In this week’s AJ highlights I included some of the stories we found about the naked Donald Trump statues that appeared in five American cities last week. One reader was unhappy:
Vile & disgusting. This is not art nor it is political commentary. This is the second time in as many weeks Arts Journal has trashed Trump. I come here for news about classical arts and I am faced with this rubbish. I will not be back and will be changing my party from democrat to independent if this is the level liberal politics has sunk.
The Trump piece was one of the biggest arts stories last week and got lots of attention. We linked to several stories, including a fierce attack on the work as not being good satire, commentary or politics. Sorry you were offended. I suspect your reaction was something the artists were hoping for. Political debate in America is broken and has descended to levels we haven’t seen in a long time. Shining a light on the debate and calling it out when we disagree is surely one of the first steps to restoring a higher level of political discourse.
Now, I will admit I snorted when I first saw coverage of the statues. And the Daily Beast story about the artists who made them conveyed a sense of derring do that was quite fun. But I got to wondering if this stunt actually accomplished anything. Surely it didn’t change the minds of any Trump supporters. Those who haven’t decided on him were likely unswayed. In the Guardian Murray Whyte wrote that it was weak satire that essentially stooped to a school yard level that has turned off many voters.
But maybe we’re misrepresenting what the artists intended. Malcolm Gladwell in his new podcast suggested that Tina Fey’s send up of Sarah Palin was also “weak satire” and changed no minds. Actually there was evidence at the time that it did sway voters’ opinions. But in any case, Gladwell was using the wrong measuring stick. Saturday Night Live’s job is to be funny and get ratings. The show’s success is measured by viewer numbers. Fey’s Palin accomplished this spectacularly well. So it was success.
Critics often measure artists against goals the artist never aspired to, and I think this is weak criticism. Perhaps the Naked Trump artists only wanted to have fun and grab attention. If so, they succeeded. To measure their success by whether is was effective political debate might be beside the point.
But I’m also interested that the commenter was so offended that we linked the stories and also by her sense that on a site about “classical arts” such stories should never appear. My reflexive reaction is well of course we should link them. But why? Because they were funny? Because they made fun of someone who regularly makes fun of others – particularly their looks? If it was bad satire (I stress “if”), why is it worth paying attention to? There’s a role for artists in politics, but I’m not at all sure what it is anymore.