Memo to U.S. Artists: Key on German Activism

Berlin's Akademie der Künste

The American arts community — in responding to the coming Trump presidency — might take a cue from the activist diligence of cultural leaders in Germany.

In early November, Berlin Akademie der Künste (Academy of the Arts) sent an open letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel. The missive urged her to seek immediate release of jailed artists in Turkey.

The academy, founded in 1696, notes on its website that it is “one of the oldest cultural institutes in Europe. It is an international community of artists and has a current total of 400 members in its six Sections (Visual Arts, Architecture, Music, Literature, Performing Arts, Film and Media Art).”

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The Nov. 5 written appeal stated in part:

…the assembled members of the Akademie der Künste have united to emphatically pledge their support and solidarity to the arrested writers, journalists and opposition members in Turkey, declaring the Akademie’s commitment to strive for their release… 


Prepare to fight fascism.

…Human rights and democracy have been fundamentally attacked in an unprecedented wave of arrests of well-known journalists, writers, scientists and opposition members in Turkey. The social, cultural and political relationships between Turkey and Germany, which are of great importance to the future of both countries, are currently being put to a severe test. As a result the shared efforts toward cultural and social development that have taken decades to establish are being destroyed in just a few months. 


We will continue to demonstrate proof of our solidarity with those who have been incarcerated and victims of persecution through invitations, joint art projects and the cultural-political debates fostered by our programmes. We strongly urge the German Federal Government to counteract this disastrous development in Turkey as quickly as possible with vigorous political pressure.

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The Problem in America

The first thing artists and arts groups must do: Recognize and admit that the United States is not a democracy. It is an oligarchy. We wrote of this in 2014, 2015 and 2016, including our column “Oligarchy’s Sibling Rivals: the U.S. and Russia”.

So — with the rise of Donald Trump and securing of a Millionaire Congress and more conservative Supreme Court – we wrote earlier that readers should “Prepare to Fight Fascism: 2017 and Beyond”, noting particularly coming dangers to the First Amendment’s freedom of the press and freedom of expression. We’re already seeing specifics of that from Trump as both a candidate and president-elect.

Most recently:

Earlier in November, Trump had a private meeting with members of the corporate media. A free press has open meetings with government officials to stress transparency and the people’s right to know. That private meeting was simply a portrait of big money and petting egos.

Nazi book burnings in 1930s.
Nazi book burnings in 1930s.

Also, Trump has announced he will appoint two new members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) who are reported foes of net neutrality, virtually declaring its death under his administration. This can only mean further limiting of freedom of expression and the people’s right to know — intellectually and even commercially deadly in a society that depends so heavily on the Internet for private, social, business, and government communication.

Oh, and of course, the Trump Twitter Tirade over the “Hamilton” cast asking him and his religiou-right vice-presidential choice to represent all Americans.

Look for Congress to also make serious efforts to limit the arts. In the 1990s, conservatives in Congress adamantly drove to scrap the National Endowment for the Arts, a primary seed-funding source for arts groups throughout America. Look for the new conservative Congress to do the same, and to the National Endowment for the Humanities. House Republicans in 2011 started a move to scrap both the NEA and NEH. And with Trump at the helm, it may really happen.

What U.S. Artists Must Do

American artists and cultural organizations must dedicate themselves to activism equal to and beyond what the German academy has vowed. And where they may be limited if they’re nonprofits, they should coordinate with individuals and groups that can lobby and pressure Congress and the president.

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In 2007, Ralph Nader presented a packed college auditorium with a basic approach. We wrote about that near the end of our 2012 column, “Five Realities the Convention Speakers Wouldn’t Reveal”. We summarized his approach in two paragraphs:

Each of you lives in a Congressional district. Each of you has two senators and a Congress member who you pay to serve you.


The average Congressional district consists of about 600,000 Americans. Research shows that, of those 600,000 Americans, about 2,000 truly affect your legislators’ votes on funding, laws and regulations. YOU need to be one of those 2,000.

We often encourage you to get organized, get educated, and get active to bring about positive change. Using Nader’s approach, of course, the more of those 2,000 you make up, the more powerful you’ll be when dealing with the politicians.

At least, that was true in 2007. Now that America’s an oligarchy, that approach may not work. Nader more recently has confronted that in a 2015 book, “Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State”. That title gives you the crux of his approach.

Also, during a question-answer session about the book, Nader revealed he had put together a list of a dozen or more billionaires who he believes would support progressive issues, and was writing them letters. That might be a good idea for arts organizations to consider.

Why? Because you may only be able to fight big money with big money these days on any issue, including arts. It’s something you should think, and argue, about.