Opinion

Do We Really Have to Ask if Trump Is a Conceptual Artist?

Trying to label the border wall prototypes as Land Art (and Trump and the American people as engaged in a collaborative artwork) artist Christoph Büchel raises some unpleasant questions.

Ground views of different Border Wall Prototypes as they take shape during the Wall Prototype Construction Project near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry (photo by Mani Albrecht via US Customs and Border Protection/Flickr)

Earlier this week the Washington Post delightfully skewered the New York Times for a particularly ill-advised headline whose problems the Times‘s own subsequent reporting on the same topic brought to light. The Post‘s Eric Wempel distilled a problem that pervades a lot of contemporary reporting: “those words may be technically accurate — while at the same time being terribly incomplete.”

Yesterday the Times extended its peculiar headline choices into the art world, with another piece whose incomplete framing hid some serious problems. The paper published Michael Walker’s “Is Donald Trump, Wall-Builder-in-Chief, a Conceptual Artist?,” a clickbait headline for a piece about Swiss-Icelandic conceptual artist Christoph Büchel’s “nonprofit” MAGA which has created an online petition to have the prototypes for Trump’s border wall declared National Monuments. This aligns with a broader effort by Büchel/MAGA to frame the models as Land Art: since December 2017 they’ve been offering onsite tours of the prototypes, which a press release claimed “have significant cultural value.”  Value, of course, is not the same as meaning. The broad-strokes inferences of a facile transference of historical meaning into cultural value are obviously both political and artistic; in both contexts their implications are pretty toxic.

Politically, with its arch tone and conceptual trappings, Büchel’s project normalizes and sanitizes the man stoking tensions about nuclear war via Twitter (it’s reminiscent of Jimmy Fallon petting his hair) and actively threatening the livelihoods and futures of DACA recipients while undermining the US’s longstanding diplomatic relationship with Mexico (also: undermining all Mexicans as human beings). Artistically, it does a disservice to the real work of serious artists by promoting what, evaluated on the merits, is the worst kind of incoherent conceptual art — flawed in both concept and execution.

Per the Times, Büchel “is adamant he has no creative stake in the project” (which seems an odd way for an artist to establish integrity). He claims that “This is a collective sculpture; people elected the artist.” For Büchel, writes Walker, “Americans, by electing Mr. Trump, allowed his obsessions to be given form that qualifies as an artistic statement.” This kind of convoluted philosophizing to legitimate a flimsy artistic premise wishes to align itself with, or at least to appropriate, the Duchampian honesty that claims “It’s art because I say so.” Büchel seems to be doing something more insidious: using art-speaky language to prop up something I suspect he must know is pretty empty as a conceptual artwork (even if the prototypes themselves are visually imposing), while contributing to, and deriving press coverage from, a dangerously violent political context.

Büchel claims that the wall models “need to be preserved because they can signify and change meaning through time. They can remind people there was the idea to have this border wall once.” This raises a couple of obvious questions: 1) How soon does he really think Americans or Mexicans will forget the idea of the wall? 2) Doesn’t every object change over time, signaling something about when it was made and how its meaning has shifted? One conclusion to be drawn from these basic logical holes is that there is some other agent making the “conceptual art” work by getting people to respond to it. Perhaps Büchel’s conceptualism lies in leveraging the power of the wall itself — a compelling metaphor, for good or ill — thereby leveraging the hateful and divisive politics of this administration for his own prominence. In this sense, while it might be interesting to engage with the prototypes as sculptural objects, the disconnect lies in using a federally funded program to which Trump is no friend to promote and preserve objects out of some retrofitted construction of artistic merit.

Büchel denies that he’s either a “provocateur” or politically invested: “My political position, that’s not interesting in this context,” he told the Times. While I agree with Büchel that his political position is uninteresting, claims of being apolitical rarely if ever hold up, since to be apolitical usually means simply adhering to the status quo. This case is a prime example of what every cutesy troll does: making a loaded claim or gesture that has significance and repercussions in the world, and then refusing to acknowledge its seriousness. It’s the intellectual equivalent of the schoolyard bully who gives you a bloody nose and then says the problem is you lack a sense of humor about it. (Or on the internet, the classic, “u mad bro?”)

Michael Diers, a research fellow at the Getty in LA, told the Times: “It seems reasonable to imagine that the President has erected a monument, in the very tradition of Land Art, that could serve as compensation for the virulent iconoclasm of the present, when other monuments have to be taken down out of political correctness and their history erased.” Does it seem reasonable to imagine this? Maybe it does to someone throwing around the term “political correctness” in an apparent dig at the moment to remove Confederate monuments. I concede the logic is lost on me. Perhaps it’s a failure of reason or imagination.

Still, there are some instructive dialogues being had about the actual meaning of landmark status and what it would mean to have these types of objects officially considered as works of art. Artist Damien Davis, an alum of the Art & Law Program, points to some real risks and specific concerns about calling for special preservation status for the prototypes as artworks somehow authored by the President. He told me that:

As an aesthetic experience, I think [the prototypes] are really impactful, and there is no denying that they will always have historical significance. Also, a retroactive declaration that the works are “artworks” by someone other than the creative force behind it may have some serious implications on other forms of work that have a creative component to it, like making a cake [this in reference to Masterpiece Cakeshop v Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the case of the baker who denied a gay couple a wedding cake on religious grounds]. Declaring it an artistic statement by Trump is the real sticking point for me, one that I think could have dangerous implications.

In a way not dissimilar to Trump, Büchel has a long history of prodding sacred cows for attention and effect. This may constitute no more grave an offense than being a generally boring and unsavory way of going about things; in this instance perhaps it’s touched a little too closely on a space where lives are at stake.

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