Can jokes bring down governments? That was the question (and title) of Amsterdam-based design collective Metahaven’s 2013 book, which asserted the power of memes. ‘The meme,’ writes Metahaven, ‘has escaped the confines of internet forums, and is becoming a tool useful to targeted political struggles.’ A feature of memes that accelerate their influence, the book contends – following Richard Dawkins – is their fecundity: they can spread rapidly through the internet into many regions of cultural life. And yet Metahaven undersold the communicability of memes, or at least they failed to predict where memes would emerge with IRL efficacy. Instead of surfacing with material force to undermine regimes of repression and austerity, memes have become flesh in the form of Trump protest art. And they still can’t bring down the government.
No one should question the transgressive power, or the broad appeal, of political jokes. We’re living through a moment when politics is leveraged readily, and sometimes to useful effect, by nonprofessional comedians. They reign on Twitter. They fuse depression, rage, and resigned humour – the prevailing affective modes of life under Trump – into podcasts with thousands of Patreon donors – consider Chapo Trap House. But while these left comedians have demonstrated a deftness with meme culture, an ability to wield and discard memes according to their own logic of transience – say by turning Sebastian Gorka into a sound bite – artists have embarrassed themselves in an attempt to do the same.
Consider the ‘Trump Chicken’, originally a fibreglass sculpture designed by Seattle-based illustrator Casey Latiolais for a Chinese shopping centre in January, and then gleefully seized on by artist and filmmaker Taran Singh Brar and turned into a giant balloon. Describing the work is as tedious as explaining a meme: a large, inflatable chicken made to look like Donald Trump – it has orange hair – that Brar was officially permitted to place on the Ellipse, a park near the White House, on 9 August. It aimed to be a statement about Trump being a ‘weak and ineffective leader,’ Brar told USA Today. Yet its form and circumstance suggested the artist instead as helpless in the face of an ongoing political disaster. At the time, Trump was on a ‘working vacation’ in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he was likely devising an ill-thought and dangerous riposte to North Korea. But not to worry, Brar assured the New York Times. Trump was likely to ‘get wind of the protest through social media.’
Memes spread by mutating. On 30 August, another inflatable Trump animal appeared in Dupont Circle, north-west Washington, D.C., this time in the guise of an enormous rat. Asked why he made it, John Post Lee, a New York gallerist, told the Washington Post, ‘I wanted to do something meaningful, and also something cathartic to help myself.’ If it’s too easy to criticize protest art that announces its own aesthetic and critical impoverishment, it is also too easy to locate in Lee’s confession the source of political motivation. The election of Donald Trump was a traumatic event, but it does not justify protest art that bears the precise legibility and perishability of memes.
Not even those who predicted the coming of Trump, who preemptively held it to the light of scrutiny, have escaped the iconophilia that bolsters his durability. Last year, the artist Rachel Harrison reenacted the havoc of a now infamous exhibition, ‘After Picasso: 80 Contemporary Artists,’ which opened at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, in September 2015 (and included several pieces by Harrison). During the show in Columbus, a disgruntled former employee of the gallery took a hostage, spray-painted and shot several artworks before committing suicide. In April 2016, Harrison took three of her own works that were damaged, including a portrait of Al Pacino that today features a bullet hole to the ‘head,’ and arrayed them alongside piñatas of Donald Trump, for her show ‘More News: A Situation’ at Greene Naftali, New York. It seems likely to me that Harrison meant to link the events – the violence inflicted by an angry, isolated white man and the looming election of Trump – in a loop of pain. Yet it is the image of a piñata shaped into a large Trump head wearing a red hat that lingers. Memes recontextualize images, they subject their source material to commentary, but they also distribute this source ever more widely.
Prediction does nothing for us now, and even those, like Harrison, who were vindicated, succumb to a culture that opens up even the most helpful artistic and intellectual contributions to darker appropriations. The philosopher Richard Rorty is now retroactively esteemed as a soothsayer, a prophet who foresaw the rise of a ‘strong man’ in American politics, in his slim 1998 volume Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America. Rorty was, to an extent, correct in his diagnosis of American illness; yet the unspoken irony – and Rorty privileged irony – of his philosophical career was that Rorty was post-truth. Or, at least, he saw diminishing value in worrying overmuch about the truth. ‘Take care of freedom,’ he said, ‘and the truth will take care of itself.’ Like it or not, though, Rorty’s anti-foundationalist reason has been appropriated, decontextualized, and meme-ified by Trump – no stranger to the field of memes – who knows that by flooding our streams with accusations of ‘fake news,’ he can build a thoroughgoing post-truth society.
This makes ‘Fake News’, Peter Saul’s exhibition of paintings at Mary Boone Gallery, New York, which opened this month, all the more curious. The dark, inadvertent appropriation of meme logic, it seems, has run amok. Scattered among the pop-surrealist images on offer are cartoonish representations of Donald Trump as an alligator – consider the rat or chicken – and Donald Trump with ducks in his hair. Say: what has this to do with fake news? And what is being protested? Trump has relied on a flagitious and ridiculous image from the first, and he would proudly identify with Saul’s self-description in the press release as a man who acts ‘as an affront to good taste, political correctness, and Academic standards.’ By cynically deploying a term that Trump himself has darkly appropriated, Saul ensures the meme-ification of his own art.
Every work of protest art that relies on Trump’s image is a meme, a joke that meekly attempts to bring down the government. And these jokes reveal themselves to have arisen from a shallow, personalized trauma, which is why they lash out at Trump’s shallow and thoroughly celebritized likeness. More and more, given this self-heating coil of iconophilia, the only justifiable, artistic response is unapologetic iconoclasm. This is what we saw in Durham, North Carolina, on 14 August, when a group of protestors that included black activists, anti-fascists, and members of socialist organizations banded together to remove a Confederate statue from public view. Many of them laughed as it fell.
Main image: Peter Saul, Quack-Quack, Trump, 2017. Courtesy: the artist and Mary Boone Gallery, New York
Jonathon Sturgeon is senior editor at The Baffler. He was previously deputy editor of artnet News, literary editor at Flavorwire, senior editor at The American Reader and an associate editor at n+1.