Good art connects with people. Oftentimes, these connections are made because of the message and the world surrounding the audience. It can be a film that directly comments on current events, a book the satirizes world news, or a TV show that uses escapism to unite an audience, good art reflects the world.
The United State’s two-party political system lends itself to the creation of well-defined “eras.” Most people who have lived through multiple presidential administrations can summarize the national themes of those terms in office, just how “the Bush era,” or “the Obama years” bring immediate correlations to mind.
When Bill Clinton was elected to President in 1992, he became the first from the Baby Boomers generation, and led that generation to sweep political power over the ensuing decade, which they still hold overwhelming control over today. Many have posited that the defining piece of art of the Clinton era is Forrest Gump, arguably the biggest hit of that decade, outside of Titanic. On its surface, Gump is nothing more than a Boomer-nostalgia trip, reframing historical events on the mid-20th Century to center them on the film’s protagonist, Forrest. Even today, you can find arguments over whether the film was promoting conservative values, or skewering them.
Modern readings of the film tend to emphasize the film’s contempt for American politics and the military-industrial complex, similar to the modern reconsideration of Clinton’s legacy that continues even today. The film’s trick of inserted Gump into the center of every major event of the 20th century can also be read as a reflection of the Boomers’ well known self-centeredness.
In the minds of many Americans, the Presidency of George W. Bush is most closely associated with September 11th and the War on Terror. It was a decade where images of war and violence were streamed live into our households every evening, inadvertently leading to a high level of comfort with it. One of the most popular television series of the early-aughts, 24 revolutionized the concept of “terrorism as entertainment,” winning numerous awards and running for nine seasons.
Each season followed a day in the life of counter-terrorism expert Jack Bauer, as he attempted to thwart large-scale attacks on American soil, something that was a prevalent fear among Americans in a post-9/11 world. That the show’s ratings and favorability began to fall after Obama’s election in 2008 shouldn’t be all that surprising. The national mood had changed, and we had begun to fully process the impact of Bush’s War on Terror.
Barack Obama ran a campaign focused on Hope and changing the trajectory of America towards a more equitable and just country for all. Obama’s election, as the first Black President in the country’s history, was a national exhale, and Obama enjoyed widespread popularity among white liberals and moderates, something he shares with Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton.
Hamilton recast the United States’ founding fathers with a diverse actors, telling its story through rap, Soul, and R&B. To call it a phenomenon would be an understatement. Hamilton set numerous Broadway box office records, and won a staggering 11 Tony Awards. Many of the musical’s songs achieved cultural ubiquity, even with a relatively small amount of the population having seen the musical.
Hamilton‘s origin and rise is inexorably tied to the Obama Presidency, even as far back as Lin-Manuel Miranda performing a work-in-progress version of the show’s opening song, “Alexander Hamilton,” at a 2009 poetry event at the White House. However, one common criticism of the show is that its popularity made it exclusionary to the same Black and Brown audiences it intended to empower, as sold-out performances were packed with jubilant white audiences, something that one could argue mirrors aspects Obama’s Presidency.
So on this Inauguration Day, I ponder: what will be the defining art of Donald Trump’s Presidency? It was an era that inflated class and racial inequality, emboldened white supremacy, and inflamed protests against his administration’s abuses of power. Protests for Black Lives Matter and an increased national consciousness around the broadening wealth gap and late-capitalism’s effects may end of being Trump’s legacy, whether intentional or not.
With that, my early prediction for the defining piece of art of Trump’s presidency is Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 thriller, Parasite. While it didn’t enjoy the type of widespread popularity upon release as Forrest Gump did, the Korean film dominated the cultural conversation in a rare way. Blending its themes of class conflict and social and wealth inequality with a crackling tension, Parasite achieved the rare feat of being an audience-pleasing popcorn movie with layers and layers of subtext to analyze. The film’s vision of Korea reflected the situation in the United States eerily well, illustrating how pervasive the rot of capitalism had become around the world.
Essentially a story of the haves and the have-nots, Parasite galvanized national conversations around the effects of the immense wealth gap, something widening even further due to the policies of the Trump administration. Parasite went on to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Canne Film Festival, and rode a wave of goodwill all the way to becoming the first non-English language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, cementing America’s embrace of the film and its message.
As we get further away from Trump’s Presidency, our consideration of his legacy will change and adapt. While Parasite seems representative of the past four years right now, it may not always seem that way. Perception of history can change almost as fast as a Presidential term.