Where Your Eyes Don’t Go: Art in the Age of Trump

Visual Arts Features
Where Your Eyes Don’t Go: Art in the Age of Trump

”…the Devil whispered behind the leaves: ‘It’s pretty, but is it Art?’”
­- Kipling

A specter is haunting politics, the specter of modern art. If that isn’t the most contrived sentence I’ve ever written, I will rapidly eat the Reichstag, ministers and all. But it’s true nonetheless. In the last several years, modern art has become interwoven with political culture in significant ways. The case of the Trump family, and their opposite number, the Podestas, illustrate the creative conundrum perfectly.


Art has always been political, because art is part of the culture. Culture is based on shared values, and those are the result of group decisions. Group decision-making is the definition of politics.

Additionally, because patrons are important for artists, art has always commented on wealth or influence. Whether praising it, or critiquing it, art is inherently concerned with power. At its best, this includes patrons like the Medicis of Florence backing the works of the Renaissance giants. In our own era, this usually takes the form of the public funding creative work through direct purchase. When we buy a ticket to a Scorsese movie, we don’t think of ourselves as playing the role of a Rockefeller funding a filmmaker, but in effect, that’s what we’re doing. Bernini had Pope Urban VIII as his patron; The Pixies had the American consumer.

What happens on the private level also happens on the public level too. The NEA backed Arthur Miller and the CIA supported Abstract Expressionist art in the Fifties and Sixties. Dreary Mao encouraged social realism, featuring smiling peasants who were definitely not starving to death in the countryside. Every kind of regime, from the profoundly zany to the super-bougie, have funded women and men in turtlenecks since the dawn of time.

Strictly speaking, there is no regime which is anti-art. They may not like all art equally; they may encourage songs and hate pictures; they may support art which is thoughtless, propagandistic, derivative, or cringeworthy, but they still lend it their blessing. Because the force of numbers is always on the side of the public, governments rule through opinion. Therefore, crafting and shaping opinion is of the greatest importance to presidents and princes, and one way that’s done is through creative work.

However, in recent years, a strange interaction between art and politics has sprung up. They echo and reflect each other in very strange ways, ways which are not understood by the general public.

Nowhere is power and influence so concentrated as in New York City, and, unsurprisingly, the world of art resides there as well. It would be interesting to draw a map of the creative ley lines running between Manhattan, home of private art grants, and Washington, D.C., home of government art grants. Indeed, it is within these two cities that our story lies.


Anyone surprised at the Trump family’s ties to the art world does not know New York very well. Being influential in that famous city means bringing your life into the orbit of creatives. It would be more unusual not to be part of the scene; it would be like living in Miami and never interfacing with the beach, or dwelling in the depths of Silicon Valley without reading Malcolm Gladwell. Consider Ivanka Trump’s Instagram feed (approximately two million followers). It’s filled with images of her apartment. Meaning lots of pictures of her art collection. She’s a known patron of the city’s creative set.

Where does this leave artists? Hoping that Ivanka Trump can lend a sympathetic ear.

As ArtNet’s Sarah Cascone reports:

The subject of the “Dear Ivanka” protest movement is an avid social media user, and shots of the apartment she shares with husband, Jared Kushner, have recently emerged on Instagram and elsewhere. These images reveal a home filled with contemporary art: she counts Cy Twombly, Wade Guyton, and Joe Bradley among her favorite artists, and she told Artsy that her rules for collecting are that “we don’t buy art that we don’t love and we only buy something if we BOTH love it and want to live with it.”

ArtForum recently published an open letter to Ms. Trump, suggesting artists and the First Daughter could be friends, if only it wasn’t for the problem of the President-Elect. Anna Heyward, in the New Yorker, talked to one of the founders of the protest, a curator, Alison Gingeras:

“She frequents the art world, what’s sometimes called ‘the New York liberal bubble,’” Gingeras told me. “So we already know we can speak with her, and we want to appeal to her personal stakes.”

The Orangeman looms large in the collective creative imagination. In another story, titled “How Donald Trump Has Hijacked Art,” another ArtNet writer, Christian Viveros-Faune, mourned “this disorienting Trump-is-everywhere effect: art has been hijacked, along with the rest of the culture, by The Art of the Deal.”

Cascone’s report quotes Alex Da Corte (a Philadelphia artist—Ivanka owns his work) as saying “Please get my work off of your walls … I am embarrassed to be seen with you.” Other notable names (Winograd, Ostrowski, Israel, Baldessari) serve as crucial pillars in the First Daughter-elect’s system of interior design. As James Tarmy reports in Bloomberg, “for the many people who were happy to sell to Trump when she was a mere socialite and businesswoman, her newfound political profile has proved a powerful catalyst.” Da Corte’s understandable discontent was manifested in an actual, real-world protest, during which, according to the New York Times,

More than 150 artists, curators and gallery workers turned out Monday night to march in front of a Downtown Manhattan building where Ivanka Trump, the future first daughter, has an apartment and is believed to keep some pieces of a notable contemporary collection. … [The artist Jonathan] Horowitz, whose work sometimes addresses electoral politics, said the idea of directing the protest and messages to Ms. Trump came because she has become known in the art world as a progressive figure and as someone who seems to care much more about culture than her father does. “I don’t think we have any real illusions that she’s going to become a champion for any of the things we care about, or try to stop the things we fear are going to happen,” Mr. Horowitz said. “But it’s a way to start something, a first action of what we hope is going to become a much bigger movement.”

All of this is understandable, even predictable: the necessary, healthy backlash by a progressive cultural bloc against the likelihood of a reactionary Presidency. There have been many such protests.

The atypical aspect which should raise the old eyebrows is that this particular protest is unusually close to home. Lots of demonstrations happen between people who are strangers. But Ivanka and the protesters are part of the same world. The Dear Ivanka march got a lot of coverage, but I suspect the protesters would have been just as happy if only Ivanka Herself had noticed. Consider: the demonstration happened in New York. The participants were a coterie of people who had indirect influence on the upcoming First Family. As a protest, it’s noteworthy, albeit unremarkable. As a statement of what it means to be an artist in this country, it is deeply interesting. Remember the tone the Hamilton cast took with Mike Pence:

“There’s nothing to boo, ladies and gentlemen. There’s nothing to boo. We’re all here sharing a story of love. We have a message for you, sir, we hope that you will hear us out. … Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us here at Hamilton: An American Musical. We really do. We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us: our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.”

To be a creative person of any kind—whether you’re a writer, or an artist, or an artist, or a musician, or a sculptor—you have to live a split life. To persevere in the long upwards climb of creative life requires a state of jolly contempt for the real risks involved in being an artist. To paraphrase Louis C.K.: Who does that? Who decides to become a comedian for a living? If artists were rational, calculation-weighing people, they would never have taken the plunge. Creativity requires selective denial. At the same time, nobody can succeed without keeping a keen eye on the audience; you genuinely have to know what people will like.

Being creative means caring, and simultaneously not caring, what people think. It means having excellent judgment, and being able to voluntarily turn it off. Of course the people protesting outside of Ivanka’s apartment have a complicated relationship with her, and of course the cast of Hamilton are being polite and provocative at the same time. Art-ing means living double.

What makes this fable about modern art truly unusual is that there is a Democratic equivalent to the Ivanka story. It involves the Podestas, a now-famous family of consultants who have been professionally wedded to the Clintons since the Nineties. The Podestas, as it turns out, are devotees of modern art. Performance art, in particular.


Marina Abramovic is a performance artist—the performance artist, the godmother of the form. She’s been putting on shows for years, including a long-running piece in New York where she sat across a table from audience members and stared back at them. When the Podesta messages were hacked, a curious exchange was discovered. Per Benjamin Lee, in The Guardian:

In a leaked email between Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, and his brother Tony Podesta, an invitation from Abramovic is forwarded. It reads: “I am so looking forward to the Spirit Cooking dinner at my place. Do you think you will be able to let me know if your brother is joining?” The act of spirit cooking involves Abramovic using pig’s blood as a way of connecting with the spiritual world, to cook up thoughts rather than food. A video of the practice shows her writing various statements with the blood, such as “with a sharp knife cut deeply into your middle finger eat the pain.”

If you’ve ever hung out with people getting their Master of Fine Arts, this is unsurprising. What Abramovic is suggesting is a fairly tame performance of aesthetic dinner-room magic. But if you’re Alex Jones of Infowars fame, you gaze into this command performance and see the flames of hell.

Paul Joseph Watson, writing for Infowars:

In what is undoubtedly the most bizarre Wikileaks revelation to date, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta was invited to a “spirit cooking dinner” by performance artist Marina Abramovic, to take part in an occult ritual founded by Satanist Aleister Crowley.

Naturally, this fed into long-running rumors on the conspiracy theory right about how the Clinton circle in Washington were involved in a sex trafficking. Pizzagate sprang from such seeds, and we know how that turned out.

What unites these two unlikely events—the bizarre insertion of the Trump family wealth into the art world, and John Podesta’s spirit cooking—is that each, in their own way, comment on the unique position occupied by creatives in Trump’s America. By necessity, art will always be allied to the status quo and persons in power, since art has never paid well. On the other hand, by nature, artists rebel from the Way Things Are: it’s in the DNA of creative persons.

This sounds like the most obvious argument in the world, but it needs to be repeated. We don’t think about how creative people interact with our culture, and this explains why so much of what we call art gives us ambiguous feelings. When conservatives decry art for being too liberal, are they making the argument that art has to reflect the balance of the nation? Doesn’t that go against the impulse of art—an impulse which is idiosyncratic and non-rational to begin with?

This is one of the many reasons why Meryl Streep’s reaction to Donald Trump got such a reaction: artists are, and are not, part of the ruling class. They do, and do not, have moral authority. They have, and do not have, power. Such contradictions are compiled easily, and could riddle the Sphinx away if stared into too long.

Some artists, quite reasonably, say they have no duty to the public, but to their own muse. And yet to respond and deal with politics in one’s work means one is, in fact, engaged in a duty to the public. If it is nothing else, art is a reaction to context. And so, even if we believe in the theory of individual, atomistic genius with all of our heart, we come back around to the reality that art is, and always will be, a plug-and-play phenomenon. Artists are fixed forever in the firmament of their culture. You don’t get to opt out.

There is a deeper connection here, I think, besides the obvious link between Trump and Podesta, art and influence. We live in a time when much of what passes for politics is performance. Politicians give speeches calling for change and do nothing. Audiences engage in political consumption, instead of political action. Social media offer us the power to promulgate our opinions without the burden of doing the heavy lifting. In short, ours is a culture which conceives of politics as a performative action, not a concrete one. No wonder performance and purchase are the keystone of modern art and politics alike. Abramovic isn’t an outlier, but the spirit of the age. Every era gets the art it deserves. The conservative critics who fault modern art for not being literal, realistic, or mimetic enough were wrong: modern art is a reflection of the world after all.

Jason Rhode’s thousands of words are equivalent to several dozen pictures. However, he has never been considered, even briefly, for the Turner Prize. Follow him on Twitter at @iamthemaster.

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