The Art World in the Age of Trump

To make or not to make art.

Photo by Robert Gerhardt

There are two camps in the art world right now: One that thinks that the best way to protest President Trump is to stop making art entirely and another that believes there’s no better time to make art.

The artists who believe that the best way to protest Trump is to stop making art include Christo, best known for creating The Gates, an installation of saffron arches in Central Park, with his wife Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009. For the past 20 years, Christo has been working on Over the River, a project that would have consisted of six miles of fabric panels suspended over the Arkansas River for two weeks. He has fought for the project in court for the past five years; he had surveyed 14,000 miles of the Rocky Mountains and pledged $15 million of his own money to see it realized. But when Trump came into power, Christo announced that he would walk away from the project because it would be erected on federal land, making the president his de facto landlord. Christo decided that his best course of action was to refuse to have any dealings with Trump.

Courtesy of André Grossmann

It was a controversial move, but a powerful statement in an art world dependent upon wealthy donors and collectors, some of them politically conservative. In such a system, the only way to truly prevent a work of art from getting into the hands of someone who may support President Trump is by refusing to make art at all. Independently, the artist Richard Prince recently returned a $36,000 payment made to him by Ivanka Trump for a work she bought from him in 2014 that depicted one of her Instagram posts. In a Twitter post, he disavowed the art itself, stating: “This is not my work. I did not make it. I deny. I denounce. This fake art.”

Courtesy of richardprince4/Twitter

The artists who joined in the #J20 Art Strike took the gesture literally and vowed to stop creating artwork entirely on January 20, the day that Trump was inaugurated. Instead, they took to the streets of New York to protest. Artists who signed the manifesto included Mel Bochner, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Richard Serra, Cindy Sherman, and Thomas Hirschhorn.

Many of these artists’ works will sell no matter their politics (or perhaps not if they supported Trump, at least in the short term); and even if the art didn’t sell, they’ve earned enough over the course of their careers that it should no longer matter. But what about the artists with less amplified voices?

Those artists, arguably, must continue to create, for they have no other weapons to fight injustice. For these individuals, the Museum of Modern Art, one of the highest profile institutions in the art world, has stepped up to the plate. In response to Trump’s now-blocked travel ban, MoMA has installed works by artists from the seven Muslim-majority countries on the president’s list in galleries normally reserved for artists from the Western canon. Works by Cezanne, Picasso, Burri, Tapies, and Matisse were replaced by contemporary pieces by artists from Iran, Iraq, and Sudan.

Photo by Robert Gerhardt

Each of the pieces, which include paintings, sculptures, and photographs, are being shown with the following text: “This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry into the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on January 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this museum, as they are to the United States.” The pieces will be on display for several months.

It’s a gesture that’s surprising—but encouraging—from an institution that normally stays out of the political fray, choosing instead to strike a pose of academic detachment. This statement is also an overdue corrective, since MoMA has been be accused of favoring Western art made by white males over work made by women, people of color, or any type of minority throughout the past century. The gesture, a kind of apology, shows that the museum, like much of the United States itself, has been imperfect in the past. It’s a chance to be a better, more welcoming, and inclusive organization in the future. Works shown as part of this show include The Mosque, a small oil painting by Sudanese artist Ibrahim el-Salahi, and a painting of Hong Kong by Zaha Hadid, the Iraq-born architect who died last year.

Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art

MoMA’s is just one of the many acts of protest currently taking place in public. Already, some galleries and curators have staged exhibitions responding directly to Trump’s presidency. This includes “Post-Election,” an exhibition of more than 150 female artists co-organized by Kristen Dodge and Kate Gilmore at the recently opened September Gallery in Hudson, New York. A portion of all sales will be donated directly to Planned Parenthood and Black Lives Matter; participating artists include Liz Collins, Sara Rafferty, Wendy White, and Diana Al-Hadid. The show is open through March 5. And who knows? Soon we may see more pieces currently in the works by artists in the safety of their own studios.

It remains to be seen what form of protest works best; so far, the one powerful weapon seems to be humiliating the president with caricatures of him and his team. Change takes time, as we’ve heard many times before. The worst thing to do would be nothing at all. To carry on with life exactly as it was before would be futile.