Trump Baby, as he is dubbed, is the result of six activists campaigning and fundraising £29,000 (so far) ahead of the 45th US President’s current visit to the UK and winning their right to fly him high over Parliament Square Gardens. And – although he soared safely – it wasn’t an easy path to no-more-than-30-metres above the capital. While the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan gave his permission for the blimp to fly, his team initially refused the project’s application. Although protests are permitted in Parliament Square, the official rebuttal originally hinged on the assertion that Trump Baby is ‘not a protest.’ Fascinatingly, Khan’s officials categorised the inflatable as ‘art’, thereby disqualifying it as a legitimate means of objecting to the President’s visit or his policies – at least, on their watch.
Politics aside – difficult, I agree – the semantic question raised is a really intriguing one. Art and protest have a deeply symbiotic history. Puerile or bang-on, undignified or imperative, Trump Baby is only the latest in a history as long as that of visual art itself in using images and objects to push an agenda, drive home a point, or set out an argument. Think of Picasso’s Guernica or Eliot’s The Wasteland as manifestos against the horror of war on the one hand, and banners at marches on the other. Each, in short, has a stance to communicate; subtlety or blatancy is beside the point. It cannot be true that a protest is only a protest, as the Mayor’s office originally cited, when it’s composed of “a gathering of people with banners and placards”. After all, it’s a long time since art left the exclusive realm of oil on canvas, or likeness in marble – it’s only to be expected that protest move beyond the placard. I mean, define ‘art’. Gotcha! Define ‘protest’. Actually, and of course, as far as the government of London is concerned there are pretty specific criteria in place – but desperate times, as they say, call for desperate measures.