There is something about Donald Trump, as his face balloons into our televisions, that seems far less about politics than about postmodernism in the art world. Is there anything more to him than Jeff Koons’ ‘Inflatable Pig Costume’? Perhaps post-truth politics is the most recent manifestation of a truth-denying movement that has been haunting the art world for decades.
Postmodernism was a carnival in the wake of Modernist pioneers. Where Modernists at the start of the 20th Century had challenged outdated elitism and sought to make art relevant to the modern experience, their successors were less progressive. Rather than creating any new albeit simplistic vision, they celebrated the chaotic lack of vision, the dissolution of meaning, the end of ideologies. Without objective standards by which to review art, the individual was the only critic left. This open-minded philosophy did not, however, diversify the tastes of the many, but rather provided legitimacy to so-called ‘low art’, to pop-culture.
The past fifteen years have been marked by the failure of the neoliberal narrative. Free markets and elected governments don’t inspire the confidence they did at the start of the millennium. The end-of-history vision, the last Enlightenment grand narrative in the West, was broken by confusing and destructive wars in the Middle East that aided the rise of Islamist terror, meanwhile the financial crash of 2008 showed governments defending banks seemingly beyond all reason. In response to the hypocrisy and lies of Western governments, many rejected all elites, experts, visionaries or ideologues.
Postmodern art thrives in opposition to artistic norms. With each boundary broken, each convention subverted, an artist can gain a reputation. Shock became success to Emin, Hirst or Gilbert & George.
It was a kind of joke, where the audience weren’t even convinced it was art.
If exhibitions can cause offence or amusement, they’re more likely sell out. This phenomenon seems fitting when it comes to understanding our post-truth politicians. Their notoriety, their blasé attitudes towards political correctness, towards truth, only serve to empower the crowds that cheer them on. Farage pleased crowds by trying to act like an extra up the Nag’s Head in Only Fools and Horses.
Is Trump a politician, or some knowing performance artist, playing a kind of caricatured ‘ugly American’? Does the audience, the electorate, care? Popular rejection of experts is a shrug to objective truth. Their motivations may inspire sympathy, but the consequences are catastrophic, as the referendum proved. If there are no experts to prescribe facts, the individual becomes, once again, one’s own chief commentator, with uninformed prejudices afforded an incorrigible legitimacy.
This argument should not been against populism or indeed pop-culture, which would simply be the elitist response. However, in the fields of art and celebrity politics, value has been and is increasingly calculated according to opinion and predictions of opinion rather than any concrete merit, making them both susceptible to vicious snowballing. Any movement that dismisses objectivity, without allowing for a pluralist openness to different value systems and varied attitudes, risks becoming a hotbed of reactionary bile or risks placing those kitsch figurines, not fit for display, on a plinth.
But politics is not art. We must not let a pickled shark in the White House.
By Osian Evans-Sharma, 19 (@OsianKCES)