This past November I did a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. All in attendance during my time there (fourteen writers, nine visual artists, and three composers) agreed that President Trump was not the best candidate for the job. In an arts community perhaps that is to be expected, but it gave me pause. We are in a climate that I feel more than ever gives us an opportunity to look at ourselves. As a visual artist that has been working in the field for about thirty years, I have an observation. The severe (all be it many would say merited) critique of our President I feel could also be levied at the art world. We should work on our own community if we wish to see modeled in our government quality of character, integrity, honesty, hard work, and an example of what we want the next generation to be.
If you were to look up right now the top selling American artists many individuals will show up on your search who are modeling and marketing the very lack of character that many so virulently critique Trump as embodying. On the top of the art sales are the likes of Jeff Koons, a man who has a team of 100 creating for him banality embracing mediocre wonders, Christopher Wool a cynic with a box of type stencils, and Richard Prince a huckster who purloined others Instagram photos and sold them as his own for $100,000 (law suits currently in process). If these are some of the folks that are being held up in the art community as wealthy laudable success stories, how on earth did we arrive here? Much may be wrong in White House, but come on, let’s do what we can to work on cleaning up our own house first. As many often hope or idealize that art is “cutting edge” and points to the future of things, perhaps we should recoil in fear realizing our President is a product of our age, in an environment many in the art world have not only endorsed but celebrated, with every note of sarcasm, bulling, self-centeredness, greed, lack of scruples, or care for others.
Some may argue that art should be a safe place for bad behavior and antics as a form of expression; every third Tuesday of the month maybe, or under the caring eye of an art therapist… but even so we should question then if that behavior merits an art prize, or qualifications to be student body president. President Trump is giving us all an opportunity to take a very good hard look at our disciplines, communities, families, and personal lives and take stock of what we really believe is good for us as individuals and moreover the thriving and flourishing of all on this blue dot we live on.
So how do we proceed? As many are aiming for, I would simply say, “be nice.” Kindness goes a long way. It’s not Donald Trump’s fault he got elected to be the President of the United States. Maybe we should start talking to our neighbor. Maybe we should invite to dinner folks who voted for him and get to know their perspective. Maybe we should be kind to others even when they aren’t kind to us. If our President doesn’t model civility, let’s take on the responsibility ourselves.
Looking at images of the women’s march that happened in DC this month I’m struck that hate speech isn’t helpful. “Fu** Trump,” or “Sh** President,” posters leave me cold. Others showed creativity and virtue with signs saying “A New Day is on the Horizon, When They Go Low, We Grow High,” or, “Intersecting ALL of our voices weaves a POWERFUL fabric,” and a Helen Keller quote, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the human heart.”
In Los Angeles at the beginning of this month I went to a pop up show at the Jason Vass Gallery in Downtown LA to see the work of Tony Puryear. The illustrator created a series of pieces about what he referred to as the “Trump Mafia Family.” I agreed with much of the factual accounts of the artwork, but looking around I simply noticed the images were preaching to the choir. No one was there that had voted for Trump and was being convinced that perhaps they should look at things differently. The work was ham fisted, one sided and blaring. There was no place for conversation, understanding, or an open hand offering change, relationship or connection. Honestly by the time I left, I found the work more of the ugly same that’s already out there.
The Washington Post had an article on January 25th, bringing to light that the Trumps had asked the Guggenheim if they could borrow a van Gogh painting in their collection to put on temporary loan in the White House. What an opportunity! The Guggenheim had a moment where they could dialogue with a United States President that seems not to be so involved or interested in the arts, but perhaps wise curators could start building some bridges, have a conversation, and make an amicable relationship across the aisle.
Ah, but it is much easier to return sarcasm and vitriol to one’s honest request if we don’t like them isn’t it? And so they offered instead a work of a contemporary artist from Italy, Maurizo Cattelan whose sardonic art like that of Jeff Koons is never made by his own hands: A gold plated toilet titled “America,” was offered in lieu of the Van Gogh. What, are we children here? An opportunity for civil dialogue was lost by the Guggenheim modeling the identical behavior of those that they so despise.
Here’s to cleaning up our own house and front yard, and offering a glass of lemonade and maybe a thoughtful word, or even a kind work of art to those on the other side of the street.