Trump in the Present Tense
Trump in the Present Tense

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Trump in the Present Tense

As part of Plinth's commitment to engaging with art in the context of a wider political climate, we're bringing you the first in a series of articles by guest writers. 'Trump in the Present Tense' is illustrated with a series of cartoons commissioned from Gary Zhang.

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By Gary Zhang

Trump in the Present Tense

The wall to kick against has turned to liquid.

The Trump presidency is unique to American history. His campaign unfolded like a reality TV show, propelling the topic of politics into our bars and living rooms. Now he’s come to sit around our dinner tables like the racist uncle you only have to see at Christmas, except he’s staying for four years, and somehow running the show. A blatant disregard for actual facts defined his march to the White House. Granted, presidential campaigns are often motivated by voter emotion, particularly fear, but Trump’s was unique in its especial pandering to what had been a silent well of American frustration and anger. His campaign relied on rallies and social media instead of traditional means of garnering support, and his incorrigible desire to appear on stage as a caricature of himself meant the campaign came to resemble an extended performance piece. Trump’s unfortunate encounter with a bald eagle during a TIME photo shoot, for instance, is positively comic. The eagle musses Trump’s comb-over, and tries to bite his hand. Trump ducks. It was precisely these ostensibly laughable moments which guaranteed Trump free air-time on a variety of news-outlets, augmenting his appeal to his devotees and their exposure to him. Post-, as pre-election, Trump’s Twitter functions as a channel for his inflammatory, and personally motivated, remarks – Meryl Streep is “overrated”; John Lewis “WRONG!”; polls are “rigged”. Trump’s campaign and his impending presidency mark the conflation of realms previously considered distinct: the personal and the political.  So, what are the implications for Art, a realm of expression which has, until now, existed outside of objectivity?

As the language of politics – once distinct from ordinary conversation – assimilates into everyday life, we can hope that Art will come to play a refreshingly central role, too. However divergent their practices, perhaps all artists are necessarily unified now in the imperative to engage with the political turmoil of the present. Certainly, artists experience a lateral pressure to entertain political and social issues in their work. Just as in past times of crisis, we can expect that varying approaches to artistic experience and production will come together in unexpected ways. When Abstract Expressionism emerged from the trauma of World War II, it offered a view of the universe defined by feeling, gesture, and the rejection of tradition. Movements like this have historically been effective because they throw the subjectivity of the establishment, which likes to think of itself as objective, into light. Under Trump, the equation is inverted: it is Art which must try and imbue a new kind of subjective politics with some objectivity. If Art is to survive, it will require a radical rethinking of creativity. Wherever you personally stand on Art’s duty to engage with or diverge from the zeitgeist, the earthquake of Trump cannot be overstated. The very nature of the ‘political statement’ is in flux, just like the definitions of satire and even the figurative are thrown to the wind by the threat of a world order where Truth is far from top of any agenda.  The wall to kick against has turned to liquid. As the zone of the political creeps into that of the ordinary, and conjecture begins to wear the mask of fact, the rules of the game have changed.

To magnify a moment which is already exploding offers a unique challenge for creatives under Trump’s impending presidency.

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By Gary Zhang

So what’s to be done? If, as some have argued, Art’s function is to amplify our experience of the present, let’s consider the creative space offered to artists whose present is marked by dramatic uncertainty and polarization. To magnify a moment which is already exploding offers a unique challenge for creatives under Trump’s impending presidency. Artists today, no matter their political affiliation, address a divided audience in America and elsewhere. Lady Gaga, photographed protesting in front of Trump Tower brandishing the sign ‘Love Trumps Hate’, represents an iconic American moment: fearlessness in the face of risks associated with political expression. Gaga, though booked to perform at the NFL half-time show in spite of her political views, was allegedly asked not to speak about the Trump presidency during her performance at the Super Bowl. Under late-stage capitalism, popular entertainment and politics are both extensions of the market. All three have come together to form a terrifying Hydra wherein each head is indivisible from the others. It’s up to Heracles – art, here, in my labored metaphor – to find a way to slay the beast without becoming distracted by the two heads which grown for each one cut off. In the Greek Myth, Heracles calls in his cousin to cauterise the wounds; we’ll have to find an equivalent. Necessity is the mother of innovation, after all.

Our present is messy. Aside from all the social implications of Trump’s office, plenty of other issues continue to need attention. Abroad, the figure of Putin looms across Europe and beyond. At home, a football-field-sized portion of Louisiana sinks under water roughly every 24 hours. This is the America Trump is slotted to fix. Beyond the man himself, a future nearly impossible to foresee imbues the artist with a novel set of responsibilities. Our context is uniquely unstable, and artists must try to engage a present which could evaporate overnight. When one projection of the future includes thermo-nuclear war and human extinction, any possibilities for Art in the next four years remain just that: possibilities. To talk about the future for Art presumes that the right to expression, artistic and otherwise, will remain. Trump has already shown chillingly little respect for intellectual freedom, bridling furiously against the ‘fake news!’ of CNN and limply at the ‘not funny’ satire of Saturday Night Live. If the next four years are as unpredictable as the man himself, we can expect to remain on our toes.

Surely the most blaring consequence of Trump’s presidency, as recently expressed by Meryl Streep, is the rhetoric of hate it has inspired. An 115% rise in hate-crimes have been documented in America since Trump’s election. Marginalized groups, even if their basic human rights are not directly infringed by the goals of his administration, will collectively suffer from the vote of confidence Trump’s presidency has granted their opponents. Clearly: Trump is not a traditional candidate, and the problems his administration poses to American society are unusual. Should Art look to combat Trump with traditional modes of resistance? Alongside strikes organized across the nation, the J20 protest advocates for the shut-down of the Art-world on January 20th. Many museums have responded by swinging the opposite way, choosing instead to open their doors free of charge. If the name of the game has changed, why not the tactics?

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By Gary Zhang

Art, inside our ‘unpresidented’ present tense, must be not only political, but accessible.

Trump represents an era of instability in a time riddled with uncertainty: he is, perhaps, a nightmare of our own creation. But Art is a weapon too, and it is uniquely positioned to speak to our precarious social moment –even if it is forced to redefine itself under censor. Art is a tool which befits our age: its effect is visceral. It operates outside the arena of reason, logic, and information, suiting this new dawn of ‘post-truth.’ Is Art enough to shape public opinion? Is it enough to support the resolution of the crises at hand? For Art to promote national and international growth, it must be democratic, not merely a cathartic response to the present-tense. Art seems unlikely to function as we’ll need it to if it obliterates vast audiences based on their political preferences. The greatest challenge artists will face under this presidency is to rise above their personal frustration and generate work that moves towards difference, transcending background, class, and the partisan stamp. Art, inside our ‘unpresidented’ present tense, must be not only political, but accessible. More than this, Art as protest will necessarily reinvent itself; the question is not, what does the future hold for art? but rather, what will it look like?

Vanessa Saunders is an MFA candidate at Louisiana State University, and editor-in-chief of Helium Journal.

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