Donald Trump’s degenerate lurch for the presidential ring to rule them all is, for any decent person, a terrifying threat to social and civic sanity. Not only does this malignant cultural tumor, and suckling plunderer of female genitalia—ably assisted by his hell-bound apprentice, the godless homophobe Mike Pence—aim to unzip the fabric of decency in which a culture must be clothed against the chill of hate, but he does so with a sickening appetite for racism, xenophobia and cinematic lies, surpassed only by his ghoulish surrogates, who like their Third Reich ringmaster spread out across the airwaves peddling their isolationist paranoia and diseased anti-vision.
This grotesque parade heralded by Trump’s sniffing misogyny, wickedness, and universal idiocy has coaxed out the vilest aspects in too many people and fomented a fetid national wave of murderous intent, hysterical fear-mongering, depravity, and iconoclastic destruction among the supporters who attend his rallies. It is alarming not because of how far it has come, but because of how far it could yet go.
So where are the artists?
Historically, at the beginning of ominous watersheds that went on to drown entire nations, or during totalitarian governance, it was artists who were among the first to raise the alarm, resist, and even be persecuted. It was the American Artists Congress of the late thirties that sought to bring creative minded people together in the fight against fascism; Picasso’s Guernica completed just over two months after the 1937 bombing of that town during the Spanish Civil War, is one of the most influential examples of anti-war art; Avant Garde artists in the Soviet Union were punished for the 1974 “Bulldozer Exhibition” of non-conformist art near Moscow, which was broken up by authorities on the order of the KGB as the artists were beaten and arrested. One of the organizing artists, Oscar Rabin, dramatically clung to the blade of a bulldozer as the exhibition on a vacant lot was destroyed; in the United States, artists associated with Gran Fury and ACT UP marshaled to create the visual vernacular and graphic iconography of a decimated generation during the 1980s fight against AIDS, societal ignorance, and the genocide perpetrated against the gay community by the Reagan administration; and the Russian group Voina (war) has, since the mid-2000s executed some breathtakingly ambitious projects and protests aimed at the religious and authoritarian regimes overseen by the mass-murdering peanut Vladimir Putin.
Pussy Riot performing at Lobnoye Mesto on Red Square in Moscow. Photo: Denis Bochkarev, Via Wikimedia Commons
What was grasped in these instances is that the privilege of being an artist comes with responsibility that is greater than self-interest and careerism. That sometimes a threat is so great or destructive that it must be met with opposing force through the means at hand, and that there are moments dangerous enough to require the temporary laying aside of one’s own ambitions for the wider good. There is a reason the West doesn’t have a Pussy Riot, an Owen Maseko, or an Ai Wei Wei—namely, we are fortunate not to live under dictatorial autocracies—but that doesn’t mean that those elements don’t exist here, or that they cannot be stoked from below the surface, as they are being now.
To be sure there are still major inequalities between different parts of the US. The Houston-based artist Tony Sonnenberg has commented that in Texas there are still social and political battles to be won that gay artists are confronted with more visibly because of a state government and religious zealotry set hard against their rights and lifestyle. It is an artist’s opponent then who makes certain art displayed there controversial and relevant—work that might be considered redundant in New York or California. But generally, Western artists, as tough as it might be to survive and thrive, have it too easy comparatively, which is why we see such a slothful lack of response to Trump’s nihilism.
For many artists political art is a non-starter. It is to be avoided even more than that saccharine albatross “sentimentality” (a vital, unfairly maligned term) for fear of being seen as crassly didactic, preaching, naive, angry, partisan, hectoring, or worst of all, unfashionable: the antithesis of the sophisticated, erudite aesthetes they think they are supposed to be. It might damage a hard-built reputation, interrupt a coherent and well-received body of work, or confuse one’s audience. It’s as though artists think it distasteful or sullying to comment. Rather, the art world meekly uncouples from current events, leaving protests and questioning to Code Pink, Black Lives Matter, the media, or the Never Trump movement. Such selfish adherence to fearful disinterest and civic disregard is not a clever career move; it is an atrocious betrayal of basic artistic principles, for it is the responsibility and job of art professionals to speak up, loudly, effectively and at least ostensibly altruistically, in their capacity as insightful citizens as well as cultural laborers.
Brian Andrew Whitley, The Legacy Stone Project (The Donald Trump Tombstone).
Via Christopher Stout Gallery New York on Facebook. Photo: Ventiko
A few politically-minded projects and endeavors do tangle with current events, but like the sapless deposits in the clickbait-titled, Why I Want to Fuck Donald Trump, many of these efforts are juvenile and politically toothless, highlighting rather than compensating for a woeful deficit. Brian Andrew Whiteley’s The Legacy Stone Project (The Donald Trump Tombstone) was intended to “get Mr. Trump to understand what type of legacy he’s leaving behind.” But this lofty aim is beyond such an underwhelming work. While a headstone might be literally groundbreaking, as a response to one of politics’ most reprehensible characters, it is a gravely deficient cliché.
While these artists should be commended for at least trying, as so many have not, such glib trifles mostly undermine their own message and distract from the searing issues fueling Trump’s campaign. Employing predictable amendments to the candidate’s words, puerile insults, expletives, and facile imagery concerning absurdity or mirth over Trump’s appearance or derangement, only diminishes their impact. None of the darker elements in the presidential race are humorous or harmless, and much related art does not often constitute serious, coordinated, or compelling commentary.
Illma Gore’s widely circulated painting of Donald Trump
A clever and ambitious exception is t.Rutt group’s T.RUMP Bus, which is Trump’s former Iowa campaign bus, purchased from Craigslist and retooled as an anti-Trump vehicle that travels the country refuting the candidates heinous assertions (and no doubt duping a few Trumpers). And while Illma Gore’s painting of Trump with a small penis is in the vein of most tedious Trump art, the response is interesting. She is admirably standing up to physical and legal threats she has received since the work became widely circulated, speaking as much to the paper-thin egos of Trump supporters as the potency of the work. A further example of wit and incisiveness might have been produced by an artist but wasn’t: The Nuisance Committee’s Arabic-language billboard, installed on an interstate in Dearborn, Michigan, effectively skewers Trump’s demonizing rhetoric.
Of better-known artists, Spencer Tunick’s cadaver of a one-liner career was given final CPR at the Republican Convention in Cleveland with the anesthetizing event of 100 women posing nude in public, but what other famous artists are utilizing their power? Could a powerful, concerted effort by MoMA, the Whitney, or the Guggenheim—with all the resources at their disposal—ignite a cultural initiative? Where is the press hound Klaus Biesenbach, and his celebrity friends, when they are needed?
t.Rutt's Trump Wall on the U.S./Mexico border in Jacumba, CA. A bill was sent to the President of Mexico. Photo via t.Rutt
Lesser-known artists could also have made a difference by organizing at, the grassroots—where do you think Trump’s campaign draws its energy? But no, where there is education, privilege or relative wealth, there is no will. Artists and galleries are too occupied with promoting redundant retrospectives, pointless exhibitions, insider parties, self-congratulatory selfies, art fair attendance, and their own careers, to see how damaging is the abandonment of their civic duty, and how impotent it has rendered their voices. This is the putrid, self-inflicted irrelevance of the art world writ large, illuminated by its sycophantic, self-obsessed acolytes, strait-jacketed into their need for constant, feed-driven attention. As a colleague lamented recently, it is only the art world that thinks the art world matters.
Trump’s train seems to be careening off the rails, and the likelihood is that it will burn on its own pyre, but his followers are too dazed to realize the wreck they have boarded. So even if he loses, what he has unleashed has already damaged society, and America abroad.
In the future, there may be an even more pungent movement that rises, that is more adept at exploiting the ravings of morons, and that doesn’t self-destruct. It is to be hoped that artists, galleries, and museums will be vanguards for such extremist weeds. If not, their docility will be partially responsible for the suffocation that follows.
As this political season draws to a close, perhaps it would be reflective for art world influencers to regard how powerful their contributions could have been had they shown less cowardice, how art has contributed to turning tides, and how effective it can be as a needle to ballooning intolerance. Artists often grouse about how tough it is to succeed in their field, but during this election year, in terms of disgracing a central tenet of what their purpose is, and in the grievous dereliction of their social duty, contemporary artists in America have succeeded spectacularly.
Darren Jones is a Scottish, US-based critic and artist. His new book, with David Carrier, The Contemporary Art Gallery: Display, Power and Privilege, is available now.
(Image at top: t.Rutt's T.RUMP bus. Photo via t.Rutt)