NOVEMBER 16, 2020
“I THINK IT’S going to make art great again,” a street artist told The Guardian, in an article published several days after Donald Trump’s inauguration, articulating a sentiment that had been spreading through the art world for months. Even before the 2016 presidential election, the art website Hyperallergic had published a piece — “Can Anti-Trump Artists Make Protest Art Great Again?” — which concluded that the Trump era was still “waiting for its ‘Guernica.’” Ten days after he was elected, though, Time magazine proclaimed that Trump’s election was already reshaping artists’ work. Around the same time, Katherine Brooks, an editor at the Huffington Post, penned a letter telling artists of all kinds to get to work: “To artists: Write plays. Paint, sculpt, perform. Write some more. Because we need you more than ever.”
These sentiments — both that art was essential and that it would flourish in this time of crisis — were not new, and in fact have been expressed periodically, including in the wake of George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004. But in 2016, the idea of art-as-protest took a particular hold on the art world because Trump’s election was so shocking to its mostly liberal members, and because protest itself was rejuvenated. Politically complacent women were suddenly knitting pussy hats and driving to Washington, DC, to march in the streets. Artists began organizing events and exhibitions that took Trump as a theme.
Four years on, it’s worth surveying the impact the Trump presidency has actually had on art. Has his presidency led to the predicted flourishing? Of course, that question is far too broad to be useful, so I will limit my inquiry to visual art that deals directly with Trump, art that seeks to critique and perhaps to protest the man himself. Despite the high hopes, I think a lot of this art has been quite bad. I use the loaded word “bad” intentionally, not as a moral judgment but in contrast to ideas about “greatness” that are endemic both to Trump’s image and to grandiose notions of art.
In 2016, Judith Bernstein, a feminist artist who was involved with the Guerrilla Girls in the 1980s, began painting fluorescent penises surrounded by American iconography: flags, eagles, dollar bills, the US Capitol building. She often gave her phallic symbols Trump’s trademark orange hair and included insults like “schlong face” in the background. Swastikas featured prominently, too. Bernstein’s work borrows directly from Trump’s language and symbols. The resulting works are bright, emphatic, explosive.
“I am showing Trump for what he is: a fool, a monster, a jester, a racist, a sexist. Donald Trump is a con artist, using the White House as his personal cash machine,” Bernstein said of her work. Yet “exposing” Trump in this way would seem to be something of a fool’s errand, since he shows himself quite nakedly to be what he is. In June, he retweeted a video of his supporters shouting, “White power!” and refused to apologize while liberal commentators expressed outrage and shock. But who was really surprised? Who can claim not to have known by this point that, to borrow Bernstein’s words, Trump is “a jester, a racist, a sexist”? Moreover, in borrowing his words and imagery, Bernstein engages in a form of exaggerated mimicry, which may be a common practice of political satire but which falls flat in the case of Trump, since he has already presented himself as an exaggerated version of our worst fears. The very register of Bernstein’s work — phrases like “schlong face,” alongside dicks and swatiskas — is clearly meant to evoke shock as the primary mode of response. But Trump himself has already mastered the art of shock-production as political theater, and thus the high drama of Bernstein’s imagery feels limited as art.
Elsewhere, another white woman activist-artist was taking a very different approach. Andrea Bowers began collecting and documenting protest signs she found at marches in the wake of Trump’s election, including the Women’s March. She turned their slogans into sculptures made of light fixtures, which hang in museums, galleries, and public spaces. “Don’t touch me,” reads one such sign in pink and blue. “Empowered WOMEN,” says another, in periwinkle. One reads, “STILL NASTY,” a reference to Trump’s comment that Hillary Clinton was a “nasty woman.” Bowers has also made use of historical protest imagery, including from the women’s suffrage movement.
“I love the poetics of activist slogans,” Bowers told The New York Times. Yet in decontextualizing these poetics, she functionally removes the protest from the signs and turns them into “Art.” In converting these slogans into artistic commodities, Bowers has evacuated any form of meaningful protest from the art: the signs are simply advertising slogans, invested with a new kind of commercial value. Notably, too, none of the slogans she has chosen call for any immediate or specific political action. When I saw a neon sign mounted on San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts that read, “Climate Change is Real,” my first thought was, And?
The line that runs through these two artists’ very different Trump-related works is a certain obviousness. I would define aesthetic obviousness as the experience of seeing or perceiving something expected, emotionally, narratively, or visually. The obvious is everywhere in popular culture: in detective novels, romantic comedies, jokes. It is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, we often gravitate toward particular genres because we know what to expect: a happy ending, a punch line, a solution to the mystery. But in art that seeks explicitly to critique or provoke — to protest — such obviousness is a problem. So why do I feel like I am encountering it more often these days?
After years of constant exposure to digital media, we have been saturated with shock. Shocking imagery and language have formed the background of our lives for more than two decades, which means that shock as a tool in political art has diminished in power. Susan Buck-Morss observed this in 1997 when she wrote, “The politics of perceiving stunning beauty — not as false harmony on the surface, but as a moment that shines through the disharmony of the world — may be more shocking to today’s viewer than the violent images that flood the media to excess.” But shock, which has remained a central feature of protest art across media, runs into the problem of obviousness when there seems, in our political culture, to be nothing but shock.
This issue is particularly relevant to Bernstein’s work, which assumes we will be stunned by the image of a penis superimposed over the Capitol Building and a waving American flag. Shock-mongering is perhaps the dominant mode of Trump-related art, ranging from an image of Trump’s face drawn in menstrual blood to many of the pieces in a recent online exhibition entitled “Fuck Trump.” In my view, this mode does little more than provoke an aesthetic experience of obviousness.
Partly, too, and especially in relation to Bowers’s work, the obvious is produced by the complicated relationship between protest art and commerce. Historically, protest artists — such as Emory Douglas, who served as the minister of culture for the Black Panther Party — have argued that art should use the tools of commerce for political ends. He wrote:
I would say that art is for the masses of Black people; we must bombard the masses with art. We cannot do this in an art gallery, because our people do not go to art galleries; we can’t afford to go to art galleries. […] We have to put our art all over the United States, wherever Black people are. If we’re talking about an art that serves our people, if we’re truly talking about an art that is in the interests of Black people, then we have to use, again, the structure of commercial art.
Douglas believed that billboards, posters, and magazines were all effective means for political art, and he employed them in some of his work — including an illustration in The Black Panther newspaper that featured an image of Gerald Ford, dangling like a puppet from strings controlled by major corporations. The Guerrilla Girls also relied on commercial structures, both for a means of dissemination and as a visual language, distributing their disruptive work via posters and fliers, and even, briefly, on the side of New York City buses. Provocative in the 1970s and ’80s, and effective in setting political agendas, these were some of the most successful works of activist art in recent American history.
But something like the inverse has been happening for decades: commercial structures are co-opting the language and imagery of protest. Institutions have embraced activist art — a development that artist Martha Rosler has described as “[t]he art world […] swell[ing] to encompass the avant-gardes, and their techniques of shock and transgression were absorbed as the production of the new. Anti-art became Art.” And corporations have caught on, too, absorbing the slogans and visual language of activism into advertising and branding. As a result, Bowers’s slogans read less like protest signs and more like Instagram ads. The total collapse of these categories has a flattening effect on protest art.
The best explicitly political art that has emerged during the Trump presidency has not been about Trump at all; rather, it has been about the impacts of his policies, the vast and wide-ranging devastation his administration has wrought. Still, I think it’s worth taking seriously the works that take on the direct, and difficult, project of critiquing the man himself. As Douglas’s image of Gerald Ford attests, there has been a long history of complicated, complicating art about presidents. Such art can unsettle, probe, and destabilize our conceptions of these powerful men.
Most art about Trump fails to do this, however. Perhaps this is because of our conception of him as a kind of aberration, a shock, a crisis, a rupture with what was normal before. Artists like Bernstein and Bowers have conceptualized Trump’s election as a “crisis,” one embodied in a particular man and to some degree finite in its boundaries. They are hardly alone in this assumption and are perhaps indicative of the broader liberal American electorate, for whom the crisis of Trump is often embodied in the man himself. By understanding his election in this way, they have painted him, sometimes literally, as a symbolic bogeyman. I do not see this as an effective way to conceive the political crisis in which we now find ourselves, which is in fact a number of interrelated and ongoing crises that predated Trump and will continue long after him — crises involving immigration, voter suppression, law enforcement violence, the restriction of reproductive rights, ecological collapse.
So, perhaps part of the problem was the clarion call to artists at the beginning of the Trump presidency, the idea that art was needed “now more than ever,” at a time starting on November 8, 2016, and ending whenever he left office. Yet, while the terminus of Trump’s presidency is now approaching, the end of the crises it emblematized are not.
Sophie Haigney is a writer and critic who lives in London. Her writing on art, technology, and books has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Nation, The Baffler, and other publications.