Opinion

This Is Not Parody. Fuck Trump.

Right-wing political activists tried to fool a Brooklyn gallery into showing their pro-Trump art; they screamed censorship when they were found out. What is this really all about?

William Powhida, "Fuck Trump" (2016) (image courtesy the artist)
William Powhida, “Fuck Trump” (2016) (image courtesy the artist)

Do you remember when Kramer, Michael Richards, lost his mind on stage during a stand-up routine and started spewing hate? At first the audience laughed, because, “hey, it’s stand-up comedy,” but Richards doubled down and used even more extreme racial epithets. And you know what? Richards isn’t doing stand-up anymore, because in that moment something horrible was revealed — a racist, reactionary attitude that wasn’t part of the bit. It’s a memorable moment, because too often parody can mask deeply conservative and reactionary attitudes in the person, not the character.

Now, apparently, there is a pro-Trump art show opening Saturday night organized by Lucian Wintrich, the creative director of Rabble, a “right of center” news media outlet and the creator behind “#TwinksforTrump.” Originally, the event was supposed to happen at Pierogi’s Boiler space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but owner Joe Amrhein, like Richards’s audience, realized it wasn’t satire. In a report (where else?) on Fox News, Amrhein said: “Our understanding of it, up to this point, is as a satirical, Andy Kaufman-esque project by the comedian/artist,” he wrote. “This is not something that we would have shown as part of the gallery program and did not intend to support it.”  

I spoke with Joe briefly, and he explained that the Boiler space was being rented out for supplemental income as Pierogi continues to transition into its Lower East Side space and out of Williamsburg. Joe’s broker was contacted by someone about doing a satirical parody that would troll the art world using Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Joe admitted that because it was not something the gallery was doing in any official capacity, only functioning as the landlord of the space, he didn’t properly vet the show or its organizers. “They’re really bad people,” Joe told me, which I think is an understatement for people who have essentially hijacked identity politics to veil their conservative perspectives. Now Joe and his gallery are being assailed from all sides for having any association with Wintrich’s conservative Trojan horse meant to attack the art world and progressive values from within.  

Wintrich is an avowed conservative; you can check out his site Rabble if you’d like know more about his right-of-center perspective. He supports Trump and this show, #DaddyWillSaveUs, isn’t a parody of conservative values, as he led Joe Amrhein to believe in his description of the project, but a celebration of them. He’s not making fun of Trump or his racist bigotry; rather he’s attempting to ridicule the politically correct, progressive values of the left-leaning art world. And now, having been fired from his job for supporting Trump, Wintrich feels that he is being persecuted for his beliefs and that he shouldn’t be silenced for, well, having conservative political views.

This is what theorist Hal Foster warned us about in his 1980 essay “The Risk of Pluralism.” “A polemic against pluralism is not a plea for old truths,” Foster wrote. “Rather it is a plea to invent new truths or, more precisely, to reinvent old truths radically. If this is not done, these old truths simply return, debased or disguised (as the general conservatism of present culture makes clear)” (emphasis mine). Here, Wintrich’s conservatism masquerades as anti-establishment, disruptive rhetoric, hiding behind the mask of “the dandy,” a gauche 1980s version of Dash Snow’s outlaw bohemian “criminal.” As Foster noted, “we are in a time of the dandy, of withdrawal from the political present.”

Wintrich, wearing the mask of the dandy, absolutely withdraws from the political present, one of the crypto-fascist positions spouted by Trump, who is supported by millions of Americans unconcerned about the lack of investment in the country’s common welfare. Wintrich renews the old conservative values of free markets and Reaganomics as the cure to our neoliberal status quo, which is predicated on the values that Wintrich, in his dandyish posture, is also claiming are the very cure for the present. Are you confused? Wintrich has a problem with the world his values created, and so what is there left to attack? Why, progressive, liberal values rooted in the desire for equality, of course! These things are very threatening to Wintrich and his friend Gavin McGinness, whose blog post, “CHECK OUT THE LOSERS TRYING TO SHUT DOWN OUR TRUMP SHOW,” is a noxious mix of doxxing, misogyny, homophobia, and peacocking white male privilege. It’s no surprise Breitbart News is also trying to accuse Joe and Pierogi of shutting down the event and not supporting free speech. Wintrich, by the way, couldn’t secure insurance for the event, so it appears to be a no go anyway. Pesky regulations should probably be the subject of their alt-right ire, but whatever, details!

McInnes is an important figure here, as a co-founder of the douchebag lifestyle content company du jour Vice magazine. In his ranticle, McInnes singles out a slew of people protesting his pal Wintrich’s pro-Trump show. Under the guise of Persecuted Conservative — “All values are equivalent! Judgement must be suspended!” — McInnes is able to perform his brand of reactionary comedy. This reveals the limits and dangers of humor as a weapon in the hands of an angry white man who has no interest in social change that matters to anyone who might identify as a progressive. White comedians like Bill Hicks and George Carlin attacked US hypocrisy with precision, and Hicks stood naked in his own self-loathing, no masks required. McInnes is not funny. Vice isn’t funny. Dash Snow was never funny. Dash Snow is dead.

To understand the white male privilege that may motivate McInnes and Wintrich to perform it publicly, as the dandy (Wintrich is dapper and refined in his distaste for social reality) and the criminal (McInnes is a bad boy who needs to be punished for his transgressions) it’s good to mention Dash Snow, the creation myth for the Vice lifestyle, which despite whatever good it’s journalism arm has produced, remains to this day the inner monologue of the hung-over, trust-funded Williamsburg hipster bro-child. This is the voice of McInnes’s blog post.

Snow is popularly known as the downtown “renegade” who defined the pre-Instagram, Polaroid-snapshot aesthetic that fills innumerable art school zines made by everyone — mostly young white males hailing from middle-class suburbs. These acolytes aspire to make their passion for partying and getting fucked up their art! It’s the seamless dream of life as art where last night’s bender is tomorrow’s Whitney Biennial. I recently met a student who worshipped Snow’s ostensible “work” from the early ’00s before his unfortunate death in a downtown hotel room. What this young person, so frustrated with so much of the apparently disingenuous lifestyle art he saw that clearly aped Snow’s deeply “real” work, didn’t know is that Dash was very wealthy.

When I say Dash was a rich kid, I mean he came from one of the oldest, most respected art families in the world, the de Menils. Perhaps you have been to their collection in Houston? Maybe you prayed or meditated in the Rothko Chapel there. In his mercifully short Wikipedia page, his family history is outlined, which doesn’t exactly align with the popular mythology of Snow as a paranoid outlaw, as depicted in New York magazine’s wonderfully decadent portrait of Snow and his partners in bohemian excess, Dan Colen and Ryan McGinley. Colen is sober now, and he’s making bubble gum expressionism for the blue-chip Gagosian Gallery. McGinley? He makes Levi’s commercials and is permanently frozen in 2003’s golden hour of youth culture.  

Snow denied his economic privilege by living some approximation of the squatter’s life in the Lower East Side, although if things got rough he obviously knew the Upper East Side was always just a short train ride away. Eventually, drugs proved to be more than a muse, and Snow died not in a squalid apartment, but in the bathtub of a boutique hotel. As the story goes, he burned out before he could fade away, or perhaps, start a fashion line for H&M. This is important because Snow’s art and life were embraced by the art world, as a straight white male update of Nan Goldin, documenting his subculture-ish lifestyle building nests in hotel rooms to achieve the state of consciousness of a hamster (this is not a joke). The art world is a rather progressive place; we all tend to withhold judgement of the damaged, the disillusioned, and the outsiders, including Snow and his friends.

Enter Wintrich, a gay conservative outsider, who is proclaiming that the art world is a censorious place that is hypocritical for being less open to conservative positions that discriminate against LGBTQ, female, and minority bodies. Now that Pierogi Gallery understands that Wintrich is not a satirist, but merely a conservative masquerading as a satirist, the gallery has become the target of Wintrich and McInnes’s minions, many of whom see themselves as the heirs to Snow’s rebellious downtown legacy — a skewed perception of total freedom.

“When I left that scene: Wes Lang was doing illegal tattoos out of his studio, Dash was lighting up cars with the Gonz, and my nose was bloody from so many cokey sunrises. WTF happened in 7 years?” laments anonymous scenester “Me” (the profile link goes to Roburritos.com, which is apt enough). 

Pierogi Gallery is now receiving loads of hate mail and even threats after owners Joe Amrhein and Susan Swenson pulled out of this contrarian political nightmare scenario. It’s been particularly difficult to listen to anyone in the art world support Trump, including artist Deanna Havas, who has been a vocal Trump supporter on Twitter for months. She represents a particularly insidious political view: part accelerationist, part collapsitarian, part alienated, seeming to out-flank the left by going all the way back around to the right. This may play well with some segments of the art world’s theoretical academic revolutionaries out there comfortably in the sheets.

Wintrich, McGinness, and Martin Shkreli, who is either involved with #DaddyWillSaveUs or simply invoked to describe the plight of the embattled cis white male, conservative startup, vat-grown entrepreneur, are now framing Pierogi as a symbol of the larger art world, a type of institutional oppressor and stifler of free speech. This is a risk of neutrality and pluralism. These entitled white boys are doing a reverse suplex on the art world’s generous permissiveness for difference, deviance, and all the things that make conservatives react with hatred and fear. And this isn’t so much about art as it is about using art in the worst way. This is a Pro-Trump rally masquerading as a performance art piece that is as vicious an assault on any progressive political sensibility as it is on the less market-oriented forms of underfunded public art forms: social practice, performance art, and art activism.  

#DaddyWillSaveUs’s basic premise is “business will save this country.” Trump, for his part, is a distillation of all the fucked-up, neoliberal, free-market logic most effectively enacted by Ronald Reagan and based on philosophy written by lunatics like Ayn Rand, which has created the precise social and political climate for Trump and his supporters to emerge as revolutionaries. Hillary Clinton is the preferable manager of the mess that is our national self-interest, as a left of center Democratic. Is it possible to be critical of the candidate I am voting for? Yes! It is even possible to have questions about her public and foreign policy positions, but in general, democracy is a form of posing questions and developing responses. That it is happening in an era of income and wealth concentration, unrivaled except by the Gilded Age, is one of the biggest challenges the country and world will have to address.

So, can parody be used effectively to shame, ridicule, and mock the status quo, the power elite, the crypto-fascists, and the oligarchs who are likely thrilled to watch the art world react in horror to the parasitic infiltration of Winrich? As Hito Steyrel observed in her essay “International Disco Latin,” “But satire as one of the traditional tools of enlightenment is not only defined by making fun. It gains its punch from who is being made fun of.” In this formulation, Wintrich is not lampooning conservative collectors or Trump supporters, he’s mocking the shared progressive beliefs of the art community that embraced difference at a cultural level long ago, even if its economics and demographics have yet to catch up at the level of representation in galleries and exhibitions. On the other hand, perhaps Wintrich has succeeded at parody. I think he has done a fine job of illuminating the mythology of Vice magazine’s culture of white boy party privilege in a far more accurate way than I ever succeeded with a performance I did at Marlborough Gallery in 2011 titled “POWHIDA.” Sometimes the only thing you need for effective satire is to get out of the way and let people be themselves. In this, Wintrich’s performance has been entirely revealing, bravo <insert preferred epithet>!  

Perhaps it’s best to close without a personal insult and instead offer a dismissal.  #DaddyWillSaveUs is really nothing new; it’s just the same old conservatism that the art world has been up against since Republican Dick Armey labeled the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano “morally reprehensible trash” in 1989.  It’s the same conservatism that caused the governor of Illinois to cut funding to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Illinois arts council over Dread Scott’s “What is the Proper Way to Display an American Flag?” Maybe Wintrich never learned about the culture wars that led to the defunding of National Endowment for the Arts individual artists’ grants led by conservative politicians. It’s important to emphasize that Pierogi didn’t censor Wintrich’s art show. Wintrich misrepresented what it was, and the show will open somewhere else tonight. You are free to go — it might even be cringe-inducing fun to watch these artists fall on their face — but don’t mistake it for anything remotely transgressive. This isn’t about individual expression. Wintrich has made it about political representation for real bodies threatened by Trump’s horrific statements and actions.

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