Trump v the art world: from a gold toilet to his latest culture war

The state department has yet to select an artist for next year’s Venice biennale – the latest sign of the Trump administration’s toxic relationship with the arts

Last February, Fox News commentator Sean Hannity challenged his detractors to criticise a portrait ofDonald Trump painted by the arch-conservative artist Jon McNaughton. “The ‘left,’” Hannity wrote on Twitter, “loves art, and especially taxpayer funded art that is ‘provocative.’” He wanted to see if that love of art would extend to McNaughton’s portrait, in which a characteristically navy-suited Trump, bearing a presumably unintentional resemblance to Newt Gingrich, clutches a tattered American flag as he stands in the middle of a stadium full of football fans. The piece is titled Respect the Flag, invoking protests against racial injustice that several NFL players have staged during the national anthem.

Hannity’s willingness to cede “art” to the “left” was a natural extension of the culture wars waged by the president, which have turned the most American social phenomena – football, TV sitcoms, ESPN and even department stores – into partisan battlegrounds. Lost, however, in the whirlpool of clamour and chaos that is the Trump administration, is the president and his party’s indifference toward the arts – both as a publicly funded entity and a platform for American values.

Jon McNaughton on his Trump painting You Are Not Forgotten – watch on YouTube

Last week, Artsy reported that the US Department of State has yet to select an American artist to represent the country at the 2019 Venice Biennale, which opens in May. Typically, countries announce their representatives at least a year in advance so the artists have time to make new work for what is widely considered the world’s pre-eminent international art exhibition. There is something particularly germane about this year’s theme, too: titled May You Live in Interesting Times, the exhibition will include “artworks that reflect upon precarious aspects of existence today, including different threats to key traditions, institutions and relationships of the postwar order”, curator Ralph Rugoff explained.

Past US selections, including Mark Bradford, Joan Jonas and Sarah Sze, were announced at least a full year before the biennale. Now, with that deadline passed, state department staffers and art cognoscenti suspect an explicitly pro-Trump artist – like McNaughton, or maybe Scott LoBaido, the self-titled “patriot artist” from Staten Island best known for his 16ft starred-and-striped T statue – will make the grade. Some, including Artsy reporter Nate Freeman, wonder if anyone will be selected at all, in keeping with a president whose shown a philistine disregard for the arts and international engagement.

Guiliani tried to ban … Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary
Guiliani tried to ban … Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary
Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

“Trump seems utterly confused in even defining the word culture,” says Virginia Shore, former chief curator of the state department’s Art in Embassies programme, which since 1963 has commissioned US art for foreign embassies and consulates as a means of cross-cultural diplomacy. “I wish the president would spend time in a museum or gallery and learn the true meaning of culture.” For a man who’s lived most of his life in New York City, Trump has not been especially involved in its abundant arts scene. On Wagner’s Ring Cycle he said: “Never again.” On Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, which then mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to ban: “Absolutely gross, degenerate stuff.” Even the legitimacy of Trump’s Renoir was debunked when the Art Institute of Chicago said the original hangs in its gallery.

The notion that the US delegate for what is known as the “Olympics of art” would be contingent on their allegiance to the president is, to many, in diametric opposition to the spirit of the biennale, which serves as a kind of visual expression of a country’s values, a platform for its “best and brightest,” as Christopher Bedford says. Bedford, who curated Bradford’s exhibit at the 2017 biennale, thought of “liberty, equity and justice for all” as he championed Bradford’s submission. Trump, on the other hand, has made no secret of his aversion to government-funded arts, “liberal Hollywood” and, by extension, the mostly anti-Trump arts community.

That community, as it is wont to do in moments of political unrest, has responded in kind. There was Barbara Kruger’s 2016 cover of New York magazine, in which the word “loser” – a favourite epithet of the president – graces a particularly unflattering close-up photo of him. Other highlights include Judith Bernstein’s Money Shot – Blue Balls, in which Trump appears beside phallic imagery and the word “Trumpenschlong,” and Awol Erizku’s series Make America Great Again, in which the emblem of revolutionary black power group the Black Panthers is printed on top of icons including the US flag. By August of Trump’s first year in office, all 16 artists, authors and architects on the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities resigned in opposition to Trump’s equivocations after the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville. A White House spokeswoman responded that the president planned to disband the committee anyway.

It works … Maurizio Cattelan’s sculpture America, which the Guggenheim offered to the White House instead of a Van Gogh.
It works … Maurizio Cattelan’s sculpture America, which the Guggenheim offered to the White House instead of a Van Gogh. Photograph: Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters

When the White House requested a Van Gogh painting from the Guggenheim for the president’s living quarters, the museum rebuffed them and offered a solid 18-carat-gold toilet by the artist Maurizio Cattelan instead. And Trump, in his 2018 and 2019 budget plans, proposed eliminating funding the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), making him the first president to publicly suggest doing so since the agencies were established in 1965. Ultimately, Congress would pass a spending bill that saw a modest $3m funding increase for both endowments.

Barbara Kruger’s 2016 cover of Donald Trump for New York magazine.
Barbara Kruger’s 2016 cover of Donald Trump for New York magazine. Photograph: Mark Peterson/Redux

While the Trump presidency may mark an escalation in tensions between the art world and the federal government, it is hardly the first such bust-up. Even though the NEA and NEH make up about one tenth of 1% of the annual federal budget, efforts to siphon those funds away from the arts have ebbed and flowed since the 1980s.

Ronald Reagan, on taking office in 1981, planned to kill the former endowment altogether but was inhibited when a special task force lobbied him on the agency’s behalf. A decade later, in response to a scathing Time magazine article by art critic Robert Hughes, in which he called rightwing attempts to decimate the NEA “cultural defoliation”, former speaker of the house Newt Gingrich slammed the NEA, NEH and Corporation for Public Broadcasting as pet programmes, not sacred cows. Some government subsidised artworks, Gingrich wrote, “are clearly designed to undermine our civilization”, a reference to Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a 1987 photograph, funded with NEA money, depicting a 13-inch plastic crucifix dunked in urine.

Andres Serrano in 1997 in front of his work Piss Christ after it was vandalised.
Andres Serrano in 1997 in front of his work Piss Christ after it was vandalised. Photograph: News Ltd/AFP/Getty Images

The image is often invoked as a political cudgel in the culture wars, understood by hardline conservatives as proof of a need for the separation of art and state. In a 2017 polemic against taxpayer-funded art, it took the Pulitzer-winning conservative journalist George Will all of two sentences to refer to Piss Christ as “rubbish”. And 20 years earlier, conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation inveighed against the NEA “welfare for cultural elitists” tainted by “a radical virus of multiculturalism”, a charge that reads today as a dog-whistle to the Americans who helped elect Trump. That the agency funds art therapy for military personnel – as well as projects in every congressional district in the country – many of which are community based and would cease to function without NEA funding – is artfully omitted from arguments against its existence.

“There is a perception among those who are perhaps somewhat right-leaning that the art world is such a monetized sphere that it could fund itself privately rather than being, in any sense, state-supported,” says Bedford, now director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. But art, he says, “is as vital and indispensable as mental health care, health care, or education. As such, there should be a government investment in providing not only advocacy for the arts but access for all.”

No shows? The American pavilion at the Venice Biennale, before the 2017 edition kicked off.
No shows? The American pavilion at the Venice Biennale, before the 2017 edition kicked off. Photograph: Alamy

Trump, though, is governed by political expedience. And as a result, he has successfully managed to sow discord where it benefits him – and angers his base – most: national anthem protests; transgender bathrooms and military service; Roseanne; Nordstrom pulling his daughter’s clothing line; safe spaces and trigger warnings … the list of petty grievances weaponised as electoral ammo goes on.

It’s foreseeable, then, that the Venice Biennale, funded in part by the state department, becomes another front in the culture wars, giving the president a chance to stick it to a community his backers consider frivolous and highbrow. Perhaps more likely, though, is continued disengagement. Eighteen months in, the administration has yet to award any national medals of arts or humanities, a White House tradition that dates back to the 1980s. It has, however, awarded medals for military service and law enforcement, a pattern that suggests Trump adheres to presidential orthodoxy only if it shores up his base.

By Trump’s own design, and Hannity’s account, art is just another wedge between that base and the left, a sensibility that can be used to convince groups of Americans they’re irrevocably different from one another. Hannity’s tweet was eventually turned into a popular meme that, using images of Jeff Goldblum as a centaur or a pregnant SpongeBob, mocked the idea of art as a partisan activity. But in a country as immersed in cultural strife as it was during the height of Reagan-era culture wars, it may well become one. And an event as distinguished as the Venice Biennale may not be spared.


Jake Nevins

The GuardianTramp

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