The Downward Spiral
In his monthly column, Dean Kissick examines the culture of a collapsing society.
Will Ivanka Trump Save Us from Hell?
The problem with zombies is they come back to bite you. A year ago, many in the art world hoped they had seen the last of zombie formalism, but where else should it reappear than all over the walls of Ivanka Trump’s apartment and in the pictures of domestic Manhattanite bliss she likes to post online. An untitled Dan Colen chewing gum painting hangs on the wall; behind the piano is Nate Lowman’s Black Escalade silkscreen of a bullet hole; matching her blue and white Christopher Wool is a handbag she asked her design team to make.
“There are … so many great younger artists that I really love,” Ivanka told Artsy, “including Wade Guyton, Nate Lowman, Alex Israel, Dan Colen, Joe Bradley, and others.” These are the sorts of abstract painters that go to society parties and have long interviews in Interview magazine accompanied by brooding black and white portraits. They are some of the worst artists in the world. Now they have been politicised.
Alex Da Corte, commenting on a picture of Ivanka standing in front of a work of his in her apartment – pastel boiled shampoos painted onto an IKEA mirror – wrote, “Dear [Ivanka Trump] please get my work off of your walls. I am embarrassed to be seen with you.” Others in the American art scene have expressed a similar sentiment, most notably on the “Dear Ivanka” Instagram account founded by curator Alison Gingeras and artist Jonathan Horowitz, on which contributors (from a variety of backgrounds, some of which have nothing to do with art) write open letters appealing to Ivanka to use her influence to challenge her father’s policies and cabinet appointments. The question is, now that society is caught in a downward spiral, will Ivanka Trump save us because some artists whose work she already owns scolded her on Instagram? It seems unlikely. Just because the Trumps have collapsed the wall between the worlds of entertainment and politics doesn’t mean they’re going to start taking policy advice from a gang of handsome society painters. This is not Zoolander 3.
In her recent novel Outline, Rachel Cusk, describing one of the character’s ex-wives, notes: “She herself was English, and so exquisitely beautiful it was hard not to credit her with some inner refinement; but though her nature did contain some surprises, they were not of a particularly pleasant kind. He often invited her parents to stay, as though by studying them he might decipher the mystery of their daughter.” Likewise, amongst the artistic community there seems to be an assumption that because Ivanka is good-looking and collects painting, she is warm-hearted and, like Patty Hearst, just waiting to be turned against her family and the establishment. Again this seems unlikely. It speaks less to politics than to a trite obsession with beauty and celebrity, and the heroic figure of the artist, as well as a relentlessly mawkish and virtue-signalling culture with a propensity towards public shaming and a conviction that one can network one’s way (in the champagne reception sense) out of any problem.
Regarding the embarrassment of Alex Da Corte, surely most artists are embarrassed by the collectors they sell their work to. As they should be. I accompanied, once, some artists to a drinks evening in the Thameside glasshouse of some art collectors, and it was embarrassing. I felt whorish, and ashamed, and bored. But selling out is always shameful. Doctor Faustus did not sell his soul to the Devil as a matter of pride, but rather for limitless knowledge and worldly pleasures. Paganini did the same in order that he could become the greatest violinist in the world. In the past one might allow oneself to be compromised for these sorts of reasons but today it’s usually just for money. Often rather a lot of money.
A good way to prevent blackhearted, maleficent business dynasties from decorating their apartments with your self-expression is not to sell it to them in the first place. Speaking to Bloomberg, Brendan Dugan, founder of New York bookstore and gallery Karma – where some of the works now in Ivanka’s collection have been exhibited – suggested, “The real argument is that the art world is primarily a marketplace, and if you have money, people will sell you things. I think maybe this is a wake-up call,” and in making this observation he seemed, like Siddhartha waiting under the Bodhi Tree, to be waking up to the very concept of karma after which his business is named. But, of course, it is a marketplace and once a work enters the secondary market – for instance if it goes up for auction – the artist no longer has a say over who buys it or where it ends up.
British fantasy artist Rowena Morrill, who has illustrated book covers for the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and Isaac Asimov, took things with more good grace than Da Corte when, in the late spring of 2003, two of her paintings were found hanging on the walls of one of Saddam Hussein’s mansions. “I can’t say that I take anything coming from a quarter like that as a compliment,” she said. “However I certainly think that – if in fact he was looking at my works and thinking anything – I’m very curious. I’ve always known that once I sell a piece it could end up anywhere. Of course I never dreamt that it would end up in a place like that.”
What must the Iraqi dictator have been thinking as he gazed upon Shadows Out of Hell, in which a naked blond Adonis wrestles with a serpent? It’s impossible to say. What does Ivanka think as she gazes upon her abstractions made of bubblegum and melted shampoo? Probably the answer is nothing. The paintings are empty and meaningless. What does anyone think when they look at these, except: That might look nice on my wall, in the background of pictures of me, or in my investment portfolio? This is what the art of the deal looks like. If you’ve ever walked around a fair and looked at all those works hanging in the booths and wondered where they ended up, it’s here, on the walls of multimillionaires whose morals are as questionable as their aesthetic judgement.
Another work from Ivanka’s collection, one of David Ostrowski’s “Relax/Outline Paintings” – just a coloured square around the edges of a white canvas – appeared prominently in her video “Find Your Iowa Caucus Location”, released last January when her father was still fighting for the nomination. Ostrowski’s painting was an appropriate prop for a Donald Trump campaign video because it has absolutely nothing to say. It is literally a blank canvas. Just as, in the 50s and 60s, Abstract Expressionism was promoted around the world by the CIA as an example of American freedom and creativity, so today’s abstract painting has been appropriated as a harmonious backdrop for conservative propaganda and desirable commodity for the one percent.
Commenting on a photograph of one of his soft pastel paintings hanging above Ivanka’s polished dining room table – in which it is reflected – Alex Israel wrote, “Please stand with artists and so many people around the world who believe that America means equality for all people,” which is sweet, but, surely the art world of today is founded upon a sort of cultural elitism and willingness to serve and entertain the ruling class rather than on principles of equality, and the Trumps are hardly worse than the countless other tyrants, warmongers, property tycoons, corrupt banks, oil companies, and multinationals that financially support it. If the most hated president in American history has closer family ties to contemporary art than any other president in the country’s history, what does this say about today’s art world?
And will Ivanka Trump save us from hell? In thinking about this question, I was reminded of Alex Israel and Bret Easton Ellis’s show of collaborative paintings at Gagosian Beverly Hills last year, in which, over a photograph of black palms blowing in the wind at dusk, were typed the words, “He still thought he could change the world. just a little less now.”
DEAN KISSICK is a writer based in Oxford.