Anti-Trump art’s big fail

Is Trump im­per­vi­ous to artis­tic dis­sent?

NOW Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - By ROSE­MARY HEATHER art@nowtoronto.com | @rosemheather

If the art world needs a con­trar­ian, Anna Khachiyan can oblige. Along with Dasha Nekrasova, Khachiyan co-hosts the pod­cast Red Scare. The New York duo’s weekly, of­ten provoca­tive, look at cul­tural news al­ready has healthy base of Pa­treon sup­port­ers since launch­ing in March. Part of the so-called Dirt­bag Left, Khachiyan and Nekrasova are caus­ti­cally skep­ti­cal about the niceties of main­stream lib­eral thought.

In bal­anc­ing an in­dul­gance in bad taste and be­ing re­ac­tionar­ies, the Red Scare duo some­times risks sound­ing like an in­ter­net troll act. But as a writer, Khachiyan is a too-rare voice in a world that’s vogu­ish for art best un­der­stood through moral po­si­tion­ing. Her re­cent es­say Art Won’t Save Us (2018) tack­les why so much po­lit­i­cal “re­sis­tance” art aimed at U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is in­ef­fec­tual, and ar­gues what’s needed is more crit­i­cal think­ing around the power big tech com­pa­nies have over our lives.

In town on Fri­day to speak at Art Toronto, Khachiyan chat­ted with NOW over email last week.

You dis­miss po­lit­i­cal art like Bar­bara Kruger’s PRUMP/TUTIN poster as “va­pid slo­ga­neer­ing.” But, to state the ob­vi­ous, isn’t that what artists do: work with vis­ual el­e­ments? It goes with­out say­ing that artists pri­mar­ily work in a vis­ual lan­guage. But there’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween un­der­stand­ing some­thing in aes­thetic terms and in­sist­ing on its moral sig­nif­i­cance. The sense you get with all this anti-Trump po­lit­i­cal #re­sis­tance art is that it’s ag­gres­sively pro­pa­gan­dis­tic yet bizarrely phoned-in.

What’s es­pe­cially bad-faith about the pro­pa­gan­diz­ing is that it’s not in ser­vice of some po­lit­i­cal agenda, but rather per­sonal con­so­la­tion and mu­tual flat­tery – not so much anti-Trump as pro-them­selves. These peo­ple are so scan­dal­ized by Trump’s per­sona pre­cisely be­cause they’re so re­moved from Trump’s poli­cies. On a more ba­sic level, the aes­thet­ics are just so corny as to be em­bar­rass­ing for every­one in­volved. The art world has lost sight of the fact that artists are un­der no moral obli­ga­tion to be role mod­els, which is what made them such com­pelling in­ter­preters of re­al­ity in the first place. I dis­agree on the aes­thet­ics be­ing corny. I’d say Kruger’s work is more clas­sic protest style. Art gets part of its power from find­ing new rel­e­vance for vis­ual for­mats. But I agree artists who want to be role mod­els are mis­un­der­stand­ing their role. In your es­say you write that art needs mass ap­peal to have po­lit­i­cal force. What are you think­ing ex­actly? TV has mass ap­peal, art typ­i­cally does not. I’m think­ing more of the Soviet mode of so­cial­ist re­al­ism. The Sovi­ets came the clos­est to suc­cess­fully en­gi­neer­ing the to­tal col­lapse of art and life. But it came at a cost: the tyranny of an en­forced style. In­ter­est­ingly, in Amer­ica to­day you also have the pres­ence of an aes­thetic and ide­o­log­i­cal mono­cul­ture, though the dif­fer­ence is that it’s not so much en­forced from the top down as self-en­forced.

The claim that I made in that es­say – that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is the first prop­erly cap­i­tal­ist re­al­ist “regime”– is cru­cial in that it has been able to suc­cess­fully ab­sorb and neu­tral­ize artis­tic dis­sent. Trump par­o­dies him­self so well that any form of protest art falls flat. That’s why that clas­sic protest style you men­tion looks so ill-suited to the cur­rent con­text, and is also why main­stream TV po­lit­i­cal com­edy like Satur­day Night Live or The Daily Show are equally cringe­wor­thy.

Your es­say of­fers this pow­er­ful in­sight: a re­luc­tance in art cir­cles to grap­ple with “the sys­temic dangers lurk­ing... in the dig­i­tal net­works... gov­ern­ing our ev­ery­day ex­is­tence.” You’re right. Plat­forms such as Face­book, In­sta­gram and Twit­ter should be a fo­cus of art’s po­lit­i­cal talk and ac­tion, but they aren’t. Any thoughts on why? Well, for starters, it’s a daunt­ing propo­si­tion – not only from the stand­point of our will­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion in these net- works, but also in the sense that the lan­guage we use to un­der­stand them is un­wieldy and not agreed-upon. That is, be­fore any­one can launch a sys­temic cri­tique, let alone a con­certed ac­tion, we first have to au­thor the the­ory around it. “Plat­form cap­i­tal­ism,” for in­stance, as a par­tic­u­larly ag­gres­sive ex­po­nent of ne­olib­eral or­tho­doxy, is for the most part un­charted ter­ri­tory. If you re­ally want to psy­cho­an­a­lyze it, there’s also the ques­tion of the art world’s col­lec­tive guilt. As I’ve said be­fore, these [artists] are the peo­ple who are least likely to be mean­ing­fully af­fected by any of Trump’s poli­cies, so they’ve re-routed all of their en­er­gies into per­for­ma­tively grand­stand­ing over his per­sona. But a pol­i­tics that priv­i­leges af­fect and sen­si­bil­ity over so­ci­ety’s com­mon in­ter­ests will al­ways be tooth­less. The art world’s power play­ers, at least sub­con­sciously, know this about them­selves. They know their un­will­ing­ness to part with their power, how­ever nar­rowly de­fined, is pre­cisely what makes them so pow­er­less, so they’ve over­com­pen­sated in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. Anna Khachiyan speaks at Art Toronto on Fri­day (Oc­to­ber 26). art­toronto.ca.

Bar­bara Kruger’s PRUMP/TUTIN poster.

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