The Performance-Artist-in-Chief

David Trend

“What you have to understand about Trump, first of all, is that he’s a performance artist, not a politician,” explained filmmaker Michael Moore (one of the first public figures to predict Trump’s election).  In recent months, considerable attention has been given the President’s apparent distain of reality or what some nominally call “truth.” But maybe its time to look at Trump’s “creative” approach to factuality in a different way.  Say what you will about The Donald, his ability to get public attention is astonishing. And while some critics question the President’s grasp of “reality,” others see a calculated shrewdness in his behavior––an underlying strategy not unlike what Naomi Klein discussed in The Shock Doctrine.

Is this veteran huckster simply putting on an act?

After all, aren’t all politicians “performers” in some sense of the term? You would expect that in an age of media spectacle most Americans are accustomed to this idea. The problem is that many still yearn for authenticity in their leaders’ words and deeds. Hungering for a vision of a better world, voters will cast aside doubts about a candidate’s claims and promises––only to be disappointed when reality sets in. This partly explains why Americans have become cynical about democracy. One often hears laments for idealized past when “truth” prevailed, that it could be recognized it when it appeared, and that the concept informed America’s behavior in the world. In actuality, Americans (and their politicians) have always had a “creative” relationship with the truth. Might the President simply be taking this tradition to its logical end?

A discourse quietly has begun percolating in recent months, which places Trump’s antics in the realm of artistic expression. And if you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. Before the recent election cycle, Trump’s most visible role had been that of a media showman in various incarnations of his well-known Apprentice TV shows. His books The Art of the Deal (1987), The Art of Survival (1991), and The Art of the Comeback (1997) are peppered with references to his “creative” financing and bookkeeping. A quintessential proponent of creative capitalism, Trump wrote that “Deals are my art form. Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry. I make deal’s, preferably big deals.”Art itself is a “con” to Trump, who once quipped that “successful painters are better salesmen and promoters than they are artists.”  The Trump family has made a fortune from the creative economy –– from Donald Trump’s own entertainment enterprises, to Melania Trump’s career as a fashion model, to Ivanka Trump’s clothing and accessory lines, to Donald Trump, Jr’s. real estate investments in New York’s artistic East Village. Recently, famed performance artist Karen Finley put the matter bluntly in stating that “Donald Trump owes all of his wealth to arts and culture.”

The Trump-as-performance-artist premise isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound. Entrepreneurial success often hinges on creative traits like imagination, novelty-seeking, risk taking, and “thinking outside the box.” Also, the President’s iconoclastic slash-and-burn assault on liberal sensibilities fits within certain well-established aesthetic traditions. Dada and Surrealist artists of the early-20th century delighted in upsetting bourgeois sensibilities. Often linked to anarchist movements of the time, Dadaist “anti-art” upended conventional logic, aesthetics, and morality to shake up a complacent society and open the way toward a better world. André Breton’s Surrealist manifesto of 1924 advocated “the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” One outraged reviewer in American Art News called the movement “the most paralyzing and most destructive thing that has ever originated from the brain of man.” Continue reading “The Performance-Artist-in-Chief”

Cultural Pedagogy: Art, Education, Politics (Bergin & Garvey, 1995)

Despite their many affinities education and culture are usually considered separate issues, with the former functioning as the delivery mechanism for the latter.  The reasons for this derive from divisions set in place by academic disciplines, routines of professional certification, and a fair amount of good old-fashioned intellectual bias. Regrettably, this separation of artists, writers, and critics from school teachers, technical instructors, and college professors is part of a broader scheme of social fragmentation that compartmentalizes public life. Set in place by the bureaucratic impulses of

modernity and the economic drives of the corporate state, the resulting divisions frustrate dialogue and the formation of positive alliances. This difficulty in finding common ground has been a persistent impediment to the advancement of progressive politics. Recent critical theory has further exacerbated the problem by introducing  broad based suspicions of totalizing paradigms.

 

This chapter discusses some of the reasons that cultural practice and teaching have been held apart and proposes the benefits of considering them together.   It seeks to establish  a broadened definition of cultural “writing” that encompasses all efforts to produce, transmit, and organize subjectivity.  It also resuscitates the term “cultural worker” from the lexicon of the 1960s to unite those on the Left involved in the making and sending of texts.  This terminology would intentionally frustrate the identification of culture with “art” to extend its definition in sociological and political terms.  Although produced in differing circumstances and regimes of legitimization, the generalized substance we call culture is something that all of us fashion in the course of our daily lives as we communicate, consume, and build the world around us. We make it as it makes us.