President Trump Has Inspired Art. That’s Not Always a Good Thing.


That may be what’s missing from so much Trump art today — the critical introspection to accompany the laughter. Mr. Guston’s drawings and paintings are intimate, as if he were grappling with the reality of Mr. Nixon’s existence. The process of making them was fraught, both politically and artistically; only a handful were shown in the following decades (Mr. Guston died in 1980). I don’t mean to suggest that contemporary artists like Ms. Bernstein and Mr. Birk don’t know the stakes of our time — I’m sure they do — but hanging on the white walls of galleries, for the eyes of a largely liberal, self-selecting public, caricatures of President Trump feel safe. Creators and viewers alike get validation, rather than a prompt for examination or self-reflection.

Part of the trouble may also be with the form. When you have a president whom many people already view as a caricature, representing him as such loses some of its disruptive power. As with Ms. Rubell’s performance, you end up with familiar images and generalized meanings. What would it look like to make art about the Trumps without their likeness? How might it create different aesthetic and political possibilities?

There are answers already out there. Some of them veer closer to propaganda than art, like Robin Bell’s light projections of protest messages on government buildings and Trump hotels. (Mr. Bell currently has a solo show on view at George Washington University.) Badlands Unlimited, the publishing company founded by artist Paul Chan, makes signs that appropriate the language and style of the posters used by the right-wing Westboro Baptist Church: “God Hates Ivanka,” reads one.

Other answers are contained within larger bodies of work. The artist Alexandra Bell researches the role of the media in the perpetuation of racism. Her exhibition last year at Recess Assembly included a blown-up and marked-up reproduction of Donald Trump’s 1989 newspaper ad calling for the execution of the Central Park Five — a searing indictment of the man who’s now president.

Sometimes the answer is only partly the work of artists, as in the case of “HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US.” In January 2017, Shia LaBeouf, Nastja Sade Ronkko and Luke Turner placed a camera at the Museum of the Moving Image and invited participants to stand before it and speak the title words. The installation was so quickly swarmed by supporters of the president and trolls that the museum removed it within a month. Its rise and fall make for an incisive portrait of the harassment and vitriol that mark the age of President Trump.

None of these works will sway public opinion; art can never be a substitute for action — and indeed, some of the most interesting reactions to Mr. Trump’s presidency have been gestures of protest, like Richard Prince’s refunding of the money paid to him for making a painting that depicts Ivanka Trump. But they can refocus our attention, open our eyes a little wider and “make us see things we didn’t know we needed to see until we see them,” as the critic Jerry Saltz once described the potency of art. When it comes to the Trumps, we’ve seen plenty already, but there remains much more that we haven’t.

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