is that it does not allow for the possibility of anyone changing their mind. In the case of the only conservative – if not Conservative – playwright of any stature in Britain, Tom Stoppard, this ends up being a particularly heinous miscomprehension of his work; his long-standing commitment to liberal causes, not least his enduring support of human rights, hardly marks him out as a neo-Trumpian. Yet he also wrote arguably the most Conservative major play of modern times, his 1982 work The Real Thing. In it, a minor character called Brodie, a loathsome would-be playwright who has been imprisoned for setting fire to the Cenotaph, comes to represent everything that Stoppard clearly objected to with the agitprop left wing; the hectoring, the humourlessness, the absence of any literary ability, and the delusion.
As the playwright’s avatar Henry declares at one point, ‘It’s balls … when he gets into his stride, or rather his lurch, announcing every stale revelation of the newly enlightened, like stout Cortez coming upon the Pacific – war is profit, politicians are puppets, Parliament is a farce … you can’t fool Brodie.’ The play ends with Brodie humiliated and sent packing, Henry triumphant and The Monkees’ ‘I’m a Believer’ playing over the curtain call. It is very unlikely that such a play would be written today.
Stoppard was writing at the height, or depths if you will, of Thatcherism, a time when a political and social realignment went hand-in-hand with a sense that it was no longer artistically shameful to be seen to be on the Right. None other than Philip Larkin declared, ‘I adore Mrs Thatcher’, without an ounce of irony, and his long-standing pen-pal Kingsley Amis, like Mamet a refugee from the Left, went a step further, writing in his Memoirs that ‘she has replaced the Queen as my dream girl, using this phrase in its more literal sense of the female who, more than any other, tends to recur in my dreams.’ Nearly three decades on, it is, again, inconceivable that a latter-day Amis – a David Nicholls or Jonathan Coe, perhaps – would write in a similar vein about Theresa May, unless they wished to be pilloried for all eternity over social media.
It will be interesting to see whether Morrissey’s audiences will begin to thin out after his repeated support for the hard-right fringe party Britain First
And this, alas, is where the confluence between politics and the arts is probably expressed most often, even if seldom well. Today, it is possible to destroy a carefully cultivated career in moments by saying ‘the wrong thing’ on Twitter, offering the careless and outspoken the chance to commit hara-kiri considerably faster than a lifetime’s worth of ill-chosen and misquoted interviews might offer. It will be interesting to see, for instance, whether Morrissey’s audiences will begin to thin out after his repeated support for the hard-right fringe party Britain First, or whether in fact he will attract a new, less discerning audience, who might perhaps wish him to skip such lovelorn songs from his and The Smiths’ oeuvre as ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ in favour simply of two hours’ worth of ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.
Yet it was telling that, while West’s support for Donald Trump has incited debate and opinion – not least this piece – Morrissey’s considerably more incendiary statements were met with a yawn and ‘oh, more of the same’. Just as Milo Yiannopoulous found when his increasingly outrageous remarks ceased to shock, there is a danger that an over-enthusiastic allegiance to an ideology that could most politely be described as ‘divisive’ will eventually turn into yet another instance of the boy crying wolf.
It would be an enormous shame for the brilliant and provocative likes of West and Mamet to find their careers imploding, not with a bang but with a whimper. Yet while it is undoubtedly possible to hold complex and nuanced social and political views that exist out of, and indeed challenge, the accepted liberal-left consensus, it seems, on balance, unlikely that being photographed in a signed Donald Trump baseball cap, proudly bearing the insignia ‘Make America Great Again’, is going to bring out the sweeping cultural realignment that conservatives of all kinds might wish for. Perhaps, had Hillary Clinton won, matters really would be rather different.