Amid the perpetual uproar that engulfs Donald Trump one aspect of the former reality TV star has largely gone unreported: his attitude towards, and intentions regarding, the world of arts and culture. Recently, I travelled to the US to make a television documentary devoted to this theme. Trump on Culture: Brave New World? will be broadcast on BBC World News this month.
Trump is often characterised as a brash, buffoonish philistine, with zero understanding of the arts. Surprisingly, though, his 1987 bestseller, The Art of the Deal, ghost-written by the journalist Tony Schwartz, recounts several anecdotes that suggest it would be misleading to say Trump is wholly uninterested in culture.
Trump Tower itself reveals much about the president’s cultural inclinations
For instance, the third chapter contains the bizarre revelation that, as an “aggressive kid” in second grade, Trump punched his music teacher and gave him a black eye – “because I didn’t think he knew anything about music”.
Later, we learn that Trump was “attracted to the glamour of the movies”, and even flirted with the idea of attending film school in California. Perhaps he assuaged his ambitions concerning Hollywood by making various cameo appearances in movies from Home Alone 2 to Zoolander.
Then, of course, there is his obsession with architecture. He remains inordinately proud of his 58-storey skyscraper Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York. In fairness, its grandiose atrium, a polished fantasia of brass fittings and expensive pink marble, with an imposing waterfall, is a quintessential example of a certain 1980s aesthetic.
The story of the construction of Trump Tower, though, should give pause for thought to anyone who feels blasé about his potential impact, as president, upon the arts. To make way for Trump Tower, another building, on the same site, occupied by a high-end department store called Bonwit Teller, had to be demolished – not without controversy. After agreeing to donate two historic Art Deco friezes, which decorated that building’s exterior, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Trump balked at the cost of saving them, and reneged on his promise. “So,” as he put it in The Art of the Deal, “I ordered my guys to rip them down.”
Regarding Trump Tower, there is also the strange tale of the tycoon’s interaction with Andy Warhol, as recorded by the American Pop artist in his diaries. Encouraged by Trump, who visited the Factory in 1981, Warhol worked on a series of portraits of Trump Tower, in black, silver and grey, which he hoped would hang in the skyscraper’s lobby.
Trump objected to Warhol’s paintings of Trump Tower not matching the lobby
Unfortunately, for Warhol, the viewing of the eight finished paintings did not go well. “Mr Trump was very upset that they weren’t colour-coordinated,” Warhol wrote. Some of Warhol’s silkscreen paintings were even sprinkled with diamond dust – which, you might think, would appeal to Trump’s ostentatious tastes. Yet Trump objected to the fact that they didn’t ‘match’ the pinks and oranges in the lobby, and the paintings, to Warhol’s irritation, remained unsold.
‘The Playboy philosophy’
Admittedly, there are prominent Trump supporters associated with the arts, such as the movie star Clint Eastwood. In the main, though, the reaction within the creative community to his election as president has been outrage: Meryl Streep’s heartfelt anti-Trump speech at the Golden Globe Awards ceremony earlier this year is perhaps the best-known example of this tendency. Trump, who has been accused of being thin-skinned, infamously responded to Streep’s speech on Twitter, calling her an “over-rated” actress.
So, it will not surprise you to learn that, while making Trump on Culture, we found artists queuing up to denounce the president and his policies, including the novelist Paul Auster and his writer wife Siri Hustvedt. Both characterise Trump as a “pop-culture president”, obsessed with television and, more specifically, how his own TV appearances rate and get reviewed.
“I see Trump as a guy who grew up on the Playboy philosophy of life,” Auster said. “And by Playboy, I mean the magazine: it was a big force back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. All these obnoxious remarks he’s made about women – really repulsive things that he’s said – reflect the devil-may-care arrogance of the Playboy man.”
The artist earned a visit from Secret Service, upon whose watch list he says he remains
When I asked Hustvedt, who attended January’s Women’s March on Washington, why so many artists and writers viscerally dislike Trump, she replied: “You mean, aside from the fact that he’s a vulgar brute?”
Someone who would agree with Auster is the New York-based artist Brian Whiteley, who gained notoriety last year for installing in Central Park a tombstone inscribed with Trump’s name, the year of his birth, and the slogan, ‘Make America Hate Again’ The gravestone received widespread press coverage, and earned the artist a visit from the US Secret Service – upon whose watch list, Whiteley says, he remains.
Yet not every US artist is anti-Trump. In Washington, I met Lucian Wintrich, the controversial White House correspondent for conservative political blog The Gateway Pundit. Last year, Wintrich came to prominence when he unveiled Twinks for Trump, his pro-Trump photography series featuring mostly shirtless gay young men wearing Make America Great Again caps.
“Before this project,” Wintrich told me, “people would say, ‘Oh, Trump supporters, they’re ignorant, old white men, who work in the coal industry in the Midwest.’ I, personally, thought it was very, very funny to take that imagery, take this classic trucker’s hat, and throw it into a new context.”
The former building of the National Endowment for the Arts is now a Trump hotel
During my time in the US, it became abundantly clear that – more than 100 days into his term of office – Trump still has the capacity to arouse fanatical emotions, on both sides of the political divide. “Here in the United States, we had a Civil War,” Hustvedt told me. “And I think that we are haunted by those divisions.”
Aside from all the heated rhetoric and passion, though, what about Trump’s actual policies concerning culture in America? For supporters of the arts, this, perhaps, was the most tangible cause for alarm. In his draft budget earlier this year, Trump proposed eradicating federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts – even though the NEA’s budget was only $148 million (£114.8 million), or 0.004% of federal spending.
While funding for the NEA has been threatened before, no US president, since its formation in 1965, has ever suggested axing the agency entirely. Ironically, the impressive building in Washington in which the NEA used to be located is now a Trump hotel.
However, in a remarkable turnaround, following much brinksmanship with Congress, the NEA has been awarded $2 million (£1.5 million) extra funding – although the threat of elimination still looms on the horizon.
In many ways, this ongoing saga is a classically confusing and capricious Trump move. To begin with, Trump wanted to get rid of the NEA. Then, he agreed to increase its funding (although, admittedly, not by much). Perhaps it’s still too early to know what the broader implications for arts and culture might be in the age of Trump.
For what it’s worth, though, I remain unconvinced that the 45th President of the United States represents such a dark, existential threat to time-honoured artistic values, including freedom of expression.
You could even argue that, having become a hate-figure for many people on the left, associated with the arts, Trump seems, perversely, to be stimulating creativity – by offering something for them to oppose and rail against. Any civilised society must cherish artistic expression – and nowhere more so than in a country that prides itself on being the Land of the Free.
Alastair Sooke is art critic and columnist of The Daily Telegraph
Trump on Culture: Brave New World? airs on Saturday 3 June on BBC World News. Check the schedule for more information.
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