Visibly disturbed by Donald Trump’s election victory, American artists and art professionals have widely expressed their dismay via the media and social networks. Rounding off this press review, Frenchwoman and long-time US resident Véronique Chagnon-Burke, academic director of Christie’s Education in New York, shares her personal views on the event.
“We have a lot of work to do to make America smart again,” states Shepard Fairey, designer of the well-known Barack Obama Hope poster, on Artnet. Wavering between disbelief, disappointment and a desire to fight back, artists have reacted in large numbers, following the news of Donald Trump’s victory on 8 November. On social networks, artists who supported Hillary Clinton, whether openly or less openly, have largely expressed their concerns. For the Democrats were the ones who the art world was overwhelmingly rooting for. As well as a few music stars (Madonna, Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen…) who got heavily involved in the campaign in the days before the vote, the contemporary-art world also rallied together in favour of Clinton. On 12 September, Larry Gagosian organised the Art for Hillary charity sale, featuring works by Jeff Koons, Chuck Close, Barbara Kruger and Sarah Sze.
A little before the results were revealed, it was Barbara Kruger – once again – who created the cover of the New York magazine: a close-up of the new president’s face, labelled with the word “Loser”. This front page, published before the results came out, can be taken as a metaphor of the blindness of the press, with several representatives from the art community acknowledging, following the results, that they had been living “in a bubble”.
Adam Moss, the magazine’s editor-in-chief said that he and his team chose the picture “for the three ways in which it could be interpreted: as Trump speaking (single word epithets being his specialty); as a description of Trump; and as a call on the election result”. On social networks, numerous voices, from Yoko Ono to David Shrighley, have also spoken up. Wolfgang Tillmans, already known for his opposition to the Brexit, published a number of messages, texts and photos on Instagram, including Gee Vaucher’s picture of Lady Liberty weeping into her hands. “The Trump Nightmare Is Here” was the title on the Hyperallergic web site dedicated to the emerging American scene. “The art community will have to help by innovating new paths forward, because the old ways don’t work, and they haven’t for a while,” observed writer Hrag Vartanian, calling on vigilance, especially in the domain of freedom of expression.
A quick Internet search confirms that art was one of the big themes missing from the campaign. Candidate Donald Trump has said practically nothing on the issue. If we overlook the personality of the Republican showing little interest in art, this absence of any programme is not entirely surprising when we remember that in the United States, the financing of culture primarily relies on sponsorship and philanthropy. Véronique Chagnon-Burke, academic director of Christie’s Education in New York, reminds of the limited means of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), “with a $146 million budget, in other words, 46 cents per inhabitant”. But Trump’s indifference to art and creation should also be related to his broader mistrust of the political and intellectual elite – against whom he targeted much of his campaign. Amongst his rare declarations in support of art, the billionaire wished, in February 2016, for the wall separating Mexico from the United States to be decorated. He has declared that it will be a “beautiful wall because some day they’ll name it after me and I want it to be beautiful”.
The art market waits
Lacking information on his programme and given his tendency to change his opinion as the wind blows, professionals in the art world find themselves “in great uncertainty,” notes Véronique Chagnon-Burke. “Big evening sales, organised around works of exceptional quality, should not be affected. Claude Monet’s grain-stacks or the Kandinsky being sold at Christie’s this week are masterpieces which represent safe values in this period of uncertainty on how markets will evolve.” With Impressionist and modern works standing out as safe investments, a certain wait-and-see attitude may well emerge among sellers who may hesitate about putting certain pieces back on the market. This situation risks further complicating access to these exceptional works. And does the threat of taxes on exports coming from China worry art dealers? “My colleagues remain confident and positive given the globalisation of the market,” replies Véronique Chagnon-Burke. Evolutions in inflation, decisions on taxation and tax policy are other elements to keep an eye on in coming months. As summed up by one art professional interviewed by Artnet, what is now needed “is to be prepared for the unexpected so it could go in either direction”.
Véronique Chagnon-Burke has nonetheless observed a type of awakening of consciences in the days following the result. “Beyond the sadness and incomprehension, the community of artists, critics and curators see this result as an opportunity to bring art back to serve dialogue and understanding of the world,” insists the academic director of Christie’s Education. One sign among others of this movement is Brooklyn Museum’s act of charging no admission fees all last weekend. And in the subway, artist Matthew Chavez has set up a board on which passengers can express messages of hopes on Post-it notes. The operation, called Subway Therapy, has been a great success. Time will tell if this awakening remains one-off or marks the start of a new artistic era.