VERBIER, Switzerland — The face of a 70-year-old tycoon, waiting to slap his hand on the Bible and be sworn in as 45th president, appeared jarringly on a conference-room wall in the Swiss Alps. A crowd of art-world notables, who’d come to ponder loftier matters, groaned. Even amid snow drifts and ski lifts, this guy had found them: Donald Trump.
“It’s an enormous pleasure for me to be here, rather than there,” said the British artist Christopher Kulendran Thomas, whose talk at the inaugural Verbier Art Summit coincided with a more fateful inauguration on the Mall in Washington, beamed live onto a wall behind him, volume off. As Thomas returned briskly to lecturing about a project of his, the audience did double-takes: high-minded artspeak at the lectern, low-minded history on the wall.
The art world and the larger world seemed farther than a mountain apart during the Verbier forum, which aspires to become a Davos meeting for artists, collectors, critics and museum directors, who are invited to gab over foie gras canapés, plates of truffle-seamed brie and fine wine. Two days of earnest morning debates ensued, followed by public lectures at a luxury hotel, where strikingly few speakers even cited the momentous news.
Those in the American arts are in a difficult position at the dawn of Trump time: damned if they damn him, damned if they don’t. Lamenting the president in public, they face eye-rolling and charges of self-importance; avoid taking a stand, and they risk vitriol, too. But are artists even capable of political influence nowadays?
Right-wing commentators have spent years sniping at liberals in the arts, with notable success. A generation ago, “politicized artist” might have conjured, say, the Soviet dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Today, “politicized artist” is as likely to evoke a whiny, entitled, bobble-headed creative.
The irrelevance of art owes partly to the ascendant populist mood, and partly to protest art being so reliably liberal, so soothingly safe. Artists may claim they’re nailing “redneck racists,” but how many of those attended the gallery opening? Politics in the arts often looks more like group bonding than anything that might effect change.
Not that artists aren’t trying. Efforts to avoid a Trump presidency ranged from slapping down cash to sketching in bodily fluid. Jeff Koons, Marina Abramovic, Ed Ruscha and Chuck Close are among those who made contributions to try to help elect Hillary Clinton. One young artist drew an imagined nude of Trump with a notably small penis; another portrayed Trump in the medium of her own menstrual blood.
Somehow, none of this — no degree of scorn, no foe — could stop The Donald.
The desperation of artists found expression in the #J20 Art Strike, in which scores, among them Barbara Kruger, Richard Serra and Cindy Sherman, signed a declaration calling for action on Inauguration Day, including the closure of galleries, museums and art schools. It was an initiative whose value was not self-evident, except as a howl of the impotent. Several dozen galleries obliged, while a few museums granted free admission, offering refuge from the triumphalism underway in Washington.
As for personal protests, the artist Richard Prince, who once appropriated an Ivanka Trump post on Instagram for a printed work, says he returned $36,000 she paid for this piece in 2014, and that he renounces the picture. Two weeks ago, Christo abandoned a multimillion-dollar project to stretch silver fabric over 42 miles of a Colorado river. After years of planning and legal battles, he refused to continue under a Trump administration. The Museum of Modern Art in New York is showing opposition on its very walls, having taken down works by Picasso, Matisse and others, replacing them with art by citizens of Iraq, Iran and Sudan to protest Trump’s travel ban. And the #J20ArtStrike movement has called for further acts of resistance, such as shaming and divesting from “Trumpists and other oligarchs in the art world.”
Contemporary art is not necessarily primed for the challenge, having indulged so much in a glib postmodernist aesthetic, where topical references are often kitschy and ironic.
The prizewinning architect Rem Koolhaas said during an interview in Verbier that his generation in the ’60s had embraced challenging, angry work. But the current crop, he contended, often prefers comfort. “You have to see at this minute that there’s very little capable or credible contestation,” the 72-year-old Dutchman said on Inauguration Day. “There is also a lot of political correctness that has been, I would say, the opposite of political.”
Even when contemporary art insists on its sincerity, many of its stances — anti-consumerism, say, or anti-bigotry — are so predictable as to feel reflexive. It’s fashion without passion, at no real risk. Beyond the West, the risks are real: Ai Weiwei detained in China, Tania Bruguera hounded in Cuba, members of Pussy Riot beaten in Russia. And those are the rare artists who gain international attention. In other authoritarian regimes, artists just disappear.
Their courage shames even the noblest efforts of their peers in the West. Yet one sympathizes with Americans in the arts, whose alternatives are preaching to a meager choir or being booed by a large one, all in near-certainty that neither side will be shifted. This doesn’t mean their only choices are haranguing or remaining silent. To just acknowledge what is happening — however artistically interpreted — is something. When society gets wretched enough, aloofness looks reprehensible: Those under Nazism who blithely painted mountainscapes cannot be easily rehabilitated.
Some artists are surely wondering whether American society has degenerated so much that they’ve found their cause, that the Trump regime is catastrophe enough to mobilize finally. Yet confronted with millions of fellow citizens who saw incompetence, greed and rabid egotism as acceptable leadership traits, artists — like the floundering journalists, sane politicians and ignored scientists — may struggle to find a form of communication that penetrates anymore.