The Trump Effect in Contemporary Art and Visual Culture: Populism, Politics, and Paranoia | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

The Trump Effect in Contemporary Art and Visual Culture: Populism, Politics, and Paranoia

The Trump Effect in Contemporary Art and Visual Culture: Populism, Politics, and Paranoia
by Kit Messham-Muir & Uroš Cvoro

Bloomsbury Publishing, London UK, 2023
256 pp., illus. 29 col. Trade, $81; paper, @26.95; eBook, $21.95
ISBN 9781350287297.

Reviewed by: 
Mike Mosher
June 2023

I began this review on the springtime day the 45th US President Donald J. Trump was indicted in Manhattan. The same day, the online art newsletter HYPERALLERGIC featured The Most Biting Memes of the Trump Indictment, including @Bizness_socks’ delicious art historical post on Twitter that combined Jane Rosenberg’s courtroom sketch of Trump and Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”. Other jolly visuals (and that’s why Photoshop was invented!) put Trump behind bars screaming at Hillary Clinton who’s grinning outside his cell, Trump in a baldheaded mugshot, or with co-conspirators that include his sons, Roger Stone, and Steve Bannon, all lolling in prison boredom beneath a shirtless pinup of Vladimir Putin.

I had high hopes for this book when it arrived, that it would collect and critique the rich visual culture that Trump’s Presidential outrages engendered. it doesn’t do that. Though there are thoughtful passages and comparisons of events with contemporary artworks with political import, it’s debatable that they’re demonstrably the result of Donald J. Trump’s “effect in contemporary art and visual culture”. Messham-Muir and Cvoro write “Whereas Walter Benjamin warned that the aestheticization of politics is a property of fascism...we argue that these conditions, of the aestheticization of politics, also create the grounds for artistic practices to intervene into the public sphere of politics.” Yes, agreed! And let us see exactly how.

The Trump Effect begins with a news story report on the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. There’s an astute comparison of fist-pumpin’ Senator Josh Hawley to a revolutionary of 1848 by Daumier and mention of the Black Power salute by U.S. athletes Carlos and Smith at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. “Capitol Shaman” rioter Jacob Chansley is shown in his memorable costume…but what is this Trumpist’s influence beyond his moment of celebrity? There is a terrific video on YouTube from the two witty teenagers’ commentary series Natives React, #31 “Buffalo Horns Riot Guy Roasted by Native Americans”, assembling 19 minutes of memes about the bison-crowned exhibitionist. Instances like this might have been mentioned here, for the discussion of the insurrection reads like a studious Political Science undergraduate’s paper assembled from news sources, and except for Chansley and fur-clad Aaron Mostofsky, there is little critique of imagery, whether flags, signs, or the gallows intended for Vice President Pence. More connections might have been read into the Confederate flag inside the US Capitol, and one or more Nazi flags at the rally outside.

The authors see delegated performance and turbo sculpture in Trumpism’s mélange of true and false culture. They contemplate QAnon as a Live Action Role Playing game (a LARP), yet there’s not even a picture of the guy QAnon claimed was really the undead John F. Kennedy Jr. Among the journalism there are too many news photos in color, where there could have been artworks. And there should have been a lot more artworks and visual culture shown in any case.

In their definition, the Trump effect is a condition of post-ideology politics in this century, part of a retroactive transhistorical nationalism that ignores modernity. Putin’s war for “denazification” in Ukraine, or an Eastern European party that employs hammer and sickle in Nazi-like design, are instances of the eclectic pastiche of past politics in this mix. Richard Hofstader’s 1964 Harper’s Magazine essay on the paranoid style throughout U.S. politics is one key of which they make good use. They quote Panyota Gounari on the “ideological confusion” in the populism, politics and paranoia of Trumpism, though it seems pretty much all of one disturbing but coherent piece from the American postindustrial mid-west where I sit.

Trump vs. Black Lives Matter is one more pendant to his long racist career, in real estate and housing, his birtherism against Obama, the full-page advertisement he placed in The New York Times against the wrongfully-accused (and -imprisoned) Central Park Five. Trump failed to condemn the Unite the Right marchers, who brandished tiki torches and killed a counter-protester, in Charlottesville, VA. There’s discussion of the “Statue Wars”—growing opposition to monuments to Confederate soldiers, and commemoration of slavers and imperialists elsewhere—but no mention of Kehinde Wiley’s 2019 “Rumors of War” noble Black equestrian statue in Richmond, VA erected to challenge that city’s statue of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart. They might also have mentioned “White on White - Stone Mountain”, a painting purchased by the Detroit Institute of Arts in 2021, where Taylonn J. Sawyer depicted Black bodies (perhaps his own, photographed multiple times) as if sprawled upon the mammoth monument in Georgia to Confederate Generals who fought to maintain slavery. European examples that precede Trump’s Presidency are provided instead: Miljanovic’s “20 Minute Monument” employing disabled war veterans, Paci’s Column, and Raqs Media Collective’s 2016 installation of maimed pseudo-colonial figures in Coronation Park in Delhi, India. “Decolonizing Monuments” discusses the “Fons Africanus” fountain by Kara Walker, exciting but a continuation of this artist’s sculptural work like 2014’s “A Subtlety”, her monumental sphinx made of sugar in an old Brooklyn, NY sugar warehouse, and critical two-dimensional work on paper and walls for many years before that. [1]

Donald and Melania Trump were added to Bosnian Serb sculptor Stevo Selak’s collection of statues, but they were probably summarily added to Madame Tussaud’s too. A self-taught woodcarver was commissioned by an American to create a crudely-defined statue of Melania Trump by her birthplace in Sevnica, Slovenia early in 2020, then was set afire on July 4 (U.S. Independence Day) that year. Soon it was replaced by a bronze equivalent that September, when the town, initially indifferent, realized it had brought them publicity. Evidently a 26’ tall square-headed statue of Donald Trump was also erected nearby, then torched, but there’s sadly no picture of that Trump effect in this book.

The Evergreen College sensitivity exercises upset Prof. Bret Weinstein, consequently granted 15 minutes of fame on FOX News as he embodied white outrage, notably not for any significant research or publication in his field. This YouTube gadfly and Covid denier with family ties to Theil Capital provoked a white supremacist gun threat at his college by doing so. The Evergreen Affair, huff and puff about “cancel culture” and right-wing campaigns against university, are worthy of discussion, but these things were long brewing, their roots cited in the conservative economics of Hayek and Friedman, and corporate cost-cutters privileging of intuitive entrepreneurs over university educations. Trump banned Diversity training in federal agencies but isn’t really the source of white supremacists’ long march against progressivism whenever it is voiced in universities. Trump opportunistically added spin to rightist campaigns, with appointments like privatization advocate Betsey DeVos as US Secretary of Education. The authors then discuss their Australian cognates, and how Covid was used as an excuse to further defund the humanities in Australian universities.

The authors’ warmly share with many readers amusement at the Right’s demonization of the stalwarts of theory prominent in graduate education in universities in the 1990s, and give a brief history of Frankfurt School, then French, theory as it flowed through Anglophone universities.

It is especially good to see discussion of one important political artwork, which generated much heat, not from Trumpists, but from leftists policing the boundaries of acceptable or exploitative imagery. This reader values the authors’ recounting of the controversy around Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket” (2017), an abstracted painting of Emmitt Till’s violent murder and defacement in 1955. “Open Casket” could have ushered in a new movement of formal innovation of political content…had Schutz not debuted it at the upper-crust Venice Biennale instead of first showing it to the Black community in an institution (church, museum, organization, or conference) for feedback and discussion of her motives. I find it a great painting, picking up John Berger’s call 50 years ago for progressive artists to re-investigate Cubism, and a powerful synthesis of politics and aesthetics in the tradition of Picasso’s “Guernica”. Yet instead, Black artist Parker Bright marched in front of the painting to obscure it with his body. Natasha Lumumba called for its banning while the white woman who accused Till is still alive.  Hannah Black circulated a petition to destroy the painting, and Precious Okoyama suggested that Schutz destroy it herself. When Schutz responded that as a mother, she understood Till’s mother’s pain, she was asked why she didn’t then paint a portrait of that woman instead. Frank Wilderson’s concept of Afropessimism concludes that Black bodies will never be fully seen as human under white hegemony.

I give all these outraged critics of Schutz’s “Open Casket” the benefit of the doubt, believe their sincerity, but don’t align with their solutions. Artists Kara Walker and Coco Fusco defended Schutz, and her right (perhaps duty?) to address the world’s disturbing imagery in her work, but Messham-Muir and Cvoro point out that Walker and Fusco are from an older generation often less strident about unacceptable imagery than millennials. Naive Ms. Schutz was ham-fisted about an artwork’s context, to unveil “Open Casket” in the high-toned and eminently bourgeois Venice Biennale, rather than initially showing it for discussion and critique in African American art contexts, in a university setting, Black church or community center. Does Schutz have any personal friends who are Black whom she might have asked, So how does this play?  She might have gotten pushback and shade, but there would have been a dialogue, not the horrified surprise that set her critics so on edge.  I think that approach would have been appreciated. The vehement protests have been called opportunistic by some other artists on the left, but the long-running controversy around white artists profiting from Black creative artforms, techniques and motifs preceded (and is outlasting) Trump, and though this case occurred during his regime, it seems a stretch to link it to Trump-launched visual culture.

Then what’s missing from this book? From his 2016 Presidential nomination on, the world was merrily peppered with Trump-baiting graffiti and murals, humorous German parade floats, and more. The authors write regretfully that permission to reprint some images they wished to include was denied by the owners, and that may account for its paucity and thus oddly chosen substitutions. Though mentioned in the text, I would expect they could have found some photograph, from news media or sightseers’ postings, of the corpulent nude statue of Trump “The Emperor Has No Balls” that appeared in numerous American cities in 2016. As it has its own Wikipedia page, the accompanying photo’s Fair Use might have covered an appearance in this book as well.

Why is there no mention of video satirist Randy Rainbow, who essentially built a career out of parody songs about Trump and his minions? Where’s the humorist Sara Cooper, who presented deadpan miming to Trump’s most ridiculous pronouncements? And Kathy Griffin, who created outrage at the beginning of his Presidency by displaying a too-realistic prop of his bloody and severed head? The Women’s Day March in the days after Trump’s inauguration, filled the streets with witty signs and especially the memorable pink Pussy Hats. Paul McCarthy created a set of eight maple skateboards in an edition of 50 to celebrate the 2017 March that sketched Trump in various insulting ways; “Trump Dump” saw him defecating upon planet Earth. Not long after, a very disturbing image by Thomas Woodruff of the new President, drawn in feces, appeared in the long-running political comic book WORLD WAR THREE ILLUSTRATED; fortunately, the comic included no Scratch n’ Sniff strip.

Cuban-born Edel Rodriguez created memorable magazine graphics, simplifying Donald Trump into yellow hair, orange face, howling open mouth. Peter Saul, longtime specialist in political grotesques, painted several featuring Trump. America’s grand eclectic surrealist, Jim Shaw, expended considerable energy grappling with the Trump administration. His “Trump Smear” Numbers One and Two distorted his pudgy face like Silly Putty, which other drawings that focused on Trump’s hair made use of the dynamic whooshing style of the best comic book artists Shaw grew up admiring. Shaw’s 2020 paintings “The Master Mason” and the Dantean “Donald and Melania Trump Descending the Escalator Into the 9th Circle of Hell Reserved for Traitors Frozen in a Sea of Ice” sought the gravitas of sober-sided history paintings. On the other hand, John McNaughton painted deeply sincere right-wing appreciations of Trump, allegories like “Legacy of Hope”—Trump surrounded by past heroes including Presidents Reagan and Kennedy, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.  Or Trump “Crossing the Swamp” in a small boat in the pose of Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware”, or riding a Harley Chopper, or cradling an infant as “The Hope of the Nation.”

It would be ungenerous to call the authors provincial, but they missed an opportunity to discuss a lot of U.S. and global artworks inspired by (and so often in opposition to) Donald Trump. Despite the internet, I’d certainly be unqualified to discuss Australian political imagery without extensive fieldwork in context. It would have been nice to read that these scholars’ universities provided them with travel funds to see what Trump-sparked visual culture they could experience in person. It is sad to think they had so few contacts in the United States who could provide them with rich Trump-era imagery to consider. God knows my Facebook feed has been peppered since 2015 with many memes, parodies, and visual jokes, especially during the two Impeachment trials (deepfake videos of Trump running from FBI agents and police, etc.). Does the political art reader in the United States expect too much here? The authors might reply, “Dude, you’re reviewing the book you wanted to see instead of the one in your hands, and not the one we wrote.”

This reviewer wonders if their publisher Bloomsbury chose the title convinced that Trump’s name, slapped upon a more humble but honorable discussion of political resonance of some artworks of this century, would sell better. After a couple readings, I still I feel like the title The Trump Effect in Contemporary Art and Visual Culture: Populism, Politics, and Paranoia is false advertising…but of course, one could say that any deception is appropriate since bombast and fakery has been Donald Trump’s own game, in business and then politics, all along.