Updated: May 22
Donald J. Trump will be remembered for something more than the havoc he wreaked on the American people and the destruction of their democracy. He will go down in Art History as the Millennium’s greatest performance artist.
Perhaps the only significant artist to top Trump’s performance – although as the death toll from Covid-19 continues to mount, even that assertion may be challenged – was Adolph Hitler. It’s reasonable to conjecture that if the Vienna Academy had not rejected young Adolph’s student application in the 1920s, the Nazi leader might have become one of Europe’s most noteworthy painters – his early landscapes are technically sophisticated and certainly more attractive than what currently matches your IKEA sofa – instead of the author of the Holocaust. But that’s a subject for another blog posting.
Just what is ‘Performance Art” anyway, and what does POTUS45 have to do with it?
According to Wikipedia: “Performance art is an essentially contested concept: any single definition of it implies the recognition of rival uses. As concepts like "democracy" or "art", it implies productive disagreement with itself.”
Well, some call it ‘Anti-Art.’ And it’s been around for a long time, long before the once mild-mannered Hitler submitted his portfolio of watercolours to the illustrious Academy and went home chastised and bitter, vowing revenge. Anti-Art is Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) who displayed a urinal with the signature “R. Mutt, 1917” scrawled in black ink, a statement that critics have been lauding for over 100 years without plausible explanation or justification. Anti-Art is what our grandparents’ generation of art pundits called ‘Dada,’ a knee-jerk reaction to the senseless carnage and destruction of World War I and the subsequent the negation of practically everything that came before or after.
Dadaist Jean Arp (1886-1966) wrote that "While the guns rumbled in the distance, we had a dim premonition that power-mad gangsters would one day use art itself as a means of deadening men's minds." The culmination of Arp's predilection that "...through reason, man became a tragic and ugly figure," is surely the appearance of Donald J. Trump on the world stage.
Anti-Art is a woman sitting naked on a toilet, the centrepiece of a chic New York gallery opening a hundred years after Duchamp. Anti-Art is Carolee Schneeman (1939-2019). Introducing her epic performance piece entitled ‘Meat Joy." In 1964, Schneemen wrote:
"Meat Joy is an erotic rite — excessive, indulgent, a celebration of flesh as material: raw fish, chicken, sausages, wet paint, transparent plastic, ropes, brushes, paper scrap. Its propulsion is towards the ecstatic — shifting and turning among tenderness, wildness, precision, abandon; qualities that could at any moment be sensual, comic, joyous, repellent. Physical equivalences are enacted as a psychic imagistic stream, in which the layered elements mesh and gain intensity by the energy complement of the audience.”
Anti-Art is Auschwitz, the ultimate performance statement of a frustrated artist. You get the picture.
I’ll admit to being a fan of performance art, or Anti-Art, although I tend to retreat from the hollow rhetoric that characterizes today’s generation of art historians and critics, as well as the infantile and largely meaningless word salads served up by the American President. You know: Art-speak. Stuff like “breaking boundaries and pushing the envelope." It’s the art world’s version of corporate newspeak, the equivalent of a blank stare. Technical wizardry no longer characterizes the fine arts so much as its shock value, although many performance art pieces are technically complex and costly to produce. But when any clown can make a major artistic statement just by shedding their clothes and taking a crap in the middle of a cheese and wine soirée, you have to wonder. Or maybe having their wife take off her clothes for cheesy photoshoots, especially when she’s First Lady of the United States (www.francescorizzuto.com/post/first-lady-of-porn).
I confess that Donald Trump the performance artist has me fascinated. I'm convinced that he's a sexual sadist who loves to belittle and humiliate, and the more naive and innocent the victim, the better. Trump has an extraordinarily high opinion of himself and his largely imagined abilities and has convinced half the American electorate that they are privileged to vote for him. He's the classic American circus barker working a small-town crowd of hayseeds and lay-abouts or, to be exact, a skilled con artist bamboozling an entire nation.
Trump is a master of stagecraft. He has the uncanny ability to engage almost any audience and, whether it’s a stadium packed with red-capped imbeciles or the Washington press corp, he never goes off brand. He is flamboyant. He is audacious. He is boisterous, bullying and crude. He mocks immigrants, Jews, Muslims and the handicapped. He praises White Sumpremacists and Neo-Nazis. He 'grabs em by the pussy.' He breaks boundaries and pushes the envelope. He’s kicked practically every American sacred cow and never, ever looked back.
Like every good performance artist, he’s a malignant narcissist and sociopath. Historians thought that Hitler couldn’t be upstaged but the upstart Trump is out to prove them wrong. Americans thought their system couldn’t be broken. Trump has broken it. As the old saying goes, he's told us to go to Hell and we're looking forward to the trip.
All this is so very American. Like a Quentin Tarantino movie or the milder John Wayne Western if you’re old enough to remember John Wayne. A rugged individual with a huge chip on his shoulder saunters into a dusty, crumbling Cowtown. Nobody knows where he came from, nor where he’s going to, but in the blink of an eye he’s cleaned up the place, put all the badasses six feet underground (read: first degree murder), then rode off into a vermillion sunset while the townspeople scratch their lice-infested wigs and mutter, “Who was that masked man, anyway?” (Answer: He's the Anti-Artist.) A billionaire iconoclast with Mob affiliations saunters into Washington vowing to drain the swamp. Who wouldn't applaud?
Are you still with me? Are you still applauding?
In fact, since the advent of the World Wrestling Federation and Reality TV, Anti-Art has become the quintessential American art form. In a society predicated on racism, bigotry and greed, without a classical culture or art history worth speaking of, it’s become something akin to religion, like the story of Jesus and the promise of eternal life (Make America Great Again®), if you can get your mind around that. In Trump's own words: "I play to people's fantasies... a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular." (The Art of the Deal)
Donald Trump knows that he is his art and that nothing else matters. Amid the chaos of a nation in the throes of a deadly pandemic, he blatantly touts his ratings, constantly reminding a terrified populace that he is surrounded by “very talented people” and doing “a fantastic job”, with the "best ratings ever" even as the refrigerated semi-trailers fill with corpses spewing from the loading docks of New York City hospitals. Alongside Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top epidemiologist, he struts and jives and jerks and cants his orange mop of fake hair from side to side like a sly old crow, completely in control of his art, an invisible claw up the back of the good doctor’s coat and working him like a ventriloquist’s dummy. What better theatre can there possibly be?
This superb piece of performance art characterizes the President's, and by extension the whole federal government's, response to a steeply increasing death toll rivalling the major battle fronts of World War II and having, in less than two months time, surpassed the death toll accrued during nineteen years of war in Vietnam. Meanwhile, Trump the performance artist has his claw up the backsides of almost every Administration mouthpiece, stoking his insatiable appetite for flattery. Deborah Birx, the White House’s current coronavirus-response coordinator, appeared on the evangelical CBN network to deliver this on-brand message: “[Trump is] so attentive to the scientific literature and the details and the data. I think his ability to analyze and integrate data that comes out of his long history in business has really been a real benefit.” Like Trump's two sidekicks, Diamond and Silk, a pair of clowns who will do anything for money, Doctor Birx is a talking head, not a dedicated physician staffing an emergency room in the middle of a pandemic. Her having been effectively eclipsed by the unqualified and equally despicable Jared Kushner as coronavirus-response coordinator isn't exactly reassuring.
Donald Trump ‘talks’ straight to the American people in a first-grade vocabulary they understand, in jingoism, lies and innuendo, playing on their naïve fears of what they are too ignorant to puzzle out for themselves. He tells them to drink Chlorox and they drink it, even as the manufacturer slaps warning labels on each plastic jug. He tells them to apply light inside and outside body to ward off the virus. They stuff strings of Christmas tree lights up their butts.
But, let's get serious.
If you – one of those preciously few right-thinking Americans – are wondering about your neighbour who refuses to stay home amid the pandemic, even in the face of municipal and state-imposed lockdowns, or why a city’s mayor refuses to close the beaches as the infection rate and death count soar, it’s because our public-school system failed to teach us science and critical thinking skills. It’s because too many Americans enjoy only the most basic literacy skills or none at all. It’s because we as a people have been conditioned to turn to self-serving demi-gods for the answers, to religious fanatics and, yes, performance artists, rather than making the merest effort to actually think. It’s because we refuse to form our own decisions or take responsibility for those decisions. And it’s because we have too long tolerated a corrupt and ruined system that was already beyond repair.
Donald Trump may have trademarked everything in his path but he didn't invent Performance Art. It goes back to the fall of the Roman Empire when the 1st century poet Juvenal coined the term: "Panem et circuses...bread and circuses" The Roman Empire endured for a very long time but it was eventually destroyed by attacks from without, unstoppable pandemics, and in-house corruption. Bread and circuses was all the people wanted. Corruption. Pandemic. Think about it.
Donald Trump the performance artist is not an idiot. He is well educated and clever and talented. He may utter absurdities but it's only because he puts his mouth into gear before engaging his brain. He thinks out loud. Spontaneous. Breaking boundaries and pushing the envelope, remember? If Bernie Sanders orJoe Biden or Kamala Harris did the same, can you even imagine what absurdities or profanities they might broadcast? The difference is that Trump is an artist and Sanders/Biden/Harris are not. But while Trump shoves and smashes, his stage assistants Jarod and Ivanka work the sidelines, putting a nicer face on things. Donald, Ivanka, Jarod, Bernie, Joe, Kamala. They're all running the same game and taking in the winnings. America's problem - if one can think of this deplorable situation as a single problem - is much more profound than just Trump.
Trump learned his art - the 'Art of the Deal' - on the knee of his despicable father, Fred Trump, and at the foot of the disbarred mob lawyer Roy Cohen. Some critics think he’s a long-time CI, a Confidential Informant for the US Justice Department which he now controls, having climbed the organized crime ladder to the top of the dung heap where he’s now untouchable. This is one Joker who doesn’t need hired thugs to do his bidding. He has the mightiest military machine in human history at his disposal and his own tiny finger on the nuclear trigger. Like I've said before, in terms of destructive potential, he’s already trumped the Nazi leader (pun intended).
This post is getting a bit preachy and about as unproductive as watching Trump’s daily Covid-19 rallies or any other ‘Fake News.’ So, I’ll close with a question and offer a suggestion.
What can America do to save itself?
My own view is that performance artists as a rule are pathetically vain people with a sketchy understanding of how the world actually works, individuals whose personal resumes are populated by essentially worthless projects. Their actual achievements usually amount to having been born to rich parents, married into money, or parasitcally locked onto someone willing to pay their bills. What they identify as achievement is only valued by those in whose personal interest it is to declare it valuable. And there are plenty of rich folks out there willing to pay millions for a banana - or a turd - glued to a canvas, or invest their evenings sipping Cabernet Sauvignon while a naked woman stares back at them from a toilet seat. Or watch Donald J. Trump's daily Covid-19 updates and Fox News on the telly.
But the country as a whole can no longer afford bread and circuses when a vicious enemy is tearing at the gates, an adversary that isn’t afraid of or threatened by all the military might in the world. This isn't a comic book enemy. It's real. Trump the performance artist and wannabe President-for-Life may think he can nuke a hurricane but even his maliciously ignorant 'base' has to admit that he can't nuke Covid-19. The only defence is science and critical thinking, what America’s education system has failed miserably to teach us. Our obsession with cheap entertainment, Fake News, Fake Science, and Fake Art has become our doom.
The lesson to come out of all this turmoil, if indeed we ever do come out, is that, in the end, performance artists are not indestructible. Neither is the federalist system. Individual states need to reassess their relationship with a federalist system so easily hijacked by con men and gangsters. States like California, Oregon and Washington, that have more in common economically and logistically with Canada’s British Columbia and Alberta, and New York State with Ontario and Quebec, than they do with the rest of the United States, should consider the strategic advantage in seceding from the Union. These states are net payers into an alliance that does not benefit their citizens and, in today’s toxic political environment, almost guarantees their destruction. They share no interest in a patently corrupt electoral process. They don't rely on the racism embedded in the laws and culture of the Deep South, whose states pay far less into the federal treasury than they draw out. They don’t need the cross-continent supply chains, instead looking to themselves and the Asia-Pacific Region (California) or the European Union (New York) for their own commerce and prosperity. Then perhaps all that money paid to a failed federal government for out-of-control military adventuring, wall building, concentration camps, and ridiculously expensive golf outings, can be allocated to education and the building of a better society.
Yet more fruitless impeachments, lawsuits and indictment attempts directed at Donald J. Trump aren't going to cure what's wrong with the country because what's wrong doesn't end with Trump. It's time for a profound reassessment of our most fundamental values and a rearrangement of our alliances. What remains of the fractured Union may learn from the seceded states. Or they may not learn. Either way, the USA as we once knew it, is finished. A circus barker has placed Lady Liberty in a brightly painted box and sawed her in half in a magnificent piece of Performance Art. And a spellbound audience applauded.
The final word goes to a world-class crush and my absolute favourite performance artist:
A Plea to All Indie Authors and Poets:
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A huge Thank You to all the talented writers who've taken up the challenge. www.francescorizzuto.com