We disavow!

Ahead of Donald Trump’s inauguration, J.J. Charlesworth finds symptoms of delusion in the US artworld

By J.J. Charlesworth

Richard Prince's work of Ivanka Trump's instagram feed in Ivanka Trump's instragram feed

Next Friday 20 January is President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration day. Observing from this side of the Atlantic, it’s hard to recollect a more rancorous lead-up to a US president taking office, with allegations flying about Trump’s dealings with Russia and Trump himself embroiled in spectacular fallings-out with the US ‘intelligence community’ and the news media over what he sees as their bias against him.

Nobody (apart from, I guess, the 62.9 million Americans who voted for him) seems to like Trump very much, not least the US artworld, which has spent the last couple of months finding every way to express its opposition to Trump’s election. There’s been the Halt Action Group’s ‘Dear Ivanka’ campaign, fronted by an open letter published in Artforum, in which curator Alison Gingeras, gallerist Alissa Bennett, and psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster mock Trump’s art-collecting celebrity daughter Ivanka with a slew of psychosexual innuendo about absent mothers and incestuous fathers. There’s the growing J20 campaign urging arts and cultural venues to close in protest on inauguration day. And as these have gathered pace, artists have become increasingly vocal about wanting nothing to do with Trump, or his children; Ivanka’s received the brunt of the attention, since her high-profile use of contemporary art as a backdrop the luxurious interiors she inhabits has rankled a good few artists now furiously trying to dissociate themselves and their work from Ivanka’s entirely unremarkable art collecting habit. Oh, and of course, by extension, from her dad.

Most prominent of these has been Richard Prince, who this week confirmed that he had returned the $36,000 paid by Ivanka for one of his Instagram paintings, this one drawn from Ivanka’s own incontinent Instagram feed. As Prince told the New York Times, “It was just an honest way for me to protest… It was a way of deciding what’s right and wrong. And what’s right is art and what’s wrong is not art. I decided the Trumps are not art.” While it’s not clear whether Prince is in a position to retrospectively disavow the authenticity of the work, the artist explained that “It’s a way of me saying to them I don’t want my work in your possession. I don’t want anything to do with your family.”

It’s hard not to conclude that many in the artworld – with their wild prophesies of American (and European) democracies on the brink of fascism – are suffering from their own form of 'collective fantasy'

The J20 art strike and the various gestures to withdraw work are claimed at acts of protest against a presidency that is now regularly referred to as a ‘toxic mix of white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, militarism, and oligarchic rule’. But the extreme hostility directed at Trump, and – perhaps more vindictively at Ivanka – reeks of exaggeration, and – if we wanted to borrow from psychoanalytic theory, just for the hell of it – disavowal.

Because what’s really behind the intense hatred for Trump and family is really a more profound contempt for those who voted for him. As ArtNEWS’s deputy editor M.H. Miller could chuckle of Ivanka’s ‘mediocre taste', long before Trump got himself elected; ’you know, Ivanka Trump’s father could possibly be ushered into the executive office on a platform of nativism, sexism, general hatred for that which the lowest common denominator doesn’t understand, etc.’

The ‘lowest common denominator’ being, perhaps, the stupid, (probably) white people who populate the rest of America, those people still living in a world of out of date, conservative values. People who themselves are deluded or victims of a strange fantasy. After all, as Gingeras and her ‘Dear Ivanka’ co-writers put it to Ivanka:

‘The family is sick. It’s not just your family, Ivanka. It’s the family! We live in an age where we know deep down that the mythos of the family is over. It just doesn’t work. But despite this painful truth – our divorce rates, the spike in single parenting, the ossification of the concept that marriage is a viable mechanism for policing reproductive and social morality – some of America still wants a Daddy. And you and your Dad are the last dying breath of our collective phantasy.’

Gingeras and her colleagues no doubt think of themselves as impervious to the influence of ‘collective phantasy’. (spot the Freudian spelling!) Yet it’s hard not to conclude that many in the artworld – with their wild prophesies of American (and European) democracies on the brink of fascism – are suffering from their own form of 'collective fantasy'. What’s truly condescending about the various gesture-politics of cultural withdrawal – of the galleries rolling down their shutters on 20 January, of the artists sniffilly demanding that their art no longer be placed in the collections of the ‘wrong type of collector’ – is that it refuses to engage with the complicated mess of disillusion and frustration that meant that, in fact, a lot of Americans simply gave up on eight years of Obama’s Democrats. Easier to come up with cranky theories about how 50 per cent of American voters just want a strong father figure. Easier to engage in virtue-signaling disavowal than real engagement. The artworld has a long way to go before it escapes its own particular echo chamber, and it’s going to be a long 2017...