After the terrible results of the US election, and as many are offering great models of resistance, I thought it might also be useful to think about the role of art, and indeed the art world, to the degree that such an entity truly exists as a public sphere and political space, after the triumph of Trump. There are a number of reasons for this, partly since the type of populism represented by Trump attests to a broader culturalization of politics, and since some of the fault lines of the election, in terms of language, masculinity, and managerialism, are clearly evident within the field of cultural production today, particularly within the signifiers of globalism in the system of production, circulation, and reception that is contemporary art. Moreover, we should expect that, as cultural producers, we would be capable of offering a cultural analysis of the political shift happening with Trump, and ways of resisting it, in ways that goes beyond shock, surprise, and moral outrage.
It goes without saying that Trump represents a victorious return of unabashed patriarchy and unapologetic sexism, and that this is indeed deplorable and despicable. And the list of his ills goes on—in addition to Trump’s celebration of sexual harassment, there is also bigotry, racism, and climate-change denial, not to mention his somewhat dubious ideas about justice. In short, he can be said to be in direct opposition to everything that contemporary art prides itself on being, to all the core values of cultural exchange, muliticulturalism, permissiveness, abstraction, and speculation we hold so dear. While all the statements and views of Trumpism are surely shocking, they should not, though, come as any big surprise. A backlash against the cultural politics of the left, in particular feminism, has been happening for decades now, all over the former West, despite the growing awareness of racism and sexism. What we are facing is the following conundrum: through the efforts of decolonial, feminist, and queer theory and practice, more and more people consider, say, racism, to be unjust and simply wrong, but are nonetheless still racist! All over Europe there is a peculiar political language game going on, with far-right and center-right politics all claiming not to be racist, but nonetheless doing all they can to stoke racist sentiment in the populace, and happily implementing racists laws, under the guise of antiterrorism and anti-immigration. It should thus come as no surprise that, when polled, voters will not admit to supporting racist policies, but they will still happily cast their votes in that direction come voting day. This has become a consistent pattern everywhere in the former West, and it should thus not be surprising that it is happening in the USA as well. And, as cultural producers and theorists, the notion that there is a major difference between what we say, or think we can say, and how we feel and how we act, should also not be surprising.
Similarly, in regards to Trump’s blatant sexism: while it is clearly appalling, it is, regrettably, not surprising. After all, our little professional field, the art world, is certainly happy to cultivate similar larger-than-life male figures, both among star artists and star curators. And in our field, a man without any apparent qualifications more often than not easily gets the job over a woman with all the right qualifications, precisely as in this election… Is it even imaginable, we could ask, that a woman could have run a similar rogue campaign, boasting of indiscretions, dishonesty, sexual harassment, and personal greed? In my view, the roles these two candidates got to play are all too culturally familiar, and that a vast majority of male voters, and a high number of female voters, would be attracted to Trump should not surprise us after centuries of patriarchy. Trump is also in no way an anomaly, but has both precedents and contemporaries. We need only look at Silvio Berlusconi, much ridiculed in Western media outside of Italy (where the media couldn’t really criticize him, as he owned most of it), and who happily boasted of his business acumen and sexual prowess, and who, like Trump, was very upfront about the fact that his political interests and his business interests (i.e., personal enrichment) were one and the same. And for Berlusconi, various scandals and trials around economic corruption and the employment of underage prostitutes did not seem to harm him with the electorate—rather, many male voters actually found this appealing, as Berlusconi was simply doing what they would also do if they had the money and power to do so. I would argue that the same is the case with Trump—that many of his voters found his tax evasion and aggressive sexual behavior not something to merely tolerate or even ignore in light of other issues, but rather something to reward and encourage, as Trump was simply doing what “we (read: heteronormative men) would do if we were in his position.” There is a cultural politics of masculinity at play here, a sort of exaggerated, but ultimately fulfilled, culture of ladism, hipsterism, and beyond.
Trump also has his contemporaries, of course, in terms of alpha-male political leadership, and a protectionist politics of self-enrichment, and a combination of national capital interests and military power that aims to make the nation-state into a competitor on a global scale. As many have rightly pointed out, this is a rejection of neoliberalism and its migrating global elites, in favor of a nineteenth-century model of competing nation-states, using trade, colonialism, and military power to achieve supremacy, if not hegemony. Indeed, Trump has already indicated that the USA will no longer be the world’s policeman and moral epicenter, but, quite rightly, in fact, will acknowledge the decline of the American empire, and rather than place itself above the rest, will now play in the same field as Russia, China, and so on. Trump’s true contemporaries are thus Putin in Russia and Erdoğan in Turkey, where an autocratic male leader aggressively merges military power and the interests of a national capitalist class in an international and regional competition over market share and natural resources, and where the nation is united through the creation of not only external enemies (the rest of the world, basically), but also internal enemies, such as the Westernized LGBTQ community and the Kurdish population, respectively. This is the very same logic that is employed by Trump, naturally, in his construction of “we” as white Americans under threat of erasure from brown and black people, etc. What is significant here are two central points: the rejection of globalist neoliberalism, both economically and culturally, along the lines of Viktor Orbán’s vision of an “illiberal democracy” in Hungary, and the acceptance that the USA is no longer the world’s sole superpower, but simply one among a handful of large nations with big economies and big weapons—in essence, admitting that it is itself a rogue state. This return to nineteenth-century national competition is even more destructive than neoliberalism—its historical precedent led to the First World War—and a cursory look at Trump’s suggested economic policies should bring a chill to the world’s smaller nations, particularly those with natural resources. Trump has vowed to cut taxes while simultaneously increasing public spending on renewing public infrastructure, which will inevitably lead to an increased deficit in the national budget that can only be covered through neocolonialism, through what Marxist geographer David Harvey has termed “accumulation by dispossession.” As the world scrambles to come to terms with this, we also need to ask ourselves what the right cultural response would be, as both the values that we propagate in the art world—internationalism, multiplicity, permissiveness, etc.—as well as the economic structure that makes the contemporary art world possible—basically, what’s left of international patronage from the globalist upper classes—are both directly under threat here. Make no mistake, it is not just the relative autonomy of the arts and the privileging of the freedom of speech, but the existence of a field called the liberal arts, including contemporary art in all its guises—in its collected, if not collective, articulations—that is under threat. But if nothing else, the art world’s favorite theory of the moment, accelerationism, will now be well and truly tested, although it remains to be seen whether it’s the Marxist or the nihilist version that will come to pass.
This brings me to my second main point: just as we should not be surprised, even if appalled, by the election of Trump, we should also reject the widespread consensus that Clinton’s defeat is a defeat of the left tout court that should plunge us into a process of not only self-blame, but also depression and despair. If voters protested the effects of globalism, albeit through xenophobia, it was a rejection of neoliberal orthodoxies and managerialism, something Clinton represents more than anyone. The election of Trump must thus, in my view, not be seen as a defeat of the left, but as a defeat of the center. It is the defeat of neoliberalism and what Tariq Ali has aptly called “the extreme center” and its hold on the center-left through social democratic alignment with, and proliferation of, neoliberal deregulation. What this election and many across the former West show is that the extreme center cannot hold, and elections are now won not from the center, but from the left or right, and not through consensus, but dissensus. It is only here that political imagination takes place. Indeed, as the always reliable Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) has poignantly shown, there is much to suggest that the leftist candidate, Bernie Sanders, actually would have had a better chance of beating Trump than Clinton in the US election, which is hardly surprising, as Sanders also criticized neoliberal policies, but from the left. However, as we know, the Democratic National Committee did everything to prevent Sanders from being nominated, the same way that the center and the center-left have done everything to shut out the left in Europe, even when the numbers—and thus, nominally, the people—were against them, as shown by the continued attempts by Blairites to oust Corbyn, or the social democrats’ refusal to work with the new left of Podemos in Spain. So, the question for the left, really, is whether it will continue to be held hostage by the center, by having to accept the center’s candidates because the alternative on the right is so much worse. Well, we now have this progress towards the worse almost everywhere! Trump, Erdoğan, Putin, Orbán, Modi, Duterte, Netanyahu—you name it, the list of democratically elected demagogues is endless. As Vijay Prashad has written, we are now living in the time of monsters, and only a robust left, rather than a weak center, can provide adequate answers, indeed resistance. This has ramifications for how we think of contemporary art, which to a large extent has been the cultural expression of neoliberal globalism, despite its best intentions. This has to do with systemic issues rather than those of art practices themselves, and thus has to do with the international art world as a political economy and mode of governance.
Indeed, despite all its claims for democracy and openness, for soft diplomacy and even democratization on a global scale, the good governance and principles of selection and consecration in the art world remain amazingly non-transparent, almost counterproductively so. There are probably several historical reasons for the openness of the work and the closedness of the system, but, for better or for worse, this has made contemporary art, with its global modes of presentation and vehicles of circulation that are the biennial and the art fair, become the cultural expression of a late capitalism. Yet contemporary art is not only in the service of internationalist values and certain elites—indeed many practices and practitioners have consistently criticized the system, from within and from without; it has also promised access to this circulation, to the global elite: the promise of becoming a start artist or star curator is that you, too, can become part of this, more or less enlightened, elite, raking up the frequent-flyer miles as you jet between New York, London, the Gulf, and the Far East. But as this way of life is being rejected by both the so-called people and the new political rulers, we have to ask ourselves who and what we represent. For too long the art world has also been in thrall to the extreme center and its excessive governmentality, and we have had to accept statements from our leading curators along the lines of saying that art must not “be misused by political actors as a platform for their own self-righteous representation” and that “there cannot and should not be a connection between biennials and social movements.” We had to accept and even embrace this status quo, as the alternative—the emerging populist right and its blanket rejection of contemporary art—would supposedly be even worse. But now it is here anyway. The center has now eroded, both as a political and aesthetic discourse, and as an economic support structure. The center in politics proper is now also under attack from the right, and whereas this center has been willing to incorporate the ideas of the right politically—on immigration, austerity, etc., in an apparent respect for the voice of the people—it has been much less accommodating towards the left, as shown by the European reaction to the election of Syriza on a socialist and anti-austerity platform in Greece. Apparently, the voice of the Greek people, when rejecting neoliberalism, is of less importance than sentiments of anti-immigration, xenophobia, and downright racism in other parts of Europe. As with the weak and vanishing center in politics, the center in the art world needs to decide which way to turn; it can no longer hide behind abstract humanist values of great art transcending borders, categories, and history itself. The art world too is living in times of interregnum, as Gramsci famously phrased it in the early twentieth century, and as has been echoed not only by Prashad and others, but also, succinctly, by Zygmunt Bauman a few years ago in a truly prophetic essay.
In conclusion, it may be instructive to see what has happened to the liberal arts in the “illiberal democracy” of Orbán’s Hungary. Orbán and his government have systematically removed the autonomy of state institutions, replacing directors and staff of cultural institutions with political rather than professional appointees—with personnel that follow his ideology and nationalist policies. This did lead to protest, quite rightly, but it garnered relatively little international attention, and the response from the art world was a centrist one; the Off-Biennale for nonstate institutions was created, and it presented an interesting alliance between alternative spaces, artist-run spaces, and commercial galleries, but its aim was not to protest, but simply to show the potentials of art, its possibilities for speculation, beauty, and openness. Such abstract humanist values do not fight fascism. They have not done so historically, nor will they do so now. Something much more forceful is required, I am afraid. I do not want to suggest, however, any return to the historical avant-gardes and their resistance to fascism, as fascism today takes other forms, and art must thus also take other forms. It is not really a matter of art becoming propaganda and protest, although I am sure that much great cultural production will now be made in this vein, in opposition. I am, rather, thinking of the arts as a field, of how we will mobilize and find solidarity as art workers in a system that is already undemocratic, and in a democracy under siege. How do we act institutionally? In other words, my concern here is not so much with representation and critique—I have plenty of trust in artistic imagination—but rather in terms of how we govern within artistic institutions such as galleries, museums, biennials, art fairs, and art schools. Can we reorient these spaces away from the vanishing center, and towards a resurgent left, which is needed now more than ever?