Make Art Great Again:how the terror of Trump stumped the satirists

Jon Deery questions whether the art that attempted to satirise Trump was wholly successful

Jon Deery
8th December 2020
Too absurd to satirise, too terrifying to be serious about: Donald Trump’s presidency proved impossible for most artists to capture memorably. 

It was satire, the most overtly political art form, that suffered the most painful transformation between 2016 and 2020. Armando Iannucci, the British satirist behind The Thick of It and Veep, said during his term that Trump ‘has changed the way that political satire works – he is the entertainer spouting the fiction, so the interesting comedians are those taking the opposite route, talking audiences through the facts like John Oliver and Seth Meyers do, with a journalistic edge. The roles have flipped.’

Trump’s self-indicting powers were so strong that adding artistic commentary was superfluous. And it wasn’t just late show hosts using Trump’s own absurdity against him: Alexandra Bell, in her art piece exploring the media’s role in racism, included an enlarged version of Trump’s actual 1989 newspaper ad calling for the execution of the ‘Central Park Five’. That article speaks for itself as powerful proof of Trump’s racism.

Trump’s self-indicting powers were so strong that adding artistic commentary was superfluous.

Iannucci elaborated in an interview that, since satire is supposed to be an exaggeration of real life, it is nearly impossible to write satire about America’s 45th president, because, well, “Trump is an exaggeration.”

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One way of satirising absurd times is to contextualise them; in America in 2017, the stage company Shakespeare in the Park cast their Julius Caesar as a blond man with a red tie, comparing Trump with the historical tyrant. Audiences laughed at his vanity, his wild hand gestures, and his rhetoric. They didn’t laugh so much about his assassination, though; conservative America were not ready for a staged depiction of their president’s brutal murder.

Even though the backlash completely misunderstood the fundamental argument of Shakespeare’s play (that political assassination is a dangerous, messy process that is doomed to fail), the severity of the criticism showed that this production had hit a nerve in America. Donald Trump Jr was prompted to ask: “Serious question, when does ‘art’ become political speech, and does that change things?”

Uncharacteristically, Trump Jr. was touching on something important there (albeit in the wrong context): the notion of art as political speech. In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Jillian Steinhauer asks why so much of the protest art about Trump feels hollow and forgettable:

“The answer, I think, has something to do with the difference between art that is political and art that is about politics… the first arguably has some kind of political intent, meaning or program embedded in its structure… by contrast, in art about politics, the subject matter is the primary statement, which means what you see is mostly what you get.”

Wikimedia

There have been provocative pieces of Trump protest art: the Trump Baby balloon that flew over London on his visit in 2018 and then toured around the world; the accidentally ambiguous ‘Make America Great Again’ billboard by art group For Freedoms, which overlaid Trump’s campaign slogan on an iconic civil rights image; and the cathartic ‘Freedom Kick’ video in which a group of Mexicans play football with a rubber recreation of Trump’s head against his border wall. But while all of these may be striking, they’re still ultimately one-dimensional. What you see is what you get.

Perhaps the lack of nuance across the board about Trump demonstrates that he simply cannot be addressed with nuance - his dangerous, inflammatory personality is too extreme to be dignified with layers of interpretation. Taken as a whole, the protest art under Trump shows that, since 2016, artists haven't been able to see any deep shades to the colour orange.

Featured Image: edited from Wikimedia Commons

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