George Saunders Has Some Thoughts About Art in the Trump Era

The hallowed short story author, who recently published his debut novel, explains the difference between our “art minds” and “media minds,” and why we need to pay attention to the former…

Read the entire interview here. I am only concerned with the conversation about art and media. Ellisa questions are in bold text. George answers in regular text.

Despite the fact that the novel is set 150 years ago, it feels very timely. A president, a profoundly good man, is grieving the lives lost in the war between the North and South, the country being torn apart and wrestling with his faith and that image of the distraught father cradling his young dead son. It made me think of President Obama, and all the young men killed by gun violence.

It’s so funny, the way art works. You’re concentrating on the machinery—the linguistic details of the speeches, and moving the characters around and then a system of meaning emerges from that, almost of its own volition. In this case, the material became much darker and sadder than I thought it would be. But it also gave me some truths I wasn’t expecting.

We do love things that go away. We might say, “Oh, God, please just let me die first!” But then you realize: “If I go first, that doesn’t mean the people I love won’t eventually have to die. It just means I won’t be there to have to witness it.” So anyway you cut it, it’s bleak. So . . . then what? How do we live in the face of the bleakness, and how do we live, even, with joy in the face of the bleakness?

I’m curious about the nonfiction piece you did for The New Yorker, “Who are All These Trump Supporters?”.  There seems to be some overlap between that dystopian America you satirize in your early stories that have working class folks at the mercy of capitalism and commercialism, and the Trump supporters in the article.

In my 20s I was really deep in working-class life—I worked as a roofer and in a slaughterhouse. These were my people. So it was fun and difficult to get out there and have a little bit of a confusion about competing parts of myself— the former working stiff versus the current liberal softie. Part of me just wanted to nail that movement, but then there are these nice people, who weren’t used to being interviewed, and weren’t political power players. They were just at a rally. It feels like a really complicated mathematical equation. What produces a Trump supporter? When, to me, everything he stands for just seems wrong. I haven’t figured it out yet… (more)

This week, the folks in Lowell, Massachusetts will celebrate the life of one of their most famous artists and a Florida favorite, Jack Kerouac. How surprised would he be to be remembered in this day of a new anti-art movement. How daunting would this be for Thomas Reese, after joyful years of expanded freedoms to be painted back into the cold prison of suppression. What do these cycles of social injustice and repression tell us about the human condition and psyche? Where does this need to curb our freedoms come from?

You must have some theories?

I think that, as a culture, we’ve been stupefied by years of reality TV language. You know it’s fake, but you buy into it anyway. Conditionally, ironically, sure, but at some level you are still buying into it, and endorsing it, and allowing it to degrade your way of thinking.

The other experience I’m having is the contrast between what we might call “art mind” and “daily mind.” When writing a book, in “art mind”. . . you become aware that there’s a mind operating beyond your daily mind that’s very powerful. It’s more empathetic. It’s wittier. It’s kinder. The artistic mind is real, and it’s better than the daily mind.

These days, our daily minds are really getting messed with by our news addiction and our devices and so on—it’s becoming “media mind.” So, going from writing the book into reporting on the Trump campaign (and, of necessity, going deep into “media mind”) it struck me how different those two mind states are. Which leads me to thinking about the role of art. I think I acceded to the notion of literature, in our time, as a sort of noble lost cause. We literary artists weren’t really going to be at the big table.

Well, after coming back from the Trump thing, I’m like, wait a minute. We didn’t, as a culture, value art enough. We marginalized that beautiful, complex, supremely capable artistic mind. We put way too much stock in this second kind of mind, which is so much harsher and more aggressive.

We put a lot of faith in that and now I think we’re kind of reaping the bounty. But that made me feel strangely happy. Like, O.K. so this thing I’ve spent my life doing is actually not a sideshow. It’s the essential show, and so maybe we can somehow move it back to a more central position. It’s essential that we do so…(more)


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