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An art critic explains what the Guggenheim was really saying when it offered Trump a golden toilet

A fully functional solid 18-karat gold toilet was on display at the Guggenheim museum in New York. (Video: Reuters)

In street terms, what the Guggenheim just did — refusing an art request from the White House but offering instead the loan of a golden toilet — is a "sick burn." According to Washington Post reporter Paul Schwartzman, the White House asked the New York museum if it could borrow a van Gogh painting, which the museum declined to lend, but in an email, a Guggenheim curator offered instead a conceptual work by the established artist and provocateur Maurizio Cattelan called "America," a fully functioning golden toilet that had been installed as a temporary interactive exhibit in a public restroom at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed landmark.

Cattelan has made a career producing bold, and often rather blunt, objects that are designed explicitly to unsettle common pieties about the world (perhaps his most infamous is a sculpture of Pope John Paul II crushed by a meteor). One precedent for his golden toilet was Marcel Duchamp's 1917 "Fountain," a common urinal that the artist repurposed as sculpture. Cattelan's "America," which obviously satirizes the disposable nature of American society and perhaps its lingering anxieties about the body and its functions, was installed in 2016, in time for the century anniversary of Duchamp's classic work.

The golden toilet is a paradoxical object. It is cast from gold but takes the form of an entirely standard piece of plumbing. People who care about luxury toilets — meaning, comfort and function — generally invest in Japanese toilets, which come with a complex array of heating elements, spraying functions, air plumes, drying functionality, lighting and musical options. Cattelan's golden throne is not that kind of toilet. It is a golden version of the kind of toilet you might find in a public school or airport. The use of gold satirizes not just American values but references a long discourse about the vanity of wealth, the belief of rich people that everything they do is transmogrified by money. Saddam Hussein, it was reported after the fall of his regime, had golden toilets, or at least gold-plated toilets.

But the more productive way to think about this has nothing to do with the toilet itself. The real message is in the exchange the Guggenheim had with the White House. The episode recalls one of the first conceptual artworks to make a stir, in 1959, when the French artist Yves Klein created a complicated plan to sell zones of nothingness in exchange for a certain quantity of gold (part of which was to be thrown into the Seine as part of the exchange). His "Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility" was essentially a book of receipts (for the gold given by the buyer or collector) and a ritual act or exchange, ideally overseen by an art world professional (museum director, critic or other dignitary). The conceptual piece advanced two ideas that were becoming fashionable at the time: How to create work that was entirely immaterial, rather than a physical object; and how to create work that called attention to the capitalist economy in which art was bought and sold, like any common commodity?

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The Guggenheim contretemps also has both immaterial and conceptual elements. The immateriality is in the chatter it provokes, the jokes, the pleasure some will take in seeing the president humiliated, and resulting insiders' discourse about contemporary art and irony. The jokes just seem to make themselves. But it also carries with it a conceptual element based on the exchange, or nonexchange, of one thing for another.

The Guggenheim has said no to the president of the United States, which is a powerful gesture in itself. But it has also presumed to offer him something "more" valuable according to the value system it imputes to him: a tawdry love of gleaming gold fixtures, common to vulgar despots all the way back to Midas himself. The subtext here is: We assume you only want the van Gogh painting as a status symbol, which we refuse to endorse; but we will give you what you really crave, which is crass gold. If he accepts the golden toilet, he confirms their view of him. If Trump declines the golden toilet, by implication he would seem to believe that there are things (such as van Gogh paintings) that transcend money and commerce. And thus, he may undermine his own worldview, in which all things have their price and anything can be exchanged for something else if the money is right.

So the artwork here is not by Cattelan, who is merely instrumental in this game. Rather it is the work of Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector, who made the offer to the White House. Curators may be talented and creative, but they are not often in the business of making art itself. But now the Guggenheim owns a new work, a Spector original, which will add if not luster at least levity to the museum's collection. And perhaps, like all political art, a little bit of risk, too. The president is not known to suffer sick burns with a light sense of self-deprecation.