August 21, 2017

SHERMAN | Trump Protest Art Doesn’t Work, and Liberals Should Understand Why

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        If nothing else, the never-ending tenseness of the mainstream news cycle since Trump’s inauguration has shown that Americans of most political dispositions are welcoming of breaks in the barrage for levity, rarely though they’ve come. The “covfefe” foible, more so than anything else, was proof of this: if America’s right and left didn’t exactly find humor in Trump’s goof for the same reasons, they were at least, however briefly, laughing about it together. It’s been a similar story for the most recent marquee protest of the president, a 30-foot-tall inflatable chicken — coiffed and gesticulating just like the commander in chief — which was inflated behind the White House on August 9. Already and with bemusement from both sides, it’s been given a name, a hashtag, a Halloween costume, dozens of news articles and (of course) hundreds of memes.

But its sheer ridiculousness has, in large part, clouded what might be the most important thing it’s been given: a political stance. “It’s a visual protest,” according to its creator, Taran Singh Brar, one that plays specifically on Trump’s own narcissism. “The president himself is so visually obsessed,” said Brar in an interview with NPR, “that I know that something like this has potency.”

If potency is measured by brashness and visibility, then one would be at a loss to disagree with the artist there. The balloon is massive, ostentatious; in fact, it first came to the national consciousness when it baffled a pair of on-air reporters for Fox News, over whose shoulders it could be seen from several blocks away, looming behind the White House. In the wake of this unveiling, the piece was met with a reception congruous with those of other famous examples of Donald Trump Protest Art (which has become a veritable genre to itself over the course of the past year or so). That is, it was shared, lauded, laughed about, laughed at and (pretty soon will be) forgotten.

But the most crucial trait it shares with many (though not all) of its Trump-busting artistic companions is quite a bit more insidious than merely its lifecycle: Don the Chicken, progressive though its intentions may be, attacks Trump on his very own terms; terms that we see almost daily to be growing in their vileness and hostility.

According to Brar himself, the Trump Chicken was meant to convey the message “that the president’s too afraid to take action. He’s a weak and insecure leader and playing a great game of chicken with North Korea.” Even setting aside this statement’s obvious and unsettling bellicosity (Was the chicken really meant to goad a warmonger? Is it supposed to be critiquing the president’s restraint?), what Brar says and how he’s saying it belies an even deeper-set issue of alignment not only with his blow-up installation, but endemic to a vast swath of existent Trump art in general.

For its part, the message which the Trump Chicken was inflated to convey is so simple, so without nuance that it’s almost too obvious to have to write: Trump is a chicken, plain and simple, weak, stupid, flighty, ugly, and, most obviously, a wimp; America instead needs a powerful, audacious, experienced leader, a politician to put his foot down and lead the people, for the people. Any qualities in the realm of weakness, vulnerability, uncertainty or insecurity are so clearly useless and unpresidential that any artistic discourse critiquing our leader would be wise to cast them aside and presuppose brawniness, fortitude, strength and virility — unabashed masculinity, in a word — as the traits of a desirable American ruler. Thus, Don the Chicken is a brazen visual ad hominem which operates in much the same way as the dweeb whose retort to the schoolyard bully goes, “Yea? Well you’re even more of a pussy than me!” Sure, it’s a jab thrown in the right direction, but its punch is packed with all the same systemic garbage that ultimately churns out the demagogue it’s trying to fight against. Maybe that’s why the alt-right has had such an easy time coopting Brar’s attack.

Unfortunately, Don the Chicken isn’t caught in this cycle alone. From Ilma Gore’s storied painting of Trump with a micropenis, to murals of Trump locked in a slightly-more-intimate-than-diplomatic embrace with other world leaders, to urinals decorated so that you can pee straight into your president’s mouth, the supposition is rampant that the best way to critique Trump’s masculinity is to assert our own. And all this doesn’t serve to take Trump down a peg — it just reifies the very thing that makes him so dangerous. For a poorly-endowed portrait to carry any weight, you have to presume that bigger means manlier and manly means better. An image of Trump and Putin swapping spit is only worth its weight in pigment if gayness is weakness on the global front. What better way to emasculate the demagogue you hate than by a micturition straight through his lips?

The reason that so many of these critiques start to crumble when held up to any serious ideological scrutiny is because they’re all just that: ideological to the core. That is, so much of the Trump Protest Art which we’ve gotten has been devoutly, proudly and unfortunately liberal — and Don the Chicken could well serve as the movement’s poster-child. It diametrically opposes itself to something that, as we look past its riled-up veneer, it’s clearly not all that far removed from; it invents a chasm of ideological distance where, in reality, there’s only a creek. At best, then, the lion’s share of Trump Protest Art has been innocuous in its liberalism, the visual equivalent of a peaceful protest. At worst (and in a similarly liberal vein), those creations which seem to be posing the tough questions just end up reinscribing the venom they think they’re critiquing.

All this isn’t to say, though, that there has been no good anti-Trump art. A handful of performances which have focused on giving visual representation to the importance of solidarity at the current moment have been particularly striking, and abject art has been given a powerful new platform in (literally) shitting on the president. But of these, even the best has seemed lacking, somehow incomplete. In an aesthetic age which privileges the many, the multiple, the system, the nonspecific and its form, Trump’s unavoidable and abrasive singularity seems to force artists to go to bat on the level of content, defying, at least for now, the possibility of any truly progressive critique.

 

Troy Sherman is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at tsherman@cornellsun.com