“Why Authoritarians Attack the Arts” is an opinion editorial written by the University of Chicago sociologist, Eve L. Ewing and was published in the New York Times on April 6, 2017. Ewing argues the Trump administration’s efforts to defund the arts, specifically in regards to the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, could be interpreted as one of the methods an authoritarian regime employs to moderate any dissent and criticism levied at it. Ewing claims that “artists play a distinctive role in challenging authoritarianism” and is attempting to educate her readers that if American art is allowed to only “serve the instruments of power,” American society may lose the benefit and freedom to criticize those in power.
Ewing says “we should be very afraid” there is a political war on the arts and it is in her declarative of “we should” that reveals who she is attempting to reach. With an affluent readership of 14.5 million subscriptions earning a mean of roughly $75,000 annually (“New York Times Audience,”) Ewing has carefully chosen (and been chosen by) her forum by speaking directly to this majority demographic of the New York Times. In a 2014 Pew Research poll, 65% of New York Times readers identified as politically left of center (“Where News Audiences Fit,”) a liberal audience assumed to be friendly to the arts and who identify with the belief that “lives other than [their] own have value.” Ewing is also counting on the New York Times’ 56.9% post-graduate college educated audience, (“New York Times Audience,”) to understand the implications stemming from some of the 20th century’s most notorious authoritarians who likewise viewed the arts and artists as a threat to their power, such as Chile’s Augusto Pinochet who “tortured and exiled” mulraists, and Joseph Stalin who “executed all of the Soviet Union’s Ukrainian folk poets” (Ewing).
Ewing compares President Trump’s “public castigation of the “Hamilton” cast” in retaliation for their “fairly tame commentary” against the Vice President to Brazil’s authoritarian government blocking of a museum director’s exhibition because it contained a photograph “seen as embarrassing to the police.” Ewing further primes her audience’s concern of impending American authoritarianism by leading off the article with the example of the Nazi’s war against the arts, a war her audience will know began two years before Germany even invaded Poland. She explains how in 1937 a Nazi art exhibition was set up to promote the “ideal Aryan society” and to denigrate art and artists the Third Reich believed “could play a key role in the rise or fall of their dictatorship.” Ewing is banking on her audience’s education, socio-economic standing, beliefs, and political leanings to be in a position to understand how co-opting the arts can solidify the power structures of an authoritarian regime.
Thus, kairos is vital to Ewing’s argument as this opinion editorial was published fewer than 3 months after Trump was inaugurated. She is taking full advantage of the exigence of political turmoil surrounding his presidency to reach an audience who will not be able to resist making the connection between a candidate they did not support during the election with that of the authoritarian terrors of Pinochet, Stalin, and Hitler she describes in the article. She is attempting to educate her intended audience, to draw attention to the possibility that something as seemingly innocuous as defunding the National Endowment for the Arts or publicly feuding with the outspoken actors in a Broadway play could, in fact, be the “canary in the coal mine” (Ewing) of a larger, more ominous threat to contemporary American culture where political dissent and criticism should be practised without reprisal. Ewing’s credentials as a university sociologist may influence anyone still on the fence as to if there truly is a legitimate cause for concern over Trump’s actions. An astute audience will understand that if this topic already has the attention of a major news outlet as well as other university educated professionals, like themselves, then perhaps there is more to the argument than mere speculation.
Ewing’s goal is to utilize a major American forum to excite an already receptive audience into seeing the possibility that allowing authoritarians to “attack the arts” is actually a symptom of a regime unwilling to be criticized and that is attempting to “[create] a society where propaganda reigns and dissent is silenced” (Ewing). She also understands that many in her audience may also be some of the very same / sympathetic to those “who occupy marginalized social positions” (Ewing) and could be directly affected if their freedom to criticize was usurped by an authoritarian regime. Ewing tells her audience that there is still “a chance to see daylight again,” but her choice of the word “chance” assumes her audience will also intuit that there is an even greater probability they might not “see daylight again” should her argument not be taken seriously.
Ewing, Eve L., “Why Authoritarians Attack the Arts.” The New York Times, 6 Apr. 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/06/opinion/why-authoritarians-attack-the-arts.html. Accessed Feb 2018.
“New York Times Audience.” The New York Times, Aug 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/marketing/selfservice/audience.html. Accessed Feb 2018.
“Where News Audiences Fit on the Political Spectrum.” Pew Research Center, 21 Oct, 2014. http://www.journalism.org/interactives/media-polarization/outlet/new-york-times/. Accessed Feb 2018.