The avant-garde lived in the pursuit of ideals: the artist must turn the world upside down; he must be radical, ignore borders, and embarrass the present. Many artists also like to see themselves even today as avant-garde. However, what happens when the man in the Oval Office implements similar strategies?
The US-President Donald Trump allows for no one to classify him other than himself, much like, to our dismay, many of the 20th-c. avant-gardists. His strategy in the fight against the establishment is provocation. He acts unrestrained, while the existing obligations are demolished and made simply flat. The New York Times called Trump a surrealist. According to the paper, until Trump, no artist “[s]ince Salvador Dali… has decided to mix up reality and hallucination in that way.” The word of 2016, ascertained by the American encyclopaedia publishing company of Merriam-Webster, was – surreal. No other word was looked up in the dictionary more often than “surreal” in 2016. The adjective reached its high point in November – the month Trump won the election.
How Should Artists Express Their Opposition?
Now he is in the office, and the art world, in the face of the Apocalypse, has politicized itself: some lay down work, others go out onto the streets, angry, and protest. At the moment, it seems that only the “right now” rules the art industry. In Great Britain, about 200 artists, including Douglas Gordon, Sophie Calle, and Hito Steyerl, are contributing to the project Hands off our revolution, which organizes exhibitions denouncing the current wave of extreme-right populism taking hold in America and parts of Europe. Richard Prince revoked his authorship of a work purchased by Ivanka Trump, giving her the money for the piece back. The MoMA, located only a few meters away from the Trump Tower in New York, reacted against the travel-ban by showing works of Muslim artists. The Davis Museum in Wellesley College in the federal state of Massachusetts covered 120 works that were either created or donated by immigrants, thus revealing what the museum would look like without the contributions of immigrants. Although these actions raise problems of their own, the discourse has begun, which is more than necessary. Moreover, besides the nonsense Trump has pulled off until now, he has announced plans to cut the cultural budget significantly.
The situation is serious and the art world sees itself responsible to do something about it. However, how should artists express their opposition?
When Trump won the election, the New Yorker Jonathan Horowitz opened an Instagram account Daily Trumpet (@dailytrumpet). There, the 51-year-old posts a work a day by different artists criticising Trump. For example, the US-president dancing with Putin, a connection to the film La la land, a paint tube of Trump’s orange body colour, or Trump’s grimacing mug with two eye slits but no eyes. In his work, Horowitz tries to do nothing less than change the world with subtle irony. The politics of the USA was always his subject. The 8th of November guaranteed: There will be enough “inspiration” in the future. In the New York Gallery Petzel he showed within the exhibition We need to talk … the thick bottom Trumps which plays golf, while the world sets.
Trump, the man who lived in a golden penthouse until he moved to the White House, was elected by the excluded and less privileged silent majority of America. Those who reality TV shows mocked and stereotyped – and who, apparently, self-identified with the real-estate magnate, multi-billionaire Trump. The posters by the street artist and illustrator from the US-skateboard scene, Shepard Fairey, are directed at this irony. The 47-year-old drafted a series of posters against Trump’s nationalist politics, which uses mortification and fear as a breeding ground for its support base. Fairey’s message: We, the people, are greater than fear.
Launched on the 17th of March, the Whitney Biennial in New York makes it clear that American art has rediscovered its political anger. Donald Trump is attacked several times directly: Fuck this racist asshole shows photographic works of graffiti. At the request of an American artist Annette Lemieux, her installation Left Right Left Right, which shows outstretched fists on posters, was turned into protest. A glance at the artists list of the Biennial also shows that the art elite did not stick to their usual bubble. More than half of the participants are non-white and almost half of them are women. They talk about poverty, exclusion and racism.
Paris is a town in Germany; global warming is an invention of the Chinese; the USA would be better off if people from predominantly Muslim countries were not allowed to enter the country — Trump’s twitter account is full of alternative facts. In the background, his adviser and lying specialist, Kellyanne Conway, was the last to spit out lies, speaking about a massacre that never occurred. In response to the rampant falsification of facts, the New York performance artist Ryan McNamara has provided for the Daily Trumpet an alternative portrait of Conway, including soft-focus lenses, filters and “Barbie charm”.
Resistance is Important
But what does this bring? – you could ask yourself now. Nothing has helped in the last year: no satire, no calls from artists, musicians, actors, no jokes about Trump’s hair. The orange, face-painted clown, to our horror, smiled diabolically into the camera on the 8th of November, and, since then, the world has not stopped googling the word “surreal”. Meanwhile, artists continue to produce works in protest, but not always the works of the best quality. In criticizing Trump, the vain art industry is sometimes more concerned with asserting itself rather than making real progress. In any case, the resistance is important because it marks the beginning of a discourse. So, if the president is a conceptual artist himself, for art to be political, it might possibly need to adopt different strategies to bring the world back into equilibrium or, at least, keep a madman from making it worse.