Feature

Emergency, Resistance, Futurity: Aesthetic Responses to Trumpism

Andrew Stefan Weiner

Late in the twentieth century, at a moment that now seems both impossibly distant and uncannily close—a moment when Donald Trump was merely a national embarrassment, not a global nightmare—Jean-François Lyotard compared the Holocaust to an earthquake so powerful as to destroy the very instruments meant to record it.1 While Trumpism and Trump bear only a limited resemblance to Nazism and Hitler, Lyotard’s analogy is nevertheless useful as a way to reframe the election as a kind of limit-event: a quasi-unforeseeable occurrence whose causes and consequences resist or exceed the concepts by which one tries to grasp them.

Commentators from across the ideological spectrum have lamented how many of Trump’s actions transgress long-established bipartisan limits by either ignoring or assaulting the codes governing typical political conduct. The fact that this compulsive norm-breaking has itself in many ways been normalized—Trump supporters tend to regard these transgressions as negligible, as “politics as usual,” or as entertainment—is one of the most disturbing developments of the last year, insofar as it speaks to the ignorance, apathy, or alienation of tens of millions of Americans, not to mention the widely shared, barely sublimated wish to destroy the institutions of liberal democracy.

That said, it is equally troubling (but less often noted) that Trump and Trumpism—the toxic mixture of interests, fantasies, and ideologies that bind together the president’s most fervent proponents—seem to have affected American politics at the level of its most fundamental relations to the sensible and the intelligible. It is not an exaggeration to say that the election altered people’s very ability to imagine or recognize what sort of events are possible, whether in electoral politics or in the public sphere more generally. Last year’s ubiquitous discussions of “post-election trauma” made it clear that countless people felt a sense of invasive injury or anxious disorientation, as if their innermost beliefs had somehow been harmed or falsified. Such responses indicate that the effects of the election are aesthetic in the most general, least art-specific sense, in that they concern the connections that link sensation with representation, recognition, imagination, and action.

The problem is not just that the events of the last year seem weirdly weightless and unreal, as if such things should be impossible; it’s also that unthinkable events happen every single day. Even though many of these incidents are laughable, their ceaseless accumulation exerts subtle, powerful, and malign effects on our senses and thoughts, which in turn structure our most fundamental feelings about ourselves and each other. Many of us have developed even more obsessive relationships with the phones that we carry with us everywhere: we lie awake anxiously ruminating after getting a news alert at 3:00 a.m.; we conduct impassioned Facebook debates from the toilet. Others rage, or go numb, or do their best to unplug. Most of us seem to suffer from the uncanny feeling of having been cast in a fourth-rate reality TV show.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Who will write the history of tears?), 2011. Archival pigment print, 32 x 50 in. Courtesy of the artist and Mary Boone Gallery, New York.

It is not just American society or politics that have been irreversibly damaged, but something as abstract as our relationships to time and to each other, even to reality itself (assuming that term means anything anymore). If the present often feels like too much to process, or even to acknowledge, the near-past now appears to exist on the far side of an unbridgeable gap. Emails from October, photographs from last summer’s vacation—these now look like artifacts of a different, pre-“post-truth” historical era. Much as recent memories now seem to have been retroactively contaminated, one struggles to anticipate a familiar, livable future. It is all but impossible to imagine the conditions under which this text might be read some months from now. Will the current regime manage to stay in power and beat back the metastasizing challenges to its legitimacy? If not, what sort of future exists for Trumpism without Trump? Most troublingly, what kinds of lasting or irreversible damage might yet be set in motion?

While it is still too soon to hazard any kind of guess how these changes will develop in the longer term, or even about six months from now, we are far enough into Trump’s presidency to begin to discern clear tendencies in the evolving relations between art, aesthetics, and politics. In venturing such an assessment, this essay proceeds from the hope that this kind of critical thinking might still be relevant in the near future, and that a concern for sustainability will outlast the current conjuncture, in which the very concept of collective survival seems threatened.

For countless people worldwide, the immediate aftermath of the election was marked by shock, revulsion, and intense and constant scrutiny. Despite all the complicated issues in play—including the demographic shifts and voter suppression efforts underlying Trump’s electoral college victory, the errors that caused Hillary Clinton’s epic collapse, the culpability of the mainstream media, and the impact of seemingly exogenous factors (Russian hacking and quite possibly collusion, fake news, social media bubbles, James Comey’s October surprise)—a small group of simple questions quickly became the most urgent: What the hell just happened? What comes next? And what can I/we possibly do? For people working in different sectors of the art world, these considerations were augmented by concerns about what, if anything, art and its institutions might be able to do under such conditions.

Although people answered these questions in any number of ways, one common response resembled triage, in that it sought to identify and address the gravest, most immediate threats posed by the incumbent regime. For those who made decisions according to something like a hierarchy of needs, matters pertaining to art and culture were generally preempted by concerns for the safety and rights of others: friends, colleagues, neighbors, strangers. It was almost instantaneously clear that the dangerous and injurious effects of the election were not being felt equally. Instead, they more or less tracked the highly uneven distribution of vulnerability and dispossession within the United States.

This imbalance is of course present in the art world, and it is especially acute in contemporary art institutions, many of which transfer massive amounts of cultural and financial capital while depending on different forms of unwaged or unsustainable labor. While condemnation of Trumpism has been virtually unanimous in this sphere (apart from a few high-profile instances of trolling), it has only seldom been recognized that many members of the self-designated “resistance” are effectively shielded by various kinds of privilege.2 The prevailing assumption is that Trump’s election was a universal trauma, but not everyone suffers from an increased risk of hate crimes or potential deportation or loss of necessary health care.

It is telling that some of the most incisive thinking about these discrepancies has come not from the likes of established art critics Peter Schjeldahl and Roberta Smith, but rather from women of color working largely outside mainstream institutions. In a trenchant text from early January 2017, the Brooklyn-based artist Chitra Ganesh emphasized the need to “align more intentionally with those who have had no choice but to stand up against white supremacy and xenophobia, institutional erasures, sexual violence, or strangling economic policies, beyond the United States as well as in our backyards.”3 Against the idea that such threats are somehow new or come solely from red states, Ganesh called attention to the ways in which they are manifested within and across the contemporary art world and urged a bolder confrontation with the realities of privilege and complicity.

Before Hannah Black penned her much-publicized open letter about the Whitney Biennial, she argued that liberal outrage about Trump’s supposed fascism concealed his essential continuities with prior presidents and with the constitutive links between slavery and the American state: “The U.S. [has been] a white supremacist state since its foundation… Capitalists have been eating us alive for a very long time.”4 As such analyses made clear, protest would be merely symbolic if it could not contest Trumpism along multiple axes: not just in its many contingent manifestations, but also at the level of its structural determinations.

We need to talk…, installation view, Petzel, New York, January 7–February 11, 2017. Courtesy of the artists and Petzel, New York.

Such distinctions are essential if one wishes to navigate the waves of anti-Trump activity that continue to sweep through the art world, in that they suggest criteria for critically evaluating tactics of resistance: Do such practices help us understand and oppose Trumpism in terms of its constitutive aesthetic and political conditions of possibility? Or are they ultimately more concerned with specific symptoms than with a more systematic pathology? Can they elucidate the ways in which art institutions have enabled or stand to profit from Trump’s ascendancy? Could they be used to develop scalable, easily replicated strategies for combatting Trumpist ideology, or for assisting those who now find themselves at increased risk?

When Richard Prince went on Twitter to annul his authorship of a 2014 painting of Ivanka Trump’s Instagram feed (which Ivanka had subsequently Instagrammed), the gesture was characterized as a rebuff to the First Daughter and her father.5 Insofar as Prince’s renunciation troubled basic assumptions about aesthetic value, cultural capital, and intellectual property, it was more interesting than any work he has produced in recent memory. As politics, however, it reeked of bad faith, recalling the psychoanalytic sense of disavowal as the denial of a potentially traumatic perception. Prince attempted to publicly purify himself and his brand, but he said little about the circumstances under which the original painting was commissioned. He also did not confront his art advisors or gallerists with questions about their dealings with the Trump family or call on other artists in Ivanka Trump’s collection—prominent names include Christopher Wool, Nate Lowman, and Dan Colen—to follow his lead in disavowing their works and returning the money she had paid for them.

Other responses from within the commercial art world exhibited fewer compromises but nevertheless ran up against similar constraints. One of the few blue-chip New York galleries to alter their programming after the election was Friedrich Petzel Gallery. The gallery hosted a group show in January called We need to talk…; the proceeds benefitted activist organizations chosen jointly by the artist and purchaser. Inviting a considerable amount of visitor participation—through hosting open conversations on relevant subjects and screening videos submitted through an open call—the exhibition broke with typical Chelsea protocol. Despite these efforts at topicality, however, the show struggled with the fact that few artists were able to respond quickly enough; much of the art in the show predated the election, some of it by decades. While some work came across as newly relevant—this was the case with lesser-known but searing text pieces by Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer—much of it was either weakly connected to the moment (flags, more flags) or reliant on bumper-sticker messaging and easy caricature. This ultimately kept the show from getting much beyond a well-intentioned but largely impotent sentiment of liberal urgency: Something must be done, but what?

Jenny Holzer, Inflammatory Essays (detail), 1979–82. Lithographs offset prints (12 prints), 10 x 10 in. (each). Courtesy of the artist.

In contrast, the most powerful and promising early initiatives refused institutionalized conventions and acted from a more expansive, transversal idea of what aesthetics might mean in this conjuncture and how that could matter. One crucial objective of such projects was to develop a much more trenchant analysis of the political economy of contemporary art. Working alongside fair housing activists, a group of artists in California scored an important early victory in December when they successfully petitioned the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, to remove Steven Mnuchin from its board. Mnuchin, now Secretary of the Treasury, had previously led OneWest Bank, which was notorious for aggressively pursuing unethical foreclosures in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis.6

One of the organizers of the Los Angeles-based group APAN (Artist Political Action Network), artist Andrea Fraser, is currently researching a book documenting other plutocratic influences on U.S. museums. One prominent example is Museum of Modern Art president Marie-Josée Kravis, whose financier husband donated lavishly to Trump’s inauguration fund.7 In a sign of how class disparities can nevertheless structure even the more progressive sectors of the art world, in February, activists opposing local gentrification picketed an APAN meeting at an art space in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. A tense debate about the art world’s relationship to gentrification has played out in the subsequent months. 8

A parallel project was developed in New York by the collective Occupy Museums, which collaborated with the Guerrilla Girls on a campaign targeting BlackRock CEO and MoMA trustee Larry Fink, who served as an adviser to the Trump transition.9 Building on momentum generated by the #J20 Art Strike, an effort to organize a coordinated demonstration of noncompliance through mass closures of art institutions (and another flashpoint for anti-elitist grievances), the collective also helped organize the antifascist Speak Out on Inauguration Day at the Whitney Museum. Drawing together an exemplary roster of speakers—artists alongside activists, curators, writers, and others working between these fields—the speak-out functioned not just as a kind of counter-inaugural event but also as an effort to jointly develop an alternative public sphere premised on active resistance.10 The event made it compellingly clear that such opposition would need to negotiate incommensurable differences while establishing sustainable forms of solidarity, and that the ambiguity and opacity of art might provide valuable resources for inventing new modes of ungovernability.

Occupy Museums and Guerrilla Girls call for Larry Fink’s removal from the Board of Trustees at Museum of Modern Art, February 17, 2017. Courtesy of Noah Fischer. Photo: Zaid Islam.

In the months since the inauguration, it has become painfully obvious that there was real reason to treat Trump’s election as a massive emergency. Working in conjunction with a Republican Congress, the administration has been able to steal a Supreme Court seat for the arch-reactionary justice Neil Gorsuch and to ram through the nominations of utterly unqualified ideologues to key cabinet positions. The Republican administration has initiated the unilateral rollback of important regulations concerning education, foreign policy, and environmental protections, the most egregious example being the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. Given the administration’s determination to overturn the Affordable Care Act, it remains quite possible that over 20 million Americans will lose health insurance; nonpartisan sources quoted in the Washington Post estimate that over 20,000 of them would die as a result.11 As of this writing, major government agencies are still so understaffed that some commentators have wondered whether the failure is actually part of a plan to realize Steve Bannon’s call for the “deconstruction [sic] of the administrative state.”

Yet Trump’s first months in office have also been ludicrous, a grotesque pageant of greed, fecklessness, idiocy, malice, pettiness, delusion, and ineptitude. Even though the president theoretically poses just as much or more danger than he did in January, the more he acts like a parody of his already self-parodic persona, the less people are able to take him seriously. Following a disastrous period of self-inflicted wounds in May, references to impeachment and Watergate became commonplace in the mainstream media.

Pamela Sneed at Speak Out on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017, Whitney Museum of American Art, N.Y. Organized by Occupy Museums and Education Department at the Whitney Museum. Courtesy of Noah Fischer. Photo: Noah Fischer

Whether or not Trump’s enablers manage to keep him in office, political observers give the administration little chance of realizing any of its most threatening objectives. People don’t speak so much any more about Trump as a fascist; it would seem that actual fascists command more respect, or are at least more skilled at being fascist. Although no one on the left is exactly feeling relieved—and it would be a huge mistake to discount the threats still posed by the administration—there is nevertheless a sense that at least some of the attention that has been so intently directed toward the White House can be focused on long-term strategies that could neutralize Trumpism, which now appears certain to outlast its namesake.

For those who think about this problem in terms of the politics of representation, perhaps the most important post-inauguration development has been the emergence of a broad-based and hotly contested set of debates about white supremacy in American culture and society. Although disagreements over what is now called “cultural appropriation” have a long, tortuous history, in recent years they have become ever more frequent, charged, and direct, in large part due to the ascendance of the Black Lives Matter movement. Whereas, until recently, terms like white supremacy, structural racism, and intersectionality were only used by critical race theorists and activists, they now appear regularly in more mainstream venues, like Artforum and The New Republic.

The controversy surrounding Dana Schutz’s painting in the recent Whitney Biennial—Open Casket (2016), which depicts the 14-year-old lynching victim Emmett Till—and Hannah Black’s aforementioned response highlighted the implications of these questions in the contemporary art world. An enormous amount of attention has already been devoted to this episode and its relation to Trumpian politics, as well as to larger questions about censorship and free speech.12 Most of this debate centered on questions about Black, Schutz, the Biennial’s curators, and the painting, displaying a strange aversion to thinking critically about how art institutions perpetuate (and in some sense are organized around) different forms of inequality, exclusion, and structural racism. It is hard not to regard the Schutz affair as a huge missed opportunity to engage the much more difficult and necessary process of confronting this subject.

Parker Bright protests in front of Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till at the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Courtesy of Parker Bright. Photo: Michael Bilsborough.

As with the analogous controversy that played out in 2016 around Kelley Walker’s exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis—in which Walker’s appropriations of photographs depicting police violence against black civil rights protesters were denounced as offensive, spurring demands for a boycott—the racism of the institution seemed to reside not so much in any particular curatorial decision but rather in its unwillingness to engage its critics swiftly and seriously.13 Instead of initiating a real reckoning with social and cultural injustice, these museums bumbled around for weeks in damage-control mode, generally acting as if they had something to hide. One encouraging sign that such defensive dynamics might be loosening their hold came in May, after members of the Dakota community protested the exhibition of Sam Durant’s Scaffold (2012) at the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The community claimed that the work disrespected the history of racist murders of their ancestors by the American state. Immediately after learning of these charges, Durant joined with Olga Viso, the Walker’s executive director, in publicly reaching out to Dakota representatives to negotiate a way forward; together they decided to remove the sculpture and let the Dakota dispose of it however they saw fit.

Despite initial indications that the situation might occasion another misguided “free speech” debate, there were substantial differences between the events at the Walker and those at the Whitney, starting with the fact that Durant has a record of addressing histories of racial violence in his practice. The most important difference is not that Durant acted “woke” or that he somehow “caved” to the complaints of a marginalized group but rather that he and the museum were willing to openly consider the fact that the most basic elements of the work in question are themselves inextricable from  the history the work meant to criticize. In this case, the problems are even more deep-seated than in Open Casket, since they concern not just the privilege or right to select a certain subject, or the power to determine its meaning, but rather the incommensurable differences between culturally specific ontologies of art.

One might ask whether Scaffold therefore somehow “succeeded” as a work of art, despite its original conception. But the essential question should be how this movement toward a more rigorously self-reflexive analysis might be extended and replicated elsewhere. The relatively unprecedented nature of the response to the Dakota complaints has foregrounded a crucial problem: namely, how it might be possible for white artists and historically white institutions to develop something like an immanent critique of white supremacy, and how such efforts could be best aligned with the sometimes divergent cultural politics of different anti-racist movements, especially among people of color.

However necessary and well-intentioned these efforts might be, they will likely amount to little unless they can effectively respond to any number of complicated demands. It remains to be seen how (or even whether) such work might be carried out without enabling essentialisms, reproducing certain kinds of privilege, or perpetuating a kind of “white savior complex.” Neither is it at all clear how resistance might be nurtured in the places where it is most needed: outside isolated enclaves of cultural and economic privilege, in the huge swaths of exurban and rural America whose dispossession and downward mobility have catalyzed emergent forms of toxic white nationalist politics, a phenomenon that includes but isn’t limited to the mediagenic tactics of the alt-right.

A related issue concerns the sort of burdens that art assumes when it is basically enlisted in the service of restorative justice. How can art serve such a purpose and still account for its constitutive limitations, if not its own tendencies toward purposelessness? Can this kind of cultural remediation advance independently of political and economic reform? Or might it somehow be acting to compensate for American society’s general failure to adopt these more significant types of change? And at what point do such radically democratic aspirations come into conflict with the fact that even ostensibly “populist” forms of contemporary art still tend to require highly exclusive levels of education and class privilege? The fact that such questions don’t lend themselves to simple or definitive responses suggests that they are the ones that most deserve our attention, and they are the ones that might yet harbor some generative potential at a moment when all that seems certain is further uncertainty.

Andrew Stefan Weiner is Assistant Professor of Art Theory and Criticism in the Department of Art and Art Professions at NYU–Steinhardt, and an editor of the journal ARTMargins.

Footnotes

  1. Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 56.
  2. For a critical discussion of the controversies surrounding the reactionary provocations of the London art space LD50, see Ana Teixeira Pinto, “Artwashing: NRx and the Alt-Right,” Texte zur Kunst 106 (June 2017), 162–70.
  3. Chitra Ganesh, “Unpresidented Times,” Artforum.com, January 11, 2017, https://www.artforum.com/slant/id=65829.
  4. Hannah Black, “New World Disorder,” Artforum.com, February 27, 2017, https://www.artforum.com/slant/section=slant#entry66897.
  5. See, for example, Randy Kennedy, “Richard Prince, Protesting Trump, Returns Art Payment,” The New York Times, January 12, 2017.
  6. See Matt Stromberg, “Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s Treasury Secretary Pick, Resigns from LA Museum Board,” Hyperallergic.com, December 7, 2016.
  7. See Dan Duray, “Andrea Fraser Tracks Down Museum Trustees’ Political Donations,” The Art Newspaper, June 7, 2017.
  8. One flashpoint was an open letter written by the artist Charles Gaines, which circulated on the APAN Listserv; a rebuttal of Gaines’s claims, along with a link to his original letter, can be found here: https://hyperallergic.com/382283/a-boyle-heights-alliance-challenges-charles-gaines-and-other-artists-for-ignoring-local-voices/.
  9. See, for example, Hrag Vartanian, “Protesters Demand MoMA Drop Trump Advisor from Its Board,” Hyperallergic.com, February 22, 2017.
  10. Full disclosure: I took part in this event in my capacity as one of the organizers of the activist group Sense of Emergency, and later wrote a critical text from the standpoint of a participant-observer. See Andrew Weiner, “A Showing of Solidarity on Inauguration Day,” Hyperallergic.com, January 30, 2017. For a list of participants, see http://whitney.org/Events/SpeakOut.
  11. See Philip Bump, “The Hard-To-Answer Question at the Core of the Health-Care Fight: How Many More People Might Die?”, The Washington Post, June 27, 2017.
  12. For one representative survey of this controversy, see Brian Boucher, “Social Media Erupts as the Art World Splits in Two Over Dana Schutz Controversy,” artnet.com, March 24, 2017.
  13. For an overview of the controversy, see Brian Boucher, “Artist’s Depiction of Police Brutality Sparks Boycott at St. Louis Museum,” artnet.com, September 23, 2016.
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