Hyperallergic: Why the Art World Must Not Normalize Donald Trump’s Presidency



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The electoral map made it look so straightforward: blue islands of social and racial progress voted overwhelmingly against Donald Trump’s white supremacy movement, but those voters had no idea just how large was the lake of anger festering in the sparsely populated red zones. Then the unthinkable happened. We are now far from prepared to accept the reality of a President Trump, with David Duke’s grinning visage looming right behind him.

In this picture, the art worlds of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago exemplify the progressive and diverse community currently in a state of shock and mourning. As soon as we finish crying on each others’ shoulders, we will begin to mount some kind of resistance against an administration that will be unlike any others we have ever contemplated — one that will swiftly drive out immigrants, topple all environmental regulations, and do much worse still. We will resist an administration filled with anti-culture warriors like Rudolph Giuliani, who are sworn enemies of the values of intellectual experimentation, multiplicity, and tolerance within the arts; who understand contemporary art primarily as a populist trump card, having accused Marina Abramovic of Satan worship on the eve of the election. This is an administration that will lead the United States under the flag of vindicated white supremacy in the second decade of the 21st century. The art world will act as a unified block of resistance against the coming wave of horror, right?

Unfortunately, this picture is most likely a mirage. Yes, there is plenty of crying on shoulders and even young people on the streets shouting: “Not My President!” Yes, art critic Jerry Saltz got so upset that he changed his infamous Bill Clinton Facebook profile picture, posting: “Till Tuesday I lived with the positivist idea that things progress, get better, twisted flaws and all. The old saw about the long arc of history bowing toward justice was true. … All this went out the window that night.” But we are also seeing an immediate normalization of a President Trump by parts of the huge block that seemed to oppose him and that now wants to simply get on with business. This was perhaps first enabled by the president-elect himself, who, in his victory speech, chose to pass on the hate speech of his angry base, instead offering an apparent olive branch to voters who chose Hillary Clinton: “For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people, I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.” The next day, President Barack Obama said: “We now are going to want to do everything we can to help you succeed.” Later, Obama even called the leader of the Birther movement “pragmatic.”

We must admit that Obama has a special historical role to fulfill. As the first black president­, he has taken it upon himself to be the most gracious and classy man on the planet, a project that did not stem a huge tide of racism directed at him in the last eight years. Despite claiming earlier that “the Republican nominee is unfit to serve as president,” Obama interpreted his immediate post-election duty as graciously passing the torch. Let’s remember that we have a different duty to fulfill.

It is not the duty of private citizens (or anyone, actually) to automatically line up behind someone who has scapegoated the most vulnerable people in the country and threatened peaceful protesters and his political opponent with violence in order to win — exhibiting the unmistakable qualities of fascism. Participation in US democracy has its mechanical dimensions (voting and accepting the results, living within legal parameters), but also its fluid dimensions, where the checks and balances of government must be further checked by an awake population that is ready to respond by ceasing business as usual and organizing resistance to bigotry and violence if needed. From time to time throughout history, it has been needed.

This turn away from business as usual and toward collective resistance looms in a very real sense as the only hope for progressive values concerning gender, race, the protection of the environment, and also economic equity. Progressive legislation from health care reform to climate change treaties will be swiftly overturned while extremist laws — possibly including mass deportations — will be quickly signed. Resistance of mobilized citizens will be needed to protect the vulnerable, block dangerous legislation, and build toward an electoral reclaiming of power from the alt-right. But to do this, people who are in theory opposed to bigotry have to stay vigilant to the extremity of the situation.

We are early on in the narrative-shaping process concerning the reality of a President Trump, and I have been unsurprised to see that he is already being vigorously normalized by members of the art world. In the past days, to make an understatement, I have been on Facebook a lot. Well known Los Angeles-based collector Stefan Simchowitz popped up on a thread on my wall. Sneaking a peek at his wall, I saw the following statement, posted the day after the election to the tune of over 300 reactions:

Congratulations President elect Donald Trump. The people have spoken. Gracious speech, nothing left to do now but stop bitching and griping and get on with the job. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and the DNC congrats to all on a battle hard fought. Back to the drawing board as they say in the classics. Don’t panic folks it’s not as bad as you think and who knows if we all work together as we should maybe we can get things done. This is no time to divide. This is what democracy looks like, a picture whose outcome you participate in but don’t wholly control. And if I were to bet money I would say Trump is a pragmatist not an ideologue and pragmatists make deals in the middle.

Among the more than 90 comments on Simchowitz’s post, a few people echoed the sentiment of “I am sure they said the same in the 1930s in Germany,” but mostly it was versions of: “Classy Stefan, well said”; “as heartbroken as I am, I agree it’s the only way forward”; and, “I agree he’s a pragmatist.” I do not know Simchowitz personally and I’m not sure who his friends are, but presumably many are citizens of the well-heeled Los Angeles art world. When I shared his post on the Occupy Museums Facebook page, editorializing it with “All that white supremacy stuff was just a mirage. Back to business,” Simchowitz replied. He wrote:

First of all I voted for Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris and donated heavily to both campaigns and raised them a lot more money then that, in addition to supporting Mike Bennet’s winning run in Colorado, one of the few bright spots for the democrats. So cut the crap with your BS please. Secondly I would say I hardly represent the view of the mainstream art world in the respect to my call for coming to together and supporting the new President Elect from hopefully understanding the true gravity oh his position and the importance of unifying a divided nation whilst providing the jobs that are so sorely needed to 60 million citizens who are calling for help….yes it is back to business for ALL of us. For us to unify the country, rebuild the DNC for the next elections and in my case to continue selling Art so I can support the dozens of hardworking artists and artisans who support them so they can put food on the table, build family’s and produce artworks to make this sometimes ugly world more beautiful. Whilst you can point you wagging finger at the wrong people, some of us just want to get back in the saddle.

Simchowitz’s claim of supporting artists hinges on how you interpret the concept of “support.” Known as a “flipper” who buys work as cheaply as possible from young artists, often in bulk, with an eye to reselling it at profit, he is one of the pioneers of testing the popularity of artworks on Instagram as a cost-effective stage in the process of transforming art into cash. In fact, Simchowitz has been called the “Donald Trump of the Art World,” “a heroic figure” ready to “initiate the paradigm shift” toward “this sort of ideology I invented” wherein art is “oil in the ground” that “needs to be mined, refined, and … distributed,” as he is quoted by Christian Viveros-Fauné.

But does the apparently progressive political stance of the “Trump of the Art World,” which so easily pivots to an acceptance of racist extremism, “hardly represent the view of the mainstream art world,” as Simchowitz claims?

To look at reports on the art world’s reaction so far, you would think it does not, and this is certainly true of many artists and academics this week. On November 13, Artist Naeem Mohaiemen wrote on Facebook:

Professors are cancelling classes and using that time to organize teach-ins. Art exhibitions are opening and thirty minutes later artists are sitting on the floor and discussing what is to be done. People are cooking dinners and inviting friends over. Community spaces are organizing all day events. Business as usual is at a standstill.

Progressive artists and academics are perhaps acting with a mixture of solidarity and self-protection as they will be under attack in coming years from emboldened bigots and anti-intellectuals.

However, I think that among the collector class there is a reason that the response may not be as urgent as Naeem’s heartening report from the grass roots. This reason traces its logic along the upward trajectory of the stock market in the last few days, in which the stock market has reached record highs, with the US Dollar soaring. Although there are connections between the art world and the new Trump administration — most notably the potential future Treasury SecretarySteven Mnuchin, who is the son of a prominent Upper East Side gallerist — the leaders of Fortune 500 companies overwhelmingly proclaimed to be “with her,” aligning themselves with another candidate whose deep relationship to the financial industry ensured that their interests would be well taken care of: Hillary Clinton. Mega-dealer Larry Gagosian even held an auction to benefit her campaign. We can now see that elite Clinton supporters faced a win-win election. Unlike much of the Democratic base, they were prepared to brush off the whole white supremacy revolution (because they are safe from it) and enjoy the coming rewards. Currently, portfolio managers are shifting stock into ETFs(securitized bundles) tied into private prisons, weapons, and pharmaceutical companies, which will swiftly be deregulated under a Trump administration. The inevitable massive tax cuts which we’ll see under a Republican trifecta will translate into a great shift of wealth to the top, most likely unleashing a blue chip art boom in accord with Andrea Fraser’s finding that the best metric for tracking a booming art market is economic inequality. Well, you might say, good for artists; after all, some of this wealth will trickle down to them. However, there’s a steep political price: if the collector class takes a “neutral,” get-on-with-business position on an extremist government going forward, this creates a major obstacle to the potential for the art world to act as an organizing hub in response to the coming political shift.

Artists and art institutions in the US depend almost entirely on the philanthropy and collecting power of our financial elites. On one hand, a major political transition is more directly impactful on the arts in countries where institutions are wholly state-funded. Currently in Poland, where the new Rightist Law and Justice party has recently taken root, some progressive museum directors have already been replaced. But because we rely on the private sphere here in the US, we face a unique danger of an “apolitical politics” that holds business and trade on a higher level than political participation and takes political disruption completely off the table. If the markets under a Trump presidency continue to generate profits for the 1% — even through policies toxic to ordinary citizens — the elites on institutional boards will have lost any personal incentive beyond mere sympathy to support a new role that art institutions might have to play. Art institutions nationwide that seek to readjust their missions to offer space for anti-Trump organizing, sanctuaries for victims of the the white supremacist danger uncorked in the election, or simply exhibit artworks that overtly challenge the regime, will likely bump up against funders who are keen to prop up business as usual because institutional meshing with business interests of galleries and auctions is working out well for them. The regulations against political advocacy that are embedded in the requirements to maintain non-profit status will provide additional barriers. Our neoliberal system of private enterprise and corporate-structured non-profits could trap us if we do not address it directly and respond to the conflicting interests it has set up.

The art world is a strange land. On the one hand, it’s a progressive echo chamber. But if you look through the lens of financial and social inequity, the picture changes. For one thing, it’s a space of overwhelmingly white privilege. Although many artists do not come from wealthy backgrounds, many in positions of prominence do, and the entire art infrastructure revolves around the 1% like planets orbit the sun. You cannot be in a room with more billionaires than at the Miami Beach Convention Center during Art Basel. After an election in which the Democrats were outflanked on working class issues like trade deals and where the business-friendly DNC may have lost the election due to its inability to understand the current class reality in the US, I think it’s wise to examine the class reality of the art world in relation to what kind of agency can be accessed heading into a Trump presidency. The call to continue business as usual is not a practical, universal message; it’s a message that now only makes sense for populations that are safe from what Trump has in store. It’s a message that is tailor-made for the 1%.

Many people have been remarking that the only people saying everything will be OK are white males. The stark reality is that since November 8, 2016, things have been far from OK for millions. People are not safe from the predatory drug gangs on one side of the US/Mexico border and predatory militias on the other; they are not safe in the Deep South from those who will now enjoy an administration that winks at the white nationalist awakening; people are also not safe from the mega-storms that will arrive before long as we roll back environmental regulation; and people are not safe from the rising rents and debts pushing low-income families, people of color, working folks, and artists out of the cities that are supposed to be safe zones for progressive values. The story about blue islands of social and racial progress surrounded by red seas is not entirely accurate. The Trump administration doesn’t represent an occupation of the country by the Bible Belt or Rust Belt so much as by a group of New York elites who are among those rapidly transforming the cityinto a playground for the rich, evicting families of the 99% from their homes and raising rents. We will have to fight on more than one front.

As we organize an autonomous people’s resistance in the arts community, we will need the fresh participation of people not used to organizing. We also need people from Simchowitz’s level of economic privilege to part with their immediate financial self-interest and help support a resistance movement.

Collectors often talk about having a “good eye,” but it takes no connoisseurship to see what is coming. All the signs of demagoguery exist in the figure of Trump and his closest allies. The links between his ascendance and the anti-immigrant wave of Brexit, the anti-democratic rule of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and Law and Justice in Poland, are clear to see. Democracy never meant falling into line when the KKK gets a direct line to the Oval Office. It never meant business must go on no matter what. It means thinking for yourself and trusting what you see. We in the arts must be prepared to de-normalize, organize, and resist as we never have before.