This is a guest post from Heather Saunders. Saunders is an independent researcher who is embarking on the study of art law.
I never expected Trump to bookend my tenure as an art museum library director in the United States. My intention had been to stay long-term, and I mused that I could wait him out. Alas, due to COVID-19 related workforce restructuring, I find myself back in Canada. Within the Art Libraries Society of North America Museum Division, others have also encountered job loss at the same level.
The day after interviewing in 2017, I witnessed a local man lose focus repeatedly while taking my restaurant order, his eyes darting to and from a suspended television in seeming disbelief during Trump’s inauguration ceremony. Fast forward to the recent past: my first day in years unmoored without a professional to-do list coincided with the breaking news that POTUS and FLOTUS tested positive for COVID-19. I hadn’t been on site at work earlier that week because of the proximity to the presidential debate, making the transition all the more surreal.
A few months before accepting the position, I initiated a discussion with a senior librarian in Canada about whether libraries should be neutral or participate in activism. I lobbied for the latter and she, the former. Later, as a guest in another country, I recognized idealism’s complications. When a work about the Women’s March I made with a fellow Canadian was exhibited at Brooklyn’s A.I.R. Gallery, I cropped an image on social media to remove Trump’s figure and be less rabble-rousing, wanting to safeguard my future green card. For the same reason, at the Detroit’s Women’s Convention organized by the Women’s March, I turned down opportunities for local organizing about issues like gerrymandering because of participants’ anti-Trump rhetoric. As I weighed self-preservation against collective needs, cognizant of the privilege that made me less affected than others by some of the organizers’ key issues, inner conflict ensued.
Lest it seem that I imagined the pressure to pick a side, I’ll elaborate. When I checked into my flight to relocate to the United States, an airline staff member asked jokingly if I was flying in the right direction. I was taken aback, since people from all walks of life pass through airports. The assumption of political alliance, from both the left and the right, continued unabated and usually without jest. Perhaps it is because I frequently pass for American as a white person. Some contentious political interactions were limited, like when I was an Uber passenger at the driver’s mercy. Others were teachable moments. I began deflecting presumptive and presumptuous political comments directed towards my peers individually by broadening the discussion. I did so by referencing substantive statements rebuking the Trump administation issued by organizations like ARLIS/NA and the American Library Association.
Now across the border in quarantine, I am surrounded by my sister’s built-in bookshelves featuring a sizable bibliophile’s collection. I gravitated toward Martin E. P. Seligman’s Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Life (1990, with later editions up to 2018). It promotes cognitive behavior therapy, an approach that was key to my confrontation of post-traumatic stress disorder after breaking my back in a near-fatal car accident. The author’s premise is that we can all (re)gain control of our circumstances by framing negative experiences as not permanent, personal, or precluding hope. By way of example, I have crafted this post so the first two paragraphs convey lack of agency for myself and others; the final two paragraphs imply the opposite; and the middle is in between. Here’s to positive momentum—may we all experience it!
Seligman’s seminal text has been a guidepost as I (like many others, certainly) monitored the election results hourly and weighed early calls against each other. Notably, the author devotes a section to politics in which he highlights America’s overwhelming historical tendency to elect the most optimistic candidate. With that parting thought, I wish my US colleagues all the best…
Image: Heather Saunders and Cassandra, The Power of Love Trumps the Love of Power, 2017, mixed media, 12” x 12”. © the artists.