A year ago, the fall arts season was About Trump.
This year, the fall arts season is Not Really About Trump (But About Trump). In other words, a year ago, the culture was reeling from the U-turn away from the Obama age; now, artists and cultural institutions are living that reality, wondering what America is becoming and how we define ourselves — nationally, tribally and personally.
Which all feels eerily like the late 1960s and early 1970s, says George Tillman Jr. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College, he told sunny, mainstream tales of Chicago’s black middle class with his “Soul Food” and “Barbershop” franchises. He was born in 1969, which meant, throughout his childhood in Milwaukee, every TV show, movie, book and song could feel like a shard from a culture bomb that had detonated in 1968 — whether or not that show, movie or song had a thing to do with Nixon, civil rights or Vietnam. Some shards were bloated and antiquated — TV variety shows, “Hello, Dolly.” Others carried an urgency — Robert Altman films, “All in the Family,” David Bowie.
But all of it felt political.
Even the absence of politics could feel political.
Especially the absence.
When Tillman Jr. started making feature films in the late 1990s, his work was not especially pointed or steeped in the complicated politics of identity — or politics at all. His movies were regarded as lightly entertaining, agreeable portraits of African- American communities. But in the past couple of years, Tillman Jr. has felt the stakes climb. His new movie, “The Hate U Give,” an adaptation of the YA best-seller by Angie Thomas (opening Oct. 19), is about the birth of a young activist, a 16-year old black girl who attends a white high school and witnesses a white police officer shoot her friend, a black teenager; she has a white group of friends and a black group of friends, and their divided responses to the killing force her to drag uneasy truths to the surface.
“Five years ago,” Tillman Jr. says, “I doubt I could have made this movie. Or maybe I could have, but for no money, and definitely not at a major studio (the film was made for Fox). Now you can feel the cultural climate changing around you — and sometimes it feels like we’re moving backward. But I feel a young movement that’s going full force. So this movie is about how one person creates change by staying true to themselves.”
At the film’s core — at the heart of a great number of significant works this fall — are those fundamental questions of identity that seem to hang in the air everywhere now, pulled into plain view by the events of the presidential election of 2016 and polarization of the country: What does it mean to be an American? Who are we in 2018? Do we strive for a common identity, or find our truest selves in narrower, specific identities? Is identity fluid or fixed? Socially, racially and institutionally — what do we believe in now?
“Downstate,” the new play by Bruce Norris, who won a Pulitzer for “Clybourne Park,” opens Steppenwolf’s new season Sept. 20 with an arguably tougher question: Who are if we refuse to accept the most reviled among us? (His protagonists are sex offenders.) Earlier this year, Childish Gambino, who plays the United Center this month, released a provocative single named “This is America” that found no clear answers in another evergreen question of identity: Can we square America’s materialistic, willful forgetfulness with its oppressive, violent present? On “Maniac,” a new series on Netflix (Sept. 21), Emma Stone and Jonah Hill are patients in a drug trial simply wondering:
Am I myself?
“Going from feelings of crisis to community, and wondering about one’s identity, feels like a natural progression right now,” said Michael Christiano, deputy director and curator of public practice at the Smart Museum of Art at University of Chicago. Indeed, issues of community and identity will be raised dramatically this fall, in a vast, varied range of exhibits on the history of Chicago art, starting with “The Time is Now! Art Worlds of Chicago’s South Side, 1960-1980,”opening Sept. 13 at the Smart. Christiano said the show draws on 100 works, partly from the Black Arts Movement, that shook off Western convention, at times using text to address audiences. He said one of the themes is “how perceptions of identity get placed on an art scene, and how who tells a story matters — with the South Side, it’s a narrative partly constructed by local media.”
Alongside studies of design (“African American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce and the Politics of Race,” opening Oct. 27 at the Chicago Cultural Center), a new set of self-portraits from Chicago’s Edie Fake about gender and sexuality (“Gut Rehab,” Sept. 14 at Western Exhibitions), yet another look at Chicago’s pop psychedelic past (“Hairy Who? 1966-1969,” Sept. 26 at the Art Institute of Chicago), considerations of artists who leave the Midwest (“West by Midwest,” Nov. 17 at the Museum of Contemporary Art), and late 19th century, post-Great Fire art (“Gilded Chicago: Portraits of an Era,” opening Sept. 8 at the Driehaus Museum) — taken together, we might take a step closer to a perennial issue of identity:
What is Chicago art?
Of course, in a way that gets asked every season, year after year.
Sometimes though, circumstances force questions to flash like neon in fog. Fifty years ago, the last time that questions of cultural identity so starkly divided the nation (and Chicago), easy myths were born. In fact, I repeated one a moment ago, that every song and movie and whatnot in the late ’60s could be neatly sorted, and depending on the box it belonged — depending on if it was lean and urgent, or bloated and irrelevant — that song or movie or book became hope for a progressive future or a relic of a dusty past. Famously, that narrative became attached to the rise of the New Hollywood in the ’70s: Filmmakers sick of empty spectacle were encouraged to take risks at creatively impoverished studios that had no choice but to hire young Scorseses and DePalmas. Meanwhile everything else made between 1967 to 1979 was just lightweight flotsam.
It’s an easy exercise to repeat today:
Broadway in Chicago has the soulless spectacle of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (opening Oct. 2), and the timely gender bend of “Tootsie” (Sept. 11). CBS has the spiritual uplift of “God Friended Me” (pandering, Sept. 30), while ABC offers the discussion of “The Alec Baldwin Show”(thoughtful, Oct. 14). There’s likely some truth in those expectations, but also a lot of cheap assumption. Subject and pedigree don’t pre-ordain the meaningfulness of art, and trajectory is never fixed — would anyone have guessed that Robert Redford, who was a new star in 1968, earnest and charming, would be earnest and charming in his 80s, starring in “The Old Man & the Gun” (Sept. 28), his retirement from acting?
Nothing is so simple.
Cultural identity itself gets debated this fall. “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment,” the new book from scholar Francis Fukuyama (Sept. 11), wrestles with the benefits and problems of focusing on identity politics. He even finds parallels in ’68, when “the left’s agenda shifted to culture,” and “what needed to be smashed was not the current political order that exploited the working class, but the hegemony of Western culture and values that suppressed minorities.” That’s a longview, and not predictably agreeable, but intentionally challenging and complicating.
Same for “These Truths: A History of the United States” (Sept. 18), perhaps the most ambitious new work of the fall season, across any medium. Jill Lepore, the acclaimed New Yorker staff writer and Harvard historian, tells a history mostly populated by individuals, not movements; she tells a story of ideals and realities. She swings for the fence, because, as she told me: Someone had to. She explained, “Historians had stopped writing this kind of book. They had abandoned the idea of seeing a civic use in a sweeping narrative account of the country itself. Because there was a decline of consensus in the scholarship of American history. The postwar generation, from ’45 to ’68, there is a lot of consensus then (among historians) and the greatest amount of agreement about our history. Then it goes bang, for good reasons. Take ’68 as the dividing line. After no one agrees on the direction of the country, universities start black studies, women studies departments. Meanwhile the conservative movement has it own factions who weigh on what American history really means. You can’t tell one story now.
“That absence of consensus, it’s felt in the Glenn Beck histories that were popular and have no relationship to scholarship. But also in Howard Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States.’ Which is a big seller, but sorely lacking — I really wish it wasn’t taught in schools. Remember in ‘Ladybird,’ (Saoirse Ronan) meets Timothee Chalamet and he’s reading Zinn’s book? It’s how you know he’ll be a bad boyfriend! Lefty white boy history! People say they don’t like being so polarized, then polarized work is all they consume. So (writing a vast history of the U.S.) is hard to do now, but important for people to try.”
That splintering of a clear national identity is a thread this season, found in USA Network’s “The Purge,” a new adaptation of the popular film franchise about a kind of political, 12-hour American holiday that celebrates murder and inequality; journalist Mark Leibovich’s “Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times,” a necessary, disturbing study of “America’s Game” in the 21st century; the prismatic, sometimes literally animated personas of Gorillaz (Oct. 16, at the United Center). But those are metaphors. Direct issues of identity swim through the second season of “I Love You, America” on Hulu, Sarah Silverman’s sincere attempt bridging ideologies (Sept. 6); “America to Me” on Starz, Steve James’ 10-part look at race at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
At the Chicago Theatre alone, you could jump from political satire (Andy Borowitz, Sept. 21), to political stand-up (Hasan Minhaj, Sept, 29), to political songs (Joan Baez, on her farewell tour, Oct. 5). In theaters, see Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in “Backseat” (Dec. 14)! Or Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart in “The Front Runner” (Nov. 7)!
But what you’ll also see playing out is an elemental question about the character of art itself: During cultural upheavals, should it comfort or distract? Entertain? Or educate?
Problem is, it’s not always for artists or audiences to decide.
The times often dictate. For the past 14 years, Lara Filip, artistic director of ArranmoreArts, has produced a kind of traveling show at Morton Arboretum in Lisle, performing Grimm fairy tales in the woods for children and parents. And for 14 years, “it was like presenting the original fake news, stories that were super happy, cleanly resolved. But wait, wait, wait — no! What about historical context? Some stories were changed to sell books. Some were softened, or changed for male audiences, and Christian audiences, Some were handed down by middle-class women erased from their own fairy tales.”
When the reworked version plays weekends in October — now titled “The Grimmest of Ghost Tales” — Filip plans to restore ambiguity and ghoulish original endings.
That’s a political choice.
Then again, horror has always been the most politically pliant genre, shapeshifting to suit its age.“The Nun” (Sept. 6), the latest “Conjuring” spinoff, about demonic clergy, arrives at another particularly uneasy moment for the Catholic Church. David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” (Oct. 19) erases the past 40 years of dumb sequels, appearing in in the #MeToo era, and connecting Jamie Lee Curtis back to the lean original: She’s a woman haunted by the toxic creep she has never quite shaken. “Hereditary,” which opened last spring (but just arrived on DVD) and stars Toni Collette, is an autumn work, the perfect response to a robust economy tottering on a base of economic uncertainty; it tells the story of a family beset not only by its own lies and self-delusions but outside, unassailable forces.
When Nick Drnaso began his graphic novel “Sabrina,” Donald Trump was not on his mind — identity was not on his mind. He was a janitor at the Field Museum, a Palos Hills native who lived in the Old Irving Park neighborhood. This fall Drnaso learns if “Sabrina” — the first graphic novel long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize — will become a finalist. It’s about a missing woman but veers into the manipulation and paranoia of the digital age; like “Hereditary,” an upsetting portrait of an uncertain country.
“But I definitely did not think I was making a political book,” he said. “I was working out my own feelings of anxiety and worry — I was going more for a tone I could capture in a comic-book format. But now everything is politics, and everything is political, so you can’t just have a character going on a rant now without that character seeming to adopt some (political) affiliation. So I had worries that it could get too moralistic. I think if I had to do it all again, I would probably make certain things a lot more politically ambiguous.”
It is, after all, a short leap from hip and relevant to didactic and insufferable.
The ’60s taught us that.
So did the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s…
Dimitri Simakis, cofounder of the Los Angeles-based Everything is Terrible!, a contemporary freak-out/arts collective/kitsch-video blog/traveling cultural critique that began in Chicago, said the misguided bargain-bin videos and cheeseball public-service announcements woven into its new stage show, “The Great Satan” (Sept. 14 at Thalia Hall), are drawn mostly from the ’80s and ’90s. But these videos are often about vilifying “the other side, regardless of their politics.” He said “the people who made (these videos) were often living out a fantasy about ‘the other,’ so it’s not that much different today.”
But they never mention Trump.
“Trump even said the phrase, ‘Everything is terrible’ during his candidacy, so we could have used it. I have a Google alert for ‘everything is terrible’ and I think I get 700 percent more notifications these days. Which means I don’t think we need to namecheck Trump in the show — I mean, you instinctively understand where he fits into this anyway.”