A panel discussion at the Brooklyn Museum on Thursday night started on an ominous note: “We’re not on the eve of destruction,” the poet, essayist, and playwright Elizabeth Alexander assured the audience, less than 24 hours before Donald Trump was to be sworn in as president. “It just looks like it.” Madonna, artist Marilyn Minter (who has paintings, photographs, and visual art currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum) and the institution’s director Anne Pasternak joined Alexander on the day of reckoning. Their discussion ranged widely – from Baldwin to Basquiat, fear to feminism – but circled around a central concern: the role of creatives and feminists in a time when, as Minter put it, “this is the most frightened I’ve ever been.”
Judging by the sold-out crowd – well-heeled and fashionably late – that attended the event, many shared Minter’s anxiety. Before the speakers took the stage, the sound system blasted bottom-heavy music, and the inauguration loomed like a tornado warning in the audience’s pre-panel discussions. To the right: a man greeted an acquaintance with, “It’s good to be here and celebrate a little bit before tomorrow.” To the left: a conversation about the racial makeup of the Women’s March On Washington, scheduled for the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, which Madonna will attend. The dress code at the museum was unofficially business casual, so the singer shined in a shirt emblazoned with the word “feminist” and a sea captain’s hat cocked at a swashbuckling angle.
The evening kicked off with the words of writer James Baldwin, which lent additional authority to the artists about to hit the stage. “The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us,” he declared in 1962. “Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets.” Madonna followed this by airing a short art film that mixed vicious, graceful dancing, violent, Fascist-inflected imagery and a succession of calls to arms. “I want to start a revolution,” the singer’s voiceover asserted. “Are you with me?”
Though this hinted at a radical break with the past, the conversation that followed often echoed pre-election chatter in liberal circles. Madonna presented Trump’s election as a daunting but necessary evil. “It had to happen,” she said. “I do believe that Trump was elected for a reason: to show us how lazy and un-unified and lackadaisical and taking-for-granted we’ve become of our freedom and the rights we have as Americans.”
She would build on this theme later, twisting Trump’s presence into a boon for liberal causes with a bit of rhetorical judo. “It sounds really perverse, but [Trump]’s actually doing us a great service,” she stated. “We’ve gone as low as we can go. We can only go up from here. What are we going to do to go up? … We have two choices: destruction. Creation. I’m going down the road of creation and you’re all welcome to join me.”
Thursday’s segments directly addressing this question were more absorbing. Alexander referenced famed feminist and activist Gloria Steinem, suggesting that “commit[ing] an outrageous act every day” might be a possible path of resistance to a president who failed to win a majority of the popular vote. Even on the level of language, she suggested defiance was possible. “I wasn’t going to speak his name, following the lead of the First Lady,” Alexander said of the incoming president. “It doesn’t belong in my mouth.”
Minter pledged her renewed commitment to public advocacy, especially on the local level, as a way of attempting to nudge the country in a different direction. “I’m gonna start doing activism again,” she announced. “Everyone I know is going to Washington [for the Women’s March].” She recently joined a number of New York artists in a protest outside the Puck Building, which belongs to the family of Ivanka Trump’s husband Jared Kushner. And she commended another artist, Richard Prince, who recently returned $36,000 to Ivanka Trump – money that she had paid him for a 2014 piece. In addition, Prince took to Twitter to publicly sever ties with the artwork: “This is not my work,” he wrote. “I did not make it. I deny. I denounce. This is fake art.”
When it came time for Madonna to suggest impactful steps forward, she leaned on generalities: “thinking outside the box,” “never being complacent,” “stand up for what you believe in,” “taking the road less travelled.” (She admitted to spouting platitudes, joking, “I’m just gonna start throwing out clichés.”) The star got a stronger response earlier in the evening when she struck the same note – half rabble-rouser, half entertainer – that characterized her short film.
“They say it’s always darkest before dawn,” she told the crowd. “So let’s get the party started.”
Watch the entire conversation of Madonna discussing art, activism and feminism in the age of Donald Trump at the Brooklyn Museum.