“Everything that deceives may be said to enchant.” ~Plato
Left: Pere Borrell del Caso: Escaping Criticism (1874), oil on linen. Banco de España, Madrid.
Artistic Wasteland: The Arts in America in the Age of Military Parades
On Monday, February 8th, 2016, candidate Donald Trump spoke at a Rotary Club gathering in Manchester, New Hampshire, where several Arts Action Fund members were present and attempted to ask Trump about his position on the arts. While he answered few questions, he did remark on his aesthetic goals for his proposed border wall with Mexico. To paraphrase Trump, he said “And I am going to have to add some designs to the wall because someday they might name it after me and I want it to look real nice” (Source: Americans for the Arts Action Fund).
Maybe you’ve noticed the silence. There is a marked absence of those wonderful performances at the White House, where a variety of entertainers of all stripes and stagecraft gather to share their talent with the president, first lady and a room-full of appreciative, invited guests. That bleak wasteland of non-events has become the official 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue arts scene, as those coveted invitations have all but vaporized. This unfortunate blackout likely has dual causation: on the one hand, the entertainment world is largely inhabited by a liberal, activist community, one no longer welcomed in the myopic world Trump inhabits; and on the other, recognizing any particular artist means legitimizing the entire artistic community, a message anathema to Trump’s political and budgetary stance in an age of non-essential cut backs, big military build-up and wall-building expectations. His guiding principle: “If I agree to see one, I’d have to ‘see’ them all,” thus opening the door to a broader debate. A third, even more disheartening reason, is that he just doesn’t care enough about the arts to want to expend his time dealing with it.
When asked early on in his administration in writing by The Washington Post whether there were particular artists the First Family would invite to the White House, or arts he would draw attention to as president? He replied: First, there is no Constitutional obligation for the President to do what your question implies. That said, supporting and advocating for appreciation of the arts is important to an informed and aware society. As President, I would take on that role. As for identifying people to sing, read or invite to the White House, I will not identify them to save them from the media storm that would surely come. It would not be fair to them.”
That may be as close to a truism as we have ever heard him utter. Regarding this official statement, I think is was Oprah who once said: “If a person tells you who they really are, believe them!”
Trump’s history as a real estate developer and the arts are worth noting. New York City’s Trump Tower now stands on the site of the former Bonwit Teller department store. When construction plans were underway, Trump agreed to donate two historic Art Deco friezes, which decorated that old building’s exterior, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Trump later balked at the cost of saving them, reneging on his promise. “So,” as he put it in The Art of the Deal, “I ordered my guys to rip them down.” On the other hand, we can credit him with paying the city of New York to have the Saint-Gaudens’ statue of General Tecumseh Sherman resurfaced in flashy gold leaf, where it stands near Central Park, at the corner of 5th Avenue and 59th Street. It should be noted, though, that Trump’s self-effacing handiwork is within site of the entrance to his building, serving as a constant visual reminder of his benevolence, as he comes and goes from his prized, high-profile property.
Right: From a painting by Rembrandt Peale of George Washington and a photograph of Vladimir Putin on horseback.
In Trump’s fitful, waking fugue state (which constitutes the closest he will ever get to a Bach cantata), he contemplates being rid of the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and, of course the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (NPR) funding. These, along with that pesky Planned Parenthood organization enjoy broad public support, unless you travel in that bullet proof, sound insulated entourage that whisks the thin-skinned Trump Inner Circle, sirens blaring, between public gatherings held to reinforce pre-existing views in a world according to the ‘Deal Maker.’ At least for this 2018-19 fiscal go-round, line item funds were retained, offering some hope that public sentiment still holds sway in the halls of Congress.
At a certain level, though, Trump can lay claim to being a lover of the arts. He considers his buildings to be “works of art,” starting with the large brass letters spelling out his name that emblazon each of his residential and commercial projects. Moving through his gilded, marble clad flagship atrium, one `80s architectural critic fawned, “…Trump Tower may well be the most pleasant interior public space to be completed in New York in some years.” That ‘good taste’ then runs through the public spaces to any of the luxury apartments that are leased or rented for thousands per night. Not the least of these are his own personal residences, which one decorator described as, “being designed with Louis XIV in mind while picking furniture and textiles.” His latest project—and one that might raise concerns about the public service emoluments clause (double dealing)–is the Trump Hotel, just blocks from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. The former post office for the city, this luxury property now attracts the wealthy and connected from around the world, all seeking favor with the hotel’s owner, who just happens to be America’s chief executive.
Right: Donald Trump, Late for Work, 1984.
In 2013, when Trump purchased the Old Post Office Building with plans to convert, several government arts agencies had long resided in the space, including the aforementioned National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. They were then forced to relocate. And while renovations for the building resulted in a tax credit of $40 million, very little was spent on art for the space. Again, citing the Washington Post, Trump said, “Friends of mine, they spend these ridiculous amounts of money on paintings. I’d rather do jobs like this, and do something really that the world can cherish and the world can see and that everyone in D.C. can truly be proud of.”
I’m reminded of a quote by former New York Senator, Patrick Moynihan (d. 2003), “Politics has a knack of defining decency downward.”
Looking ahead to later this year (Veterans’ Day has been proposed), I can only imagine it: a red-faced vulgarian mounts the stage, bedecked with a laurel crown placed atop his golden locks by his own small hands. A phalanx of missiles rumble by to the sound of cheering crowds, piped in over loudspeakers from a deus ex machina contraption hidden behind a velvet curtain. No need to worry…the arts in America are alive and well…Theater of the Absurd coming soon to Pennsylvania Avenue!
Thanks for reading ARTES
Richard J. Friswell, Managing Editor