From Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.
It took nearly 100 years after the Revolution for the American creative voice to come into its own. In 1844, Emerson wrote an essay calling for a poet to emerge and give voice to the “nation yet unsung.” It was Walt Whitman who responded with his self-published Leaves of Grass in 1855. Still, America being the nation it is, it makes sense that the creative voice would really develop with the industrial transformations that occurred at the turn of the 20th century.
With the invention of machines, from piano scrolls, to motion pictures, to radio and television, American output of culture steadily became more than entertainment; it became our identity. Isn’t it interesting that in the same year a guy like Trump wins the presidency that it was Bob Dylan who won a Nobel Prize? This bipolar tableau is a familiar theme for us Americans: great on intention, a little iffy on execution. Hope and disappointment followed by more hope. And in the darkest times, the artists are often the stewards of hope—our better angels patiently trying to lead us away from our capacity for brutal intolerance.
Coincidentally, I happened to see the film Trumbo last week after wanting to do so since it was released this time last year. It really is a very solid little film, the relevance of which increased by orders of magnitude with the results of yesterday’s election.
For those who are not familiar, this multi-award-nominated biopic starring Bryan Cranston dramatizes the struggle and triumph of Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter who was the most prominent of the Hollywood 10 blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. After refusing to name names, or even answer questions, Trumbo was sent to prison for contempt of Congress and then officially barred from working at the only profession he had to support his family.
This disenfranchisement from the opportunity to work wiped out many Americans who were blacklisted, but Trumbo was comparatively lucky because he was so damn good that there were people willing to hire him to write screenplays under various pseudonyms. His writing even received two Academy Awards he could not publicly claim. Above all, the Blacklist took a toll on the Trumbo family, which is very poignantly portrayed in the film.
I have asserted in other posts that it is the middle class creator, who is suffering in the current market. And although we cannot wholly blame mass infringement (i.e. digital piracy) for the market we have, the free-culture movement certainly exacerbated the problem. For instance, the movie Trumbo cost a modest $15 million to produce, a budget zone that I will argue is ideal for small, character-driven movies of this nature. It’s enough money to properly pay people to work on the project but not so much money that the whole enterprise must involve layers of corporate suits with responsibility for a $100 million investment.
That there were not at least two million viewers in America who went to see Trumbo in the theater may be answered by any number of factors, including over-saturation of choices in the market, limited distribution and marketing options, an unwillingness to engage with a painful subject like the Blacklist, or a simple trend away from theaters. Whatever the factors, new distribution models, along with any changes to copyright law, must find a way to support this kind of mid-range project if we are to keep alive expressive works that demand engagement with serious subject matter. The same is true for the middle-class novelist, composer, performer, photographer, or journalist. Economic power is power. This is no time to be devaluing creators.