This is a survey and criticism of some of the Trump-inspired art this year.
The Emperor Has No Balls
In September, the Indecline collective organized to put six statues of a naked Trump in various American Cities. The statues, which can be seen being made in this video, were made by an artist named “Ginger.” The statues called “The Emperor Has No Balls,” rather lacks for subtlety, and matches the crude venal tenor of the then candidate, now president-elect. This statue is wildly obese, sports a micropenis, and no testes. The statues had a moment on social media as pedestrians took selfies with the work.
Criticism from the left, including feminists like Meghina Sridhar, the Guardian’s Murray White, and the folks at Quartz have called out the statue for being too blunt, too low brow, and what’s worse – transphobic and body shaming. But there is nothing inherently body shaming about the work, rather it is probably an accurate anatomical resemblance more than anything else. Any “shaming” exists only in the mind of the interpreter. Rather, there is more precedent to depicting capitalists in their historical corpulence. Today the sign of capitalist decadence is the hairless deodorized fatless six pack hardbody, the stuff of Men’s Health covers. This is an unlikely configuration for a seventy year old to take short of Sylvester Stallone or Dr. Life’s HGH injections on late night infomercials.
As far as it is transphobic, there is no sign here of any such agenda, this is not an installation about transanything. To construe things that way would be to literalize more than is necessary. Trump’s nutlessness is more likely a remark about power.
The Emperor has no Balls can be understood as a critique of toxic masculine power. It is about a political figure who resorts to exaggerations of his wealth and power, lashes out at anyone who challenges him, is distinctly the most nakedly pernicious and venal political figure in modern history. Many supporters helped buttress Trump’s macho bully performance, making brand Trump, Trump the locker room bully, Trump the cultural phenomenon, larger than the feeble naked mortal man underneath. It’s the same phenomena behind W’s over-compensatory “bring-it-on” braggadocio.
Trump represents this compensation, a forceful macho bully in the schoolyard, delivering a blustering narcissistic performance. For what is narcissism but a profound lack of self. It is a very anxious, very reactive way to channel one’s energies. For a country in which half already live in a dystopia of failed neoliberal policy, rotting infrastructure, cities that are too expensive to live in, stagnant social mobility and wages, an unresponsive God and government, there develops what may be called a crisis cult, led by its pied piper demagogue faux-populist strongman. It’s precisely meaningful that he has no balls: that his insidious hate and xenophobia represent a crisis in American masculinity, whose hypermacho performance art compensates for its own limp-dick self loathing.
That said, it is not exactly subtle, a bit too on-the-nose. It’s a farcical object. It does not interrupt urban space, or use the location to pierce the veil. Rather it kind of bluntly asserts its own naked truth, which is, as you can see, unsubtle and deliberately obscene. It doesn’t show us anything really new. Trump here isn’t doing anything, relating to anything. There are no other figures, no actions, just a content repose, blankly gazing forward. Something more profound would have some relationship to not just power, but truth.
The Trump Chicken
Unknown artist. Currently Chinese urban spaces offer something with a little more going on. Here we have a cartoonish chicken character, the metaphor resonates as an egotistical bloviating fool. It gives us a picture of how the Chinese view Trump – as an amateur out of his depth, crowing when unwelcome. There is something a bit sore about this scrotal appearance of the rooster’s chin, sort of reminiscent of Peter Griffin’s nut chin. This chicken, however, maintains its G-Rating, while at the same time conveying all the relevant symbolic meaning of the “Emperor has no balls.”
Part of the import of art, especially art in public spaces, has to do with placement, timing, and how people either interact with the piece, or how people can take in the experience. The Trump Chicken looks like a success here – folks can take selfies and so forth, have fun with a kind of goofy, disarmed cartoon figure. Rather than tilt toward derision or confuse viewers like with No Balls, Trump Chicken is a hit.
Make America Great Again
Artist Illma Gore, of LA, caused a stir with her nude portrait of Trump. Like the No Balls statue, this drawing features a nutless gherkin resting under the hotel magnate’s ample rolls. He is posed in more of an assertive and provocative mode with a hoisted leg. It was the first of its kind and caused a stir in social media last spring, and itself was a reflection of Trump’s own behavior in the primaries – you know, the whole small hands affair, the bragging about his manhood, and so on. Gore herself was attacked by a musclehead at a grocery store shouting “Trump 2016!” after the drawing was revealed online. Gore put pictures of facial bruises online, which is always a good sign for art to … er … provoke such emotions. What’s more interesting is the aura around the drawing rather than the drawing itself. Gore initially stated that it was simply a realistic body positive drawing, deliberately obscuring the works mytique in a move that Warhol would enjoy. She later tweeted “make america decent again,” after her attack, which is telling.
This poster of Trump uses the image of Uncle Sam calling on young men to come to inclusivity in the aid of the country circa WW2, reframing the context to one of exclusivity. There is a lot going on here, playing on irony and duality such as Trump promises to create jobs, but yet is famous for his catchphrase “you’re fired.” It also implies a lot about Trump’s worldview, and that his world is divided between winners (the rich) and losers (the poor). He views wealth as virtue, and an inflated sense of self belief is his philosophy. Remember, Norman Vincent Peele, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, presided over his first marriage to Ivana Trump. This poster is simple, effective, clever.
Anonymous. Sticker street art emphasizes a more impulsive, bestial side of Trump. A Trumpanzee here represents the right wing political id. The Urban Dictionary has picked up the term, meaning “mindless follower and believer of Donald Trump. Monkey see, monkey do, I guess. Though it is remarkable how people tend to repeat what has been said by their pundits and demagogue chorus leaders. These Trumpanzees appear everywhere, each saying different ridiculous quotes from The Donald.
By Mark Bryan, who has a lot of great political art. Here is another version of Trumpanzee, depicting the power of the demagogue and the psychodynamics of fascism and post truth. This is a painting about the Trump supporter, not necessarily Trump himself. The Trump mask as the paternal superego, the authoritarian voice to bring “law and order” to the chaos within. But it has a secret pact with the enraged political id, represented by the simian self who dons a tuft of Trump hair and his ridiculous bubba trucker hat. The Chimp holds “Trump oil,” of course referring to the elixirs sold by hucksters in the past. Fabulous, insightful, chilling.
Love Trumps All
Anonymous. This stencil spray job highlights the narcissism of Trump, which is pretty easy. It doesn’t really do anything for me. Reminds me of a joke at the Comedy Central Roast – “Trump is so into himself that when he’s banging a model, he closes his eyes and imagines he’s jerking himself off.” Hmm… that itself would be a better stencil.
Don’t Feed the Trolls
Anonymous. Highlights his roll as an internet troll, and perhaps the replicable quality of trolling, of retweeting, of rebranding. It suggests that there is more to Trump than a single person, it is, as he said himself, a movement of trolls. I like these, there could be more of these.
Trump Rich Uncle Pennybags
By Chicago’s Jacob Thomas. This one uses a blend of Trump’s mouth with Mr. Monopoly. What is interesting here is that a typical hallmark of a Trump caricature is usually his unlikely hair. This however, highlights Trump’s most valuable weapon – his speech. There are lots of themes in Trump street art referring to all matters fecal, to his excremental speech, and his puckered lips allude to its oral-sadistic production.
By Hanksy of New York. Trump as steaming poo pile lacks no subtly, it is the full excremental vision. It also could mean the need for America to pass Trump through its system.
by Kilroy, in Lyon, France. Here we have street art where Trump has poo emojis flying out of his oralface. The replicability of the emojis indicate a repetitive, replicated, mechanistic way in which Trump operates. Indeed, as Fareed Zakaria of CNN articulates, citing Harry Frankfurt’s bestselling philosophy book On Bullshit, Trump is a master manufacturer, and uses the internet as his weapon. This is a simple piece of art, but a poignant simplicity that has far reaching implications.
Anonymous. A further excremental vision, Trump, lips agape, as a receptacle for piss. This one carries the vulgar into a participatory act. Wonder how its users feel?
There is this curious image of Trump in an aging stripper’s body. Corpulent red neck bling, dollar-stuffed thong, and giving hateful succor to the an infant, demonstrates what ? – crude red state populism? Trump’s smug self-satisfaction can either portray pride in what he’s feeding his dependent little one, or perhaps a boastful generational hate that he too was once fed. There is a reference here too towards a kind of cheap hucksterism, here Trump dancing for dollars.
One thing that keeps popping up as a theme here, however, is the fascination with Trump’s body. Either through some excremental fashion, or exposing him, there is a vulgar fascination with dressing down Trump. Of course, in a basic way, to envision Trump out of his business suit, which exudes formal power, is to humanize, or engage the viewer in ensculating him. Dressing down Trump can usually make him look vulnerable, as in some of the examples above, or it can do something else. Trump in feminine form with the fear and hate on each breast show Trump in a dark maternal sense. Nursing a child here his exposed flesh is not in a vulnerable state, but is in a pose of great power.
The tattooed breasts evoke Robert Mitchum’s character in the fabulous classic movie Night of The Hunter, where he plays a confidence man who uses some holy rollin’ Bible verses and faux virtuousness to prey on vulnerable widows. His knuckles famously are tattooed with “Love” and “Hate,” which is a gimmick he uses in the film.
Finally, I’ll end here by returning to Mark Bryan. This a very sophisticated painting, depicting a Trump machine. Again, Trump as a kind of device, a brand, a stirring the collective pathos. There is a bit of The Wizard of Oz evoked here (a device also used on Colbert’s Late Show “Road to the White House” segments.). An infant version of Trump, representing perhaps his actual emotional developmental level, trapped in a mirror of grandiosity.
Much has been said about there being too much personality in politics, which are increasingly free of facts or policy. But I think it is fair to argue precisely this – Trump, and Clinton, were actually running for personal reasons. They had no vision for the country, no real care to transform things. Clinton ran passionlessly – she just wanted to be President and saw an opportunity to do this. Trump sees an opportunity to advance his name, his brand, his wealth and his dynasty by stamping his gilded name on America itself. He’s doing it precisely because he is unstable. In order to do this, just as a law of narcissism, he has a continual stream of dividing people, finding diversions, finding scapegoats, having an Other to step up on. It really is a campaign about personalities, and he is involving the public in his own private pathology. This is the power of demagoguery, and how his private insecurities become a hook for the projections of the disenfranchised. It becomes a cycle of transference that is the hallmark of pathological relationships.
Mark Bryan gets all of this in this painting. I recommend his website for more work like this.
One may be tempted to ask why there is no Pro-Trump art criticized. One cannot criticize pro-Trump art because I think there is no such thing as pro-Trump art. I side with Marcuse’s aesthetics here – there is a difference between art and propaganda. Propaganda can teach us nothing, offers no depth, resonance or insight because it simply is in the service of power, not of life. Art is in service of Eros, and therefore is fundamentally critical of all forms of power.