Decoding the Trump Regime


William Powhida - Trump Regime Studies
William Powhida, “Trump Regime Studies” (2017), graphite and watercolor on paper, 20 x 16 inches

I don’t know what good this particular drawing serves as ‘political art.’ For me, it was a frustration-sink of anger over the nepotism, cronyism, and self-dealing represented by Trump’s regime. On a constructive level, the drawing was sold for $2,000 to benefit Smack Mellon, but that feels like a small gesture. Part of me wishes that non-profits didn’t have to spend so much time and energy fundraising. If we can’t have a well-funded National Endowment for the Arts, then it would make economic sense for state and city governments to spend more on culture. If New York City could commit 1% of its budget to the arts, it would go a long way to furthering socially equitable living and working conditions for artists, as laid out in the People’s Cultural Plan.

But I keep coming back to the contradictions inherent in art, such as its status as private property bought and sold in markets — including benefit auctions. The problems of ownership and the extreme disparity between profits from labor and returns on capital have contributed to the social conditions leading to Trump’s election. These conditions certainly extend to Russia, which serves as a model for oligarchic states and a glimpse of what the future holds for the US.

The desire to decolonize the visual arts and make way for a more socially equitable landscape also reveals the limitations of art to effect change in the outside world. Collector Agnes Gund’s recent decision to sell a Roy Lichtenstein painting for $150 million to fund a social justice organization dedicated to reducing mass incarceration is an actual instance of art’s progressive values literally translated into productive capital. It could be seen as one of the most effective examples of ‘political art’ this year, and one of the most frustrating — available only to wealthy philanthropists like Gund, who has six grandchildren of African-American descent and is rightly worried about their future in a society irreparably distorted by Trump and his noxious cast of supporting characters.

American exceptionalism, hard-right conservatism, crony capitalism, Christian fundamentalism, rampant privatization, and of course, acute narcissism are among the self-serving, me-first interests that allow for a Puritan like Mike Pence and a techno-nepocrat like Jared Kushner to serve in the same administration. We lack the proper hybrid terms for the stew of corruption, hypocrisy, incompetence, and menace we are experiencing, and will require even more creative language as Trump continues to hollow out representative democracy from within.

Political art, however well intentioned, isn’t going to stop Congress and the President from swapping billions in Medicaid for tax cuts for the rich, endangering millions of lives. When the artist Sharon Louden asked on Twitter, “Can things get worse?,” expressing bewilderment and frustration with the latest Republican assault on the Affordable Care Act, I could only reply “Most certainly.” The assault on the ACA, and the peril it poses to the most vulnerable members of society, is alone enough to qualify Trump’s circle of ass-kissers as one of the most fascist, disgusting regimes the world has puked up.

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