This week, Time has graced its Ideas section with an opinion piece exhorting readers to “Blame Donald Trump’s Rise on the Avant-Garde Movement.” The artist Alex Melamid penned the essay. He’s currently publisher of Artenol magazine and formerly one half of witty conceptual art duo Komar & Melamid, which might lead you to think that this was some kind of satirical experiment. Except I don’t think it is.
Even judging by the extremely low bar set by cultural hot takes on Trump, this one is an oddity.
To paraphrase, it starts in the 1960s and is about how Andy Warhol made publicity and money cool. Ergo, Warholian values are to blame for the fact that we have a president who’s all about publicity and money. That’s probably overstating the case, even if it is true that Warhol is the one artist that Trump seems to know by name.
But Melamid does not stop there. He jumps back in time to Dada maestro Tristan Tzara and Cubist king Pablo Picasso, arguing that these modern artists cleared the way for the rise of a general cultural “infantilism” that has now touched the highest heights of power.
Recent artists have taken the idea further. Jeff Koons’ “Play-Doh,” a gigantic sculptured pile of the familiar childhood substance, has been dignified by the New York Times’ Roberta Smith as an “almost certain masterpiece.” (Koons also just released a new sculpture in Rockefeller Center; it is a balloon.) Cy Twombly’s pieces look as if they were made by a four-year-old; Howard Hodgkin’s are hardly more sophisticated. Looking at the work of Warhol’s protégé Jean-Michel Basquiat, hailed by many as the greatest artist of the last fifty years, one might be forgiven for assuming it’s the product of a disturbed nine-year-old—and a lot of parents will tell you that nine is a bad age, destructive and freewheeling, in a peculiarly American sense.
Leaving the political stuff aside for a moment, let us pause to say what a weird list of artists this is! You don’t ordinarily group, say, Hodgkin’s lush old-school abstraction with Koons’s slick neo-Pop.