Illustration by John Kazior

“Speak to the Moment” | Art and Culture under Trump

Blair McClendon, Jenny G. Zhang, Matt Christman, Merve Emre, Rosemarie Ho, Sasha Frere-Jones, Sophie Haigney, Tausif Noor

In 2016, grand predictions were issued about the fate of art under the new regime. The culture would suffer, dragged into the morass of Trump’s gaudy, ’80s flair — his ill-fitting suits, overlong ties, and overcooked steaks. Or no — it would usher in an artistic renaissance, a flourishing, heady underground. Comedy might be dead, but things were looking up for punk. 

Four(ish) years later, it’s time to prematurely diagnose the cultural impact of the Trump presidency. Did anyone manage to eke out great art? Or did our collective single-minded attention to White House comings and goings collapse the field of imagination? What can we learn from the bad art? We asked some of our favorite critics and cultural observers for short reflections on the highbrow, the lowbrow, and a smattering of everything in between.

Nearly 18 years have passed since President Bush ordered the bombing of Baghdad. In that time, American fiction filmmaking has largely refused to frame the Iraq War as anything more than a test of soldiers’ fortitude. Little can measure up to Laura Poitras’s My Country, My Country or James Longley’s Iraq In Fragments for their simple admission that Iraqis — and not Americans — were the protagonists in the occupation and its aftermath. It is hard to make sense of a “bad war” if you can only imagine seeing it through the eyes of the people tasked with prosecuting it. Looking back further, the great works about Vietnam (Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter) are almost exclusively about American soldiers. Here, the victims of Americanism are not yet fitting subjects for cinema. 

It is even trickier to craft films about an era when Americanism’s swaggering violence turned inward. To respond to Trump, filmmakers (or, more to the point, financiers and distributors) would have to examine their compatriots both pitilessly and mercifully. That is not a recipe for making a billion dollars at the box office.

One way out was to sidestep the need for so much money. Two of the best films “reckoning” with the Trump era preceded it. Deborah Stratman’s The Illinois Parables and Brett Story’s The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, both from 2016, pointed to what is always right there before us: punishment and denialism running neck and neck with survival and resistance. They did so while turning away from direct narrative, placing greater faith in discrete images and voices. Nonfiction has had an easier time getting away with formal experimentation; almost all documentaries are “small movies” relative to the broader industry’s budgetary standards.

When fiction did respond, it was to the response. A near decade of black militancy and feminist organizing in the workplace embarrassed executives into affording a few more opportunities. Unfortunately, these doors opened just as a wave of corporate consolidation reduced the number of doors to walk through. Hollywood’s glimpses of the future turned out to be alt-histories. Big studios trumpeted reboots or sequels, only this time inclusive of those who had been excised from the old visions. Now women can bust ghosts and black people can wield lightsabers. It is a step forward, though a smaller one than it could have been. New visions need time and care to take root. The old ones are already there, even if they tend to wilt in the heat of the present.

Blair McClendon is a writer, film editor and filmmaker.
He lives in New York.

Any hope that the surprise election of Donald Trump would be ‘good for comedy’ died screaming on November 12th when Saturday Night Live opened with Kate McKinnon sitting at a piano, in Hillary’s white pantsuit and hair helmet, singing “Hallelujah.” Why “Hallelujah?” Because it’s sad, and because Leonard Cohen had died earlier that week. Why was Hillary singing it? Because she was sad and because her presidency had also died earlier that week. It didn’t have to be funny or even make conceptual sense, it just needed to convey to the audience a sense of loss. “I’m not giving up, and neither should you,” McKinnon said directly into the camera before launching into the show’s intro. Hillary’s loss was ours, and she stood in for the audience, people who she would happily feed into an industrial meat processor in exchange for a good press cycle. 

Saturday Night Live during the Trump years consistently lived down to the expectations created by that grim scene. Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression accomplished the feat of draining anything funny out of the world-historically hilarious figure he was attempting to lampoon, but his arid flailing was at least usually confined to the cold open. Trump-era SNL was permeated throughout with the air of frantic didacticism that defined all mainstream political comedy of the last four years. The show needed to let you know that Trump was Not Normal, in part to assuage lingering guilt at having had him host the show in 2015 while he was actually running for president. What was funny then — the game show host business cretin pretending to be a politician — wasn’t funny anymore, and SNL made sure the audience felt the unfunniness. This manifested in such memorable sketch atrocities as the “All I Want for Christmas is Mueller” musical number, in which the female cast members sang to a portrait of geriatric police officer Robert Mueller, begging him to release the indictments and free them from the living hell of having to see Trump on the news. At every point of the administration, SNL was there to provide a slick, comedy-adjacent gloss on every MSNBC fantasy of Russian collusion and eventual comeuppance. This was orders of magnitude more comedically inert than SNL’s previous attitude of genial both-sides japery towards the political process. “Bill Clinton is horny” and “George Bush is dumb” might not have been groundbreaking bits, but at least they weren’t drenched in apocalyptic moralism. To watch SNL or The Daily Show, or Samantha Bee, or any of the late-night network talkers under Trump was to be placed inside a synthetic world of pure delusion, in which Trump’s obvious unfitness for office would lead, at any moment, to his removal from office. For all their manifest faults, at least QAnon true believers have to depend on their own community of DIY content creators to turn their fantasies into spectacles. Liberals could just tune into NBC every Saturday night.

Matt Christman is co-host of the podcast Chapo Trap House and
co-author of the book The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto
Against Logic, Facts and Reason

I do not know if it makes sense to speak of “art and culture under Trump” as a distinctive era for literary fiction. Much of the American fiction that has appeared in the last four years extends what Sarah Brouillette has described as the publishing industry’s longer term “convergence with social media culture” and “self-branding,” fueled by “the growing army of hungry creatives vying for attention.” This convergence has taken several forms. There is the old-fashioned realist novel, brought up to date by families who sit around dinner tables or in cars scrolling their phones, their dialogue flattened into tweets and memes. There is the novel of self-fashioning, though the self that is fashioned, we are reminded, is mere simulacrum—an unnamed, over-filtered, extremely online, precarious shape-shifter. There is the novel of bad manners, whose success hinges on how emphatically it brands its main character (usually a woman) as “unlikeable” in a world governed by virtual “likes.” There is, of course, autofiction, peddling its illusion of a real subject behind the scrim of the “I.” Where Trump and his administration appear, it is to garnish these compromised forms with timely horrors, by turns comic and cruel, and certainly more attention-grabbing than what a Clinton presidency would have delivered. 

It is in non-fiction that Trump has shaped the field more dramatically, with help from a desperate and embattled publishing industry playing to its strengths. Memoirs, and especially memoirs of professional experience, have dominated non-fiction publishing for some time now. Business memoirs, medical memoirs, political memoirs — all these tell the story of how charismatic individuals transcend organizational incompetence by hard work, smart marriages, disciplined self-governance, strategically placed friends and mentors, and sometimes, the grace of God. So far, so liberal. The brilliance of Trump’s cronies has been to revel in that incompetence, like pigs rutting in their own shit. Who needs the sober trappings of well-crafted authority when you have the tawdry spectacle of name-calling (Anonymous describes Trump as “a 12-year-old in an air traffic control tower,” Anthony Scaramucci calls him a “loser”); of pop psychology (Omarosa Newman diagnoses him as suffering from “extreme narcissism”); of campy children’s stories masquerading as political analysis (Sean Spicer: Trump is a “unicorn riding a unicorn over a rainbow.”). The publishing industry has been only too happy to give shelter to those whom Trump has unleashed from his side, and to amplify the politics of insult and invective he has bequeathed to them, all of us, as mass cultural entertainment. The well-timed publication of Barack Obama’s memoirs suggest a return to business as usual.

Speaking truthfully, there is something irritating to me about the desire to make “art and culture under Trump” into a coherent and important category. I left New York with my family in June 2016 — first for Montréal, then Oxford, finally Berlin — and the deep, unassuming provincialism of American literary culture has never seemed starker to me. It goes hand-in-hand with a desire for books to “speak to the moment,” an imperative that weds an inflated sense of literature’s political urgency to a tried-and-true marketing strategy. Literary coverage reproduces this provincialism and this presentism — this is, in part, the business of review sections that devote much of their limited coverage to new releases in English, as well as retrospectives like “art and culture under Trump” that quietly insist on the primacy of the latter for understanding the former. I have been thinking a lot recently about whether there is a way out of this game of culture — not through a cultivated pose of nihilism or not caring, which concedes too much, and is neither good nor generative for criticism. Rather, it might be through performing and advocating for a criticism whose objects are produced through different economic and aesthetic configurations than ones that fall into the category “art and culture under Trump,” or even “contemporary American fiction.”

My resistance as a reader and critic has been minor, but sustaining. I have read and written about many more books written in other languages; many more books translated from other languages into English; many more books from the 19th and 20th centuries; many more reissues. (I vastly prefer my authors dead.) When I do read contemporary American fiction, I find myself gravitating to forms that embrace the surreal, the fabular, the gleefully anti-mimetic, like Adam Erlich Sachs’s The Organs of Sense or Hilary Leichter’s Temporary. It is no accident that much of the recent fiction I have written about has been published by independent presses committed to keeping an international avant-garde alive: New Directions, NYRB Editions, Dorothy Press, Semiotext(e), Soho Press, The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, Europa Editions, as well as university presses around the world. Nor is it an accident that the most exciting writing, at once sensuous and philosophical, is taking place in the experimental short stories published in NOON, by writers like Christine Schutt and Kathryn Scanlan. (It is time we stopped talking about the School of Gordon Lish and started talking about the Atelier of Diane Williams.) A single reader or critic can only do so much to draw attention to these forms of cultural production. One hopes and dreams, and perhaps begins to sketch in one’s mind, the roughest outline of a magazine that would come to these readers’ and critics’ aid with the same eagerness that the publishing industry stepped in to assist Trump’s lackeys.

Merve Emre is associate professor of English at the
University of Oxford.

This past month, the New Museum bid goodbye to “Crime and Punishment,” a survey exhibition by the artist Peter Saul. Known since the 1960s for his lampooning of American culture in lurid paintings of political figureheads and military disasters rendered in a cartoonish style, Saul’s figurative scenes are shot through with a yen for the grotesque, all mangled bodies and garish colors. Billed as “a perfect expression of our horrific present,” the exhibition spanned some sixty paintings featuring likenesses of familiar characters ranging from Chairman Mao and Ronald Reagan to Daffy Duck and Angela Davis. General Custer fights Native Americans in a lime green landscape; a grinning Dubya pokes a finger into the gaping hole of a disfigured Abu Ghraib prisoner. There were also the requisite terrible Trump portraits: in Florida, among the gators, as Wonder Woman battling Kim Jong Un. It feels like a cheap shot  — verging on elder abuse, really — to direct vitriol toward an octogenarian artist who has made a career poking good fun at the state and its various offenses. (“I don’t think the war was a good idea; there was strong negative feelings about artwork featuring the Vietnam war,” he said in an interview with The Guardian.) And critics like his work: Holland Cotter, New York Times doyen, praised Saul’s “anti-authoritarian chutzpah.” The New Yorker’s Peter Schejdahl called him a “yahoo’s yahoo,” a “paladin.”

It’s not exactly a surprise that Saul’s combination of obvious messaging and cheeky formalism struck a chord with a certain generational set (legacy media staffers), and it made sense that the retrospective should have been housed in an institution famous for an exhibition titled “Bad Painting.” But between the impeachable blandness of the art itself and the New Museum’s own hypocrisy, the curatorial endeavor felt representative of the failure of art institutions to process — much less effectively respond to — a political moment wherein demagoguery and superficial posturing are offered as rejoinders to economic inequity and racist state-sanctioned violence. In January 2019, art workers at the New Museum formed a union; for months afterward, the institution sought to squash their organizing efforts, employing notorious union-busting firm Adams Nash Haskell & Sheridan. When the pandemic hit and the institution furloughed 41 of its staff members in March, many of those affected were union members. In June, 18 of those staff members were laid off from the museum, prompting the union to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. Far from being an outlier in the field, the New Museum only joins a list of institutions that seem happier to rearrange the window dressing than reckon with their own internal rot, from board members that invest in neoimperial militarization (MoMA PS1) and tear gas (the Whitney) to clumsy attempts to cash in on political activism (the Whitney, once again). Left in the hands of grasping, bumbling administrators, cultural institutions seem poised toward complete irrelevance, a tendency only exacerbated by their reliance on artists and cultural producers to shore up their intellectual and moral lacunae via “Representation.”

Yet simultaneously, as the organized responses to blunders of these New York museums indicate — Whitney board member Warren Kanders has since resigned, and more and more unions have been forming at museums across the country — the present art-world dissatisfaction might augur a new horizon wherein institutional critique is revamped to take seriously the material conditions of artists and art workers alike. As workers organize, museums face pressure to divest from nefarious philanthropy, and we witness a changing of the guard at the top of institutions, we can glimpse a future populated by a more equitable — and frankly, more interesting — cultural community. Hopefully, what such a community can usher in is new institutional structures equipped to approach contemporary politics as productive prompts for exhibition making, rather than hasty afterthoughts. Historically speaking, the promise of institutional critique was transformation; it failed to deliver the goods because it soon became subsumed by the insipid approach those same institutions took toward the art itself. Should institutional critique actually become immanent critique and material reality, oriented toward commitments that do more than merely “represent” politics but rather create conditions where politics are actually worked out in the experience of art itself, we might find ourselves somewhere beyond cartoonish gestures.

Tausif Noor is a critic living in Philadelphia.

Any number of descriptions could be used to sum up the past four years — “horrifically cruel,” for one; also “blazingly stupid” — but for me, maybe the seventh or eight thing that comes to mind is the iconic declaration, tweeted by former ESPN correspondent Darren Rovell three weeks before the 2016 presidential election: “i feel bad for our country. But this is tremendous content.”

And tremendous it was — not necessarily in the sense of its quality, but boy, was there a lot of it. Memes and shitposts, takes and countertakes, earnest cringe and detached irony, viral tweets that became TikTok videos that become aggregated Instagram stories and back again, brand drivel and #Resistance grifting, feverish conspiracy theories and all caps from red-white-and-blue avatars, the presidential tweets that launched a thousand news cycles and maybe just as many nationalist extremists. A torrent of content, some of it funny, a lot of it shit, all of it a testament to just how dire poster’s disease has gotten in the most terminally online years we’ve had yet.

The internet is healing, I would say now, but we should all know better: a garbage vortex of such scale doesn’t just disappear, but drifts on, accumulating more and more trash, slowly choking everything around it. 

Jenny G. Zhang is a culture writer. She currently works as a staff
writer for Eater and hosts a
podcast about film/TV.

What Trump did to popular music was a grand total of nothing, with the discontinuity of American life visible in that gap. The charts did have blips, like the few country artists yoked into his orbit (hi, Toby Keith), but those outliers simply illuminated Trump’s absence. Lil Nas X’s gay cowboy rapping was the nightmare of a hardcore Trump buddy, though it’s possible that “Old Town Road” reached across the aisle for an historic nineteen weeks because it could recuperate the social loss with an aesthetic inversion.

There were very few songs that referred to Trump’s diseased legacy until the Pandemic Revolution Summer, and songs like “FDT” (from 2016) were already resistance music. “FDT,” like a free roll of Bounty landing gently at your feet, simply absorbed Trump’s failure. Popular musicians ignored Trump and however much that smarted—who doesn’t need a friend to scream along with?—that distance looks appropriate now. If Trump is the QAnon hood ornament, it makes sense that he has no complement in any popular music based in reality. XXXTentacion’s “Sad!” deserves a mention for the title but nothing else.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a musician and writer from New York.

“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes,” Donald Trump told CNN in August 2015, referring to Fox News host Megyn Kelly, who had pushed him in an interview about misogynistic comments he’d made in the past. “Blood coming out of her wherever.” Remember that? I didn’t. Even then, it wasn’t close to being the most sexist comment he made during the course of the Republican primary; five years on, post-Access Hollywood, post-election, post-presidency, it is one of a long litany of Trump remarks that I have simply memoryholed. I had to google the details in order to write them out.

But I do remember an artifact that emerged in the immediate aftermath of these comments. As news networks replayed the tape and debated whether Trump was seriously, actually making a joke about Megyn Kelly’s period, Portland-based visual artist Sarah Levy responded by painting a portrait of Trump with her own menstrual blood. In it, he looks angry and oafish, his mouth hanging open. Blood appears to be oozing from his left eye. The symbolism here is heavy-handed and overt, “shocking” insofar as using bodily fluids on the canvas can produce the effect of shock. Its political content is fairly obvious, if slightly muddled: Trump is bad; periods are good and should not be denigrated. Okay, sure. But the portrait doesn’t go much beyond that, either as art or a political statement.

Perhaps above all else — whether Levy intended it to be or not — it was an artwork perfectly calibrated to generate a news cycle in the early days of the Trump era. USA Today ran a video segment with a chyron that read “Controversial Painting of Donald Trump.” “A Portland artist’s unusual painting is making national headlines,” their story began, never mind that USA Today was itself writing those headlines and generating the controversy around the painting. When I think about visual art in the Trump era, I think about this piece, because it encapsulates so much of what would come in protest art that tried to take on Trump: anger, shock, mimicry, all wrapped into an image that, becoming its own outrage cycle, led nowhere interesting or new.

Sophie Haigney is a journalist and critic who often
writes about visual art and technology.

For approximately five weeks after November 6, 2016, and before the pink pussy hat came and went, self-identified progressives wore safety pins. Wearing a pin, they reasoned, was an easy way to demonstrate solidarity with anyone who felt threatened by the impending Trump regime or roving fascists: I’m not like them, you don’t need to worry, you can come to me if a fascist/racist is harassing you on the street. Celebrities like Michael Moore and Kerry Washington sported these unlikely brooches, and people took to Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter with #safetypin to proclaim their support.

And then came the takes. Countless overwritten blogs for and against the gesture ran in the intervening weeks. The New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs section mocked those who wore a safety pin “the good, approachable kind of privileged” (not unlike those who go around with New Yorker tote bags); The New York Times ran a Style piece on the trend; the Atlantic went even further, writing: “The safety pin has always offered a way to hold clothing together. Now it transcends that utility, promising to hold people together too.” When two Black women started a subscription service called the Safety Pin Box targeting guilty and confused white people who wanted to learn how to fight white supremacy, Jesse Singal, famous for insisting that “if someone DOES deny your right to exist, and is in a position of power and willing to debate you, how crazy would it be to NOT debate them??”, scolded those who bought the subscription for “woke white slacktivism” in the pages of New York. So goes the dialectic of liberal-reactionary critique in the Trump era: the hills upon which people die are so centered on piecemeal individual — dare I say aesthetic — gestures as to be insignificant and kind of stupid, but there’s no better feeling than self-righteousness, I guess. 

Meaningless virtue signalling (see: the shoddy Instagram blackout against police brutality, the bump in White Fragility sales), performative politics for clout (see: the industrial nonprofit complex), and call-outs to both will certainly continue in Obama’s third term. Social media will continue to reward scolds and posers. But it is worth remembering that for a few glorious months in the summer, people were posting screenshots of their payments to different bail funds across the country and asking their friends and followers to match them, beseeching one another to join the protests for Black lives. Social media felt less like a place for self-aggrandizement then — more of a vital conduit for mutual aid, where strangers could exchange intel and share in the collective rage and breathlessness that come with revolt. Perhaps that is far too optimistic a note to end on in an era of obnoxious cheerleading for Biden and Harris. Brunch is, after all, the best time for catty rejoinders and knowing smiles shared with an in-crowd, all quick to guzzle hot air.

Rosemarie Ho is a writer, critic, and fact-checker. Her work has been published in The Nation, The Point Magazine, and The Outline.