Scowling eyes. Blazing tans. Shrieking baby-bird mouths. And so, so much improbable hair. These visual cues are reaching peak saturation. The creative response from artists against the presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump has been overwhelmingly energetic and angry and is only destined to escalate.
The latest high-profile protest occurred last week when five identical statues of a nude Donald Trump appeared overnight on street corners in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Seattle, and New York City. This event was soon revealed to be a work entitled The Emperor Has No Balls by anarchist collective INDECLINE. The emergence of the statues, and the enthusiastic public and media reception that followed, gave the clearest confirmation yet that Trump is almost unanimously disliked by what could be stereotyped as the typical artist or creative: likely left-wing, cosmopolitan, permissive, anti-authoritarian.
Images and effigies of Trump have become widespread across the arts this year. The question as to why artists are mobilised against Trump is on the one hand easily answered in terms of political and social anxiety. Communities within and beyond America are watching in appalled fascination this unlikeliest of campaigns; the world at large is protesting in equal parts anger and disbelief. Art so often reflects the concerns of the present and Trump is perceived to be a clear danger to freedoms and tolerance both domestically and globally.
The most morbidly funny manifestation of this is surely the panic-Googling of the ‘nuclear football’. Unacceptable slurs and insensitive gaffs are one thing, but the idea of someone who has demonstrated very little understanding of defence policy having access to a nuclear arsenal is quite another. Speaking in San Diego recently, Hillary Clinton asked, “Do we want his finger anywhere near the button?” Whilst in Britain anyone who’s anyone is falling over themselves to convince the public that yes please they would absolutely press the button if called upon, the question of whose finger hovers Stateside is fast becoming a matter of nervous dread.
But there is another, more pointed reason why artists have taken up arms against Trump: he seems to pose a more probable existential threat to the arts. Many who fit the aforementioned artistic/creative demographic see the political rise of Trump as a triumph of philistinism; this piece in the Washington Post is just one of many apocalyptic speculations as to where this could lead for the arts. The evidence is compelling: the gaudy and inelegant presentation style, the rhetoric of absolutes, the rejection of complexity and diversity, the aesthetic of reality TV, and the Trump conception of luxury given form in huge hotels and casinos. The anxiety is that a visual language of intrinsic wealth and brute power is prevailing.
Those fiercely flabby, ridiculous statues that emerged last week were choreographed to make Trump appear artless. They are pointedly crude in both subject matter and execution. Deliberately without guile. Vulgar. Hands clasped as if addressing a board room, these Trumps stand full of false confidence considering the efforts taken to render their reddened folds, their frightfully miniscule members. There is a troubling air of body-shaming about this work, as if Trump’s chief inadequacy should be his failure to measure up to the physique of the statesmen of antiquity; where once there was marble poise now there stands a bag of fleshy jowls. Yet the obvious point about grandiloquent delusion is nevertheless made, however problematically.
There is a pervasive sense that art itself is, necessarily, against Trump. Anyone betraying this consensus and making art in support of Trump risks their work being subverted, vandalised, or outright destroyed, the perpetrators using the performative and powerfully creative act of destruction to repurpose any such work into a symbol of protest. It doesn’t get any more direct than the burning of a 12-foot tall letter ‘T’ built by artist Scott LaBaido and installed in a friend’s garden. An oversize campaign poster may simply have been defaced or pulled down, but the ‘T’ invited this act of iconoclasm from anonymous assailants simply because it looked like art.
With the turn to guerrilla tactics, we may ask whether there is already nowhere else to go when making art about Trump. Certainly his PR disasters have served to make satire near-redundant.
Earlier this year, Adam McKay’s mini-movie The Art of the Deal, released through Funny or Die, cast Johnny Depp as Trump and played with the conceit that the billionaire had adapted his own bestselling business book, published 1987, for the big screen. With a framing narrative in which Ron Howard presents the film as a long-lost relic from the 1980s, the running joke is that Trump has embarked on a clueless vanity project. The film is haphazardly staged, sycophantic, and soundtracked by a game Kenny Loggins who has imagined what kind of anthem Trump himself would approve of. His rivals are portrayed as weak, effeminate, idiotic.
Depp’s performance is the best thing he’s done in years, an impersonation that hoves just close enough whilst emphasizing its exaggerations. And yet the words themselves can only ape the heights of offence that Trump himself has scaled with such ease. The VHS-quality visuals and editing hammer home the point that Trump is prehistoric but it’s only another iteration of a visual gag that’s already apparent to everyone who’s in on the joke.
Depp’s Trump, and the film he’s alleging to have entirely self-made, is fixated on scatology and genitals, arresting him psychologically in a child state. Trump is similarly infantilised in the William Burroughs-via-Adventure Time piece written by artist and journalist Molly Crabapple for The Village Voice. Here he is a child despot addressing his rabid supporters and petulantly suppressing any dissenting voices with cartoonish displays of violence. His mouth is ‘a mint-condition anus’, the language of intrinsic worth and the scatological intertwined.
Amidst the showers of viscera and acts of bodily violation, the scene Crabapple conjures is effectively revolting but straying too close to zany bedlam. The most effective critique comes with her lampooning of masculine posturing:
“Daddy big,” he says, pointing at his chest. “Daddy strong man. Soon you grow up to be big strong man like Daddy. Daddy love you so much.”
The promise of growing up, in the context of us knowing Trump’s oft-repeated narrative about America’s arrested world status, cleverly implicates fervent patriotism in a context of aggressive male frustration.
And context is the thing to highlight here. The Art of the Deal: the Movie isolates Trump for ridicule and riffs on all of the traits and shortcomings of character with which its audience will already be comfortably familiar. Not only can it not compete with the genuine article, it runs the risk of treating Trump as a singular phenomenon and therefore a fixed target; this, as opposed to exposing the conditions that have given rise to Trump as a symptom of right-wing populism that appeals to disillusioned swathes of society in a growing number of Western democracies.
Crabapple’s ‘Dystrumpia’ has at least provoked further by employing gruesome bodily imagery to suggest a strange symbiotic relationship between Trump as speaker and his audience: a death spiral, a hyper-sexualised longing for sweet oblivion that whips Trump and his support into a frenzy. Yet it’s still problematic because those attending the rally are dehumanised and therefore largely deprived of socio-economic motivation.
When making art about Trump there is an understandable push towards extremes. But the seeming unreality of his appearance and outrageously delivered opinions threatens to railroad artistic representations into their own kind of arms race in which grotesquery and gigantism obscure the very reasons for his political ascent and sizeable support. Ω