By the time I arrived at 132 West 18th Street, the bathtub full of pig’s blood was gone, as were all but one of the D-list bêtes noires of the areligious right that had conspired to assemble what organizer Lucian Wintrich described to me as “the first conservative art show” New York City had ever seen. The night before, a Gothamist writer had been splattered with pig’s blood, and the remains of the stunt were drying to a ferrous brown along the gallery’s baseboard.
The show, titled #DaddyWillSaveUs, was pitched to at least two potential host galleries as pro-Trump performance art, a description both took to mean as a satirical sendup of the Republican presidential nominee. The show’s initial venue was Pierogi Gallery’s the Boiler, an industrial art space in Williamsburg, but owner Joe Amrhein canceled the show once he realized, as he told Artnet News, that organizer Lucian Wintrich “really believes in this stuff.” Wintrich responded by taking to Twitter, decrying Amrhein, his decision, and the show’s detractors as “disgusting,” “frauds” “fascists,” and “neo-fascist,” and threatening legal action. Sound familiar?
The second gallery, where the show was ultimately mounted and opened to the public for one night last Saturday, was Wallplay, a space that’s occasionally rented out for short-term exhibitions and other events. In a phone call, Wallplay owner and founder Laura O’Reilly explained that because the opening was an event rental on short notice (Amrhein canceled just days before the show was set to open), the group wasn’t vetted as carefully as something that would have had the gallery’s name associated with it or be otherwise sanctioned by the space. It seemed to her, as it had to Amrhein, like a political farce. It wasn’t until the event opened and one of O’Reilly’s business partners, who was present, told her the organizers had poured pig’s blood into a bathtub in one corner of the gallery that she began to realize the true nature of the event.
At the same time, someone forwarded her a Daily Beast article about Wintrich, and her business partner began digging into some of the other individuals associated with the show, becoming increasingly nervous about what they’d signed up for. At that point, O’Reilly explained in an email statement, “Instead of giving the curator a refund and shutting them down on the spot, I chose not to fuel their narrative that liberals are fascist and the art world was censoring them. I chose to practice my own form of patriotism by making space for the voices of people I do not agree with.” O’Reilly decided to let them stay and printed and hung a number of signs in the space declaring that the rental fee for the event would be donated by Wallplay to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
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Wintrich is perhaps best known for a series of photographs titled Twinks4Trump, which featured heavily in #DaddyWillSaveUs and were even exhibited at the Republican National Convention this summer. The nearly life-size portraits feature thin young men in “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” hats and various states of undress draped across country club interiors. Not all of the models are “4Trump,” according to Wintrich (one is purportedly voting for Jill Stein), but it hardly seems to matter; the point is that they could be. What do young men — even gay ones with indeterminately ethnic tans — really have to lose?
Other pieces on view in #DaddyWillSaveUs included a photo series by VICE co-founder Gavin McInnes that shows him dressed as a Native American, a shipwrecked slave, and a rape victim — essentially, making fun of identity politics with hashtags and costumes; a “guerrilla marketing” poster featuring the Apple logo with Trump’s profile forming the trademark “bite” over the familiar slogan “Think different”; paintings of George Washington in a “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN HAT”; some truly dark-internet group portraiture featuring Trump, Clinton, Pepe, Harambe, Ann Coulter, and even former Daily News columnist Shaun King; and what looked like a Tylenol in a shadowbox, autographed by Martin Shkreli and going for $20,000.
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The historical precedent of #DaddyWillSaveUs is the House of German Art — Haus Der Deutschen Kunst — the inaugural exhibition in a Munich building of the same name put on by the National Socialists in 1937. The show featured turgid, realist portraits of Hitler; wobbly brown landscapes of fields and churches; Norman Rockwell–esque Aryan domestic scenes; and monumental homoerotic Soviet statuary — all considered by the Nazi Party to be appropriate works of art for the German Volk. The House of German Art yielded no work of any real interest beyond the show’s entry in the historical record; lest we forget, Hitler was twice rejected from the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.
History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Amrhein and O’Reilly believed Wintrich’s “pro-Trump” show would be a satirical House of German Art on the subject of Trump, in the vein of the nude statues that appeared overnight in cities around the country this August; #DaddyWillSaveUs was, instead, the dismayingly self-serious House of Trump Art.
At the opening, after quieting the crowd with a shout of, “Oy! There’s a faggot talking!,” aging enfant terrible and charity fraudster Milo Yiannopoulos launched into a speech that more or less summarizes what could be called Young Trumpism, if Milo were younger:
[#DaddyWillSaveUs] is, as far as I’m aware, the first really significantly protested art show since “Piss Christ,” and it is, as far as I’m aware, the first really significantly protested art show in history to be protested from the Left. […] I’d like you to ruminate on what that means, and think about how the Culture Wars have changed. […] The dissident element in culture — punk, mischief, irreverence — is now better represented in politics by a MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hat than by anything on the Left. If you want to annoy somebody, if you want to piss your parents off…there is no better way to do it than to cast a vote for Donald Trump. This is the new punk. Republican is the new cool.
“Republican is the new cool” may be the least cool thing ever said about Republicans, aside from the suggestion that they are by any stretch of the enfeebled American imagination “the new punk.” Pro-Trump art cannot be revolutionary, any more than pro-Hitler art could have been during the Third Reich, and the irony of self-styled anti-establishmentarian art in praise of beneficiaries of the establishment is as illogical as it is mind-boggling.
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Yiannopoulos is right about one thing — a phrase that, even as I type it, has caused my head to spin around on my neck and spray cartoonish green vomit (or pig’s blood?) across every surface in my kitchen: namely, that #DaddyWillSaveUs is the rare instance of contemporary art that the political left objects to. Even so, Yiannopoulos’s false equivalency of Andres Serrano’s infamous “Piss Christ” with the windless, artless, shock-jock efforts of #DaddyWillSaveUs both oversells the quality of the latter and underestimates the countercultural teeth of the former. Whatever your thoughts on Serrano, “Piss Christ” is a work of art with a statement to make about the misuse of religion; whatever shock-art word cloud led to Yiannopoulos sitting in a bathtub full of pig’s blood next to photographs of purported victims of “illegal aliens,” as a performance the effect is muddled at best.
Speaking truth to power is generally the purview of those who don’t have it; wealthy conservatives crying victim and aligning themselves with a history of artistic protest know nothing of art nor protest. Yiannopoulos and Wintrich are cis white gay men who use their homosexuality as a fulcrum, leveraging hateful politics against the one trait they share with the marginalized. Both have money (or the appearance of it) and power (or the appearance of it) — what truth do they have to speak, and to whom?
The most predictable irony of #DaddyWillSaveUs was the angry reaction of free speech–loving, pro-Trump conservatives to the news that Wallplay would be donating its proceeds to Hillary Clinton. (A tip jar at the bar was adorned with sticky notes reading “TIPS 4 HAITI / AKA CLINTON FOUNDATION.”) Free speech is, ultimately, not the defining value of #DaddyWillSaveUs, nor of contemporary conservatism; that value is hate speech, freely spoken. “There’s a problem in popular culture today,” Milo said at the opening, “and the problem is that people are not allowed to say things that are true, or that are real.” Already we’re in vague factual trouble — what people, what things? He continued:
People are not allowed to express opinions that millions of ordinary Americans hold, which are not bigoted or racist, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, whatever the fuck. [crowd laughs] They’re simply ordinary opinions that millions of people hold. There is a problem when perfectly respectable, reasonable, mainstream opinions become proscribed by the media.
Obviously, “ordinary opinions” and “racist opinions” are not mutually exclusive, and indeed, the problem with racist (and sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic) opinions is that they are so often ordinary — which is to say common, widespread. Conservatives are quick to claim First Amendment rights in the face of what they perceive as censorship, despite the fact that most of the actual censorship in the art world — and the world at large — has been exacted against women and minorities, often at the hands of Christian religious groups, as William Powhida noted forcefully in an essay for this site over the weekend. By the same token, many might argue that mounting a pro-Trump show would only add oxygen to the tire fire of his ascendant candidacy, but to deny his supporters a venue because of their politics only plays into the maligned-outsider mythos Trump has managed to spin for himself out of whole cloth — cloth no doubt manufactured in a factory somewhere in China.
As O’Reilly said in her email:
I have utilized gallery spaces as a platform for social activism for over a decade. I would have felt like a hypocrite shutting them down and creating a double standard to my own belief that through art we can open direct dialogue on hard-to-approach issues. I will not selectively support liberty and freedom of expression.
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Conservative hate is on display in every region of America, and claims of censorship by its proponents are only more evidence of the religious right’s persecution complex — a self-conception that excuses all manner of hate speech as the rightful purview of “personal belief” and decries any criticism as “politically correct” censorship. This is the righteous vein in which the Westboro Baptist Church pickets military funerals with signs reading “GOD HATES FAGS.” The trick for liberals, of course, is that however foul and depraved the behavior of Yiannopoulos and his Westboro ilk, their hate speech is constitutionally protected.
It is difficult to allow hate to announce itself in public view, particularly when there seems to be enough already baked into our societal systems not to need any on the side. But watching a foreign-born white man sit in a tub of pig’s blood inside a gallery in Manhattan and speak against liberal pluralism is, incidentally, what makes America great already.