Tuesday, January 30, 2018


Vincent van Gogh, Landscape with Snow, 1888. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Thannhauser Collection.
Anybody's guess why Donna Hayashi Smith, who's been a curator with the White House collections staff since at least 2003 and manager of the collections for quite a while, thought it would be a good idea to ask the Guggenheim Museum for the loan of this bleak picture (just when van Gogh had first fled Paris for the sunny south, he found it blanketed with a fresh snowfall, a bad omen) as an ornament for the president's private living quarters, but it's a safe bet it wasn't Donald's or Melania's idea. How would they even have heard of this painting's existence? What in it would have appealed to them?

You can even think she meant it as a kind of snark—that guy in the black hat is lonely, but not as lonely as Donald, the first president since Andrew Johnson not to have owned a pet (even Johnson did, according to the Whackyweedia, take up with some White House mice, white ones. but he didn't bring any animals to the residence). Or even quiet advice—get a dog, Donald! But it lacks everything valued—heat and sumptuousness—in Trump's aesthetic, other than being worth a lot of money.

Much more in line with the Trumpian aesthetic, as we know, is the counter-offer from the Guggenheim's chief curator, Nancy Spector, which has gotten a lot of publicity, an installation piece by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, America, shown in a single-stall, gender-neutral bathroom on the fifth floor from September 15 2016 to September 15 2017, and offered by the artist to the Trumps for as long as they'd like to use it:

Maurizio Cattelan, America, 18-carat gold cast and functional plumbing. 2016. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2016. 
Opulent and almost unspeakably warm-colored, and at the same time practical in the way a hard-headed businessman can appreciate, Cattelan's piece is also Trump-branded, so to speak, with its direct reference to the then presidential candidate, known for the golden sink, bathtaps, and shower head in the Five-Star Bathroom of his Trump Tower triplex. And at the same time there's a real populism in its accessibility to everyone who visited the museum, from the tycoon patron to the impoverished student, as a hundred thousand did over the life of the exhibit, waiting in long lines to participate in the artwork; as Spector wrote,
Though crafted from millions of dollars’ worth of gold, the sculpture is actually a great leveler. As Cattelan has said, “Whatever you eat, a two-hundred-dollar lunch or a two-dollar hot dog, the results are the same, toilet-wise.” Art-wise, the work reached a certain pinnacle of acceptability—or notoriety—when it was featured on the cover of the New York Post (September 15, 2016) with the headline, “We’re #1 (and #2!),” and an article titled, “The Guggenheim Wants You to Crap All Over ‘America.’ ”
I've been getting all kinds of grief in the comments for saying yesterday that I couldn't understand the Guggenheim's offer to loan America to the Trumps, as if I didn't know about the juxtaposed references to Duchamp and Trump or as if the simple rudeness of the gesture offended me, but I really just didn't understand it. What was it meant to accomplish? Who was it meant to be understood by?

Because if it was for us, you know, it didn't seem to be telling us anything we didn't know—how many different ways do we need for calling the president a short-fingered vulgarian? And if it was for them, how could it do anything but offend them, and confirm them in their view that they have good taste (Stuart Varney on Fox Business demanding that Spector resign; Franklin Einspruch at The Federalist calling it "a potty joke" and thinking he's done something immensely clever)? How could they learn anything else from it? What was the difference between this and offering the Trumps, say, Andrés Serrano's Piss Christ (as opposed to exhibiting Piss Christ, which was of course the right thing to do)? How was it supposed to take anyone someplace we're not already at?

And I'll tell you, I'm a dada-lover from way back, and I really don't like my conceptual art to have all that many concepts in it, on the whole, especially if they're really easy concepts (as Piss Christ, for one, wasn't). How is America any better than a piece of conceptual disco (thump thump thump) like Tracey Emin's I Don't Believe in Love But I Believe in You (neon, 2012)?

Via Artsy.
But it occurred to me that the media coverage I've seen didn't really treat America as a work of art at all. A lot of it didn't even particularly mention the artist's name, and it was by way of looking for that that I started reading about it, and getting a wider sense of the context of Spector's gesture, and what the gesture was (writing a harshly expressed email to Hayashi Smith and allowing it to be released to the press), and what Cattelan's sculpture was in the first place.

Which was not at all what I supposed, a kind of Jeff Koons commodification of Duchamp's Fountain, because of the detail I'd missed that it was not just a real working toilet but meant to be used, and was used, by anybody who came to the Guggenheim over the course of the year. And contributed to it in the most elemental way (well, it was flushed, obviously, and cleaned every 15 minutes during opening hours, I mean contributed as you might contribute by dancing in an installation, or taking a selfie).

It's that aspect, that it's an intimately participatory artwork, that makes it profoundly original, and even moving (heh, you see what I did there), and it's that aspect that's pointed at by the idea of installing it in the East Wing, where nobody ever goes but Trumps and their personal acquaintances, but especially the Emperor himself—because between the early morning tweeting and the constipation-inducing diet, we envisage Trump enthroned on the toilet more readily than any other president in our history, phone in hand. An excremental analogue to that extra scoop of ice cream he enjoys while the guests don't, the opposite of Jacksonian populism. It embodies Trump's psychopathy, which in turn embodies Republican selfishness. Spector's offer, and the ensuing discussion, on top of the wry aesthetic Trumpism of the original notion of a golden toilet, from back when he was just a hilariously implausible candidate, is a part of the artwork in its own right, and I'm liking it a lot now that I get it.

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