As we watched the outgoing president’s cult of rabid followers storm the capital, we spectators could at least feel secure in the knowledge that, although we might have witnessed the ugly truth about what America really is—that sort of populism is not a significant part of the art world I am part of. Far from converting us into his glazed-over MAGA army, Trump’s presidency triggered a shift in the opposite direction —art institutions mounted exhibitions by the very groups Trump was targeting. And problematic directors, professors, and top curators’ heads finally began rolling. Even trustees no longer appeared safe in their own institutions, as the activism-powered ouster of Warren Kanders and the opioid-pushing Sacklers seem to illustrate. Trump appears to have sparked a progressive uprising in the art world.
But it is not really an uprising. On closer inspection, there is an asymmetric battle between a grassroots struggle to redistribute power, and those who place institutional preservation at the center. Ironically, Trump, by dint of his very nastiness, gave the upper hand to institutional preservationists, and not just by threats to defund sanctuary cities, which cast institutions as victims. Because they specialize in representation, museums became exemplary producers of the resistance values newly touted on “This House We Believe” signs. Meanwhile, a labor union movement is rising among the precariat. Yet the very institutions mounting exhibitions aligned with the anti-Trump resistance, are snuffing out this burgeoning organizing. They are helped along by associations between Trumpism and a white-anxiety ethos, which now taints a working class orientation.
In short, these have been victorious years for anti-populists, who maintained their economic status quo while successfully rebranding exclusive cities, companies, and cultural institutions as the frontlines of progressive struggle. But what is populism, anyway?
Just about four years ago, President Obama said: “I’m not prepared to concede the notion that some of the rhetoric that’s been popping up is populist.” He was referring to Trump’s racial-bullhorn campaign rallies, and still believed the term to be contested — that it could mean standing with the people in their struggle against financial elites — the rhetoric he’d employed in his 2008 campaign. But after the 2016 election, US populism has been pulled into line with Europe’s decades-long use of the term to mean basically, nativism — and the hazardous and cynical manipulation of an ignorant populace by authoritarian leaders.
This negative framing of populism isn’t new to contemporary art. While major museums have long tipped their hats to popular tastes with exhibitions on Star Wars or motorcycles, skepticism of the general populace is embedded not just in the art world’s proximity to the one percent of one percent, but arguably in the socially vulnerable nature of the avant-garde. In the late ‘90s, for example, NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani deemed the YBA “Sensation” show which had travelled to the Brooklyn Museum, “sick stuff,” focusing on Chris Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary” (1996) painting as an offence worthy of defunding the museum.
By the Trump era, contemporary art became an even juicier populist punching bag. “Spirit Cooking” (1987)a performance by Marina Abramovic, later reenacted at dinner gatherings, became the centerpiece of a massive conspiracy theory, which claimed to reveal child sacrifice and rampant Satan worship among Democratic elites — Abramovic received daily death threats as a result. As the capitol’s breach shows us, that is only a taste of the danger of right-wing populism. And yet, the art world’s anti-populism presents a different sort of danger.
In his short book What is Populism, German political philosopher and Princeton professor Jan-Werner Müller calls populism “the permanent shadow of representative politics.” His book argues that populism wherever it is found, is based on narrowly defining “the people,” so that populists always oppose pluralism. And yet, anti-populism conveniently justifies the rule of a benevolent elite, tasked to defend the nation against the uncouth, messy, and dangerous impulses of its masses. The book was assigned for the incoming Princeton class of 2021—an appropriate first instruction for a stratum preparing to helm the nation’s top institutions.
In a representative democracy, elites do, to some extent, have to contend with the voice of the street. Anti-populism therefore depends on incorporating popular imagery and language —even including the language of uprising— into the walls of their impenetrable institutions. The instruments of art, academia, and public relations/advertising are called on to perform this incorporation. Georgetown philosophy professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò explains how the concept of “elite capture” can be used to describe, “how political projects can be hijacked — in principle or in effect — by the well positioned and resourced.” In considering how Trump-era politics played out in the art world, I think we can perceive an example of elite capture in the controversy around “Open Casket” (2016).
The “Open Casket” controversy addressed a white artist painting, and the Whitney museum exhibiting, an image based on the famous photograph of Emmett Till’s tortured corpse. The ensuing protests seemed to bring the Whitney to its knees. Criticism by Hannah Black, the most prominent detractor of the painting, hinged on her belief that the subject was “not correctly represented.” Black’s open letter published on Tumblr, explained that: “The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights.” All those pale faces — the majority of white US voters who had supported Trump, seemed to hover like a ghostly certification over this claim.
The narrow focus on representation was a gift to elites. It rendered gatekeepers, and especially, collectors, as the primary actors who could rectify the issue as it was being framed. Industry publications smugly labeled the ensuing spike in more diverse exhibitions and auctions, a “market correction,” a term which implied a faith not so much in social justice, as in commercial markets to uphold social justice — a faith which the market crash of 2008 should have shattered completely. Furthermore, this faith was placed in one of the most unregulated (corrupt) corners of the market.
Major art collectors (mostly white) were benefitting from the Trump deregulation and tax cuts, while investing some of their surplus wealth into the rebranding opportunity offered by the anti-Trump resistance. They could literally turn a profit on fulfilling the activist demand. As Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò summarizes: “elites get outsize control over the ideas in circulation about identities by, more or less, the same methods and for the same reasons that they get control over everything else.”
This sort of trickle-down scheme has never been an effective form of redistribution of power. As the one percent have reeled-in an ever greater share of the nation’s wealth, forcing a bitter zero-sum existence among poorer Americans, racial disparities have widened, a reality veiled by the landscape of increasingly sensitive corporate PR.
Cornell West calls an anti-populist stance “self-serving pragmatism.” It rests on the manufactured sense of impossibility that the system can be radically improved for the many — indeed that redistributing wealth and power is a desirable goal at all. Anti-populism thrives amid cynicism that working class people are capable of forming interracial coalitions and resisting bad-faith leadership. And in the wake of the 74 million 2020 Trump voters, it’s not hard to be cynical about this. But anti-populism suppresses a history of left populism.
The left populist tradition as it has emerged through US history seeks to bridge the gap between struggles around poverty and racial justice. One current example is Reverend William Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign, an echo of the 1968 interracial march on Washington demanding jobs, unemployment insurance, and a fair minimum wage — the march led by Dr. Martin Luther King in the last year of his life. Dr. King called it: “the beginning of a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity.”
This interracial optimism traces back to the original Populism of the 1890s, the Gilded Age, the last time inequality rose to today’s levels. Populism was primarily a movement of farmers (at the time, the majority of Americans) who were struggling to pay agricultural debts to the Wall Street banks. Journalist Thomas Frank in his book, The People, No, describes how the movement included more than one million Black sharecroppers and many suffragists.
From today’s standpoint, the messy problematics of that coalitional patchwork rise to the surface. While it’s true that Populists tried to bring down the “Bourbon Democrats” who were reconsolidating white supremacy in the south post-Reconstruction, and that there was mass collaboration between poor white farmers and Black sharecroppers in North Carolina (which inspired Reverend Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign); it’s also true that racist figures emerged within the movement. Sifting through 19th-century populist cartoons (a signature format considering the movement’s many illiterate followers) I find Sambo caricatures, and Jewish bankers portrayed as hooked-nosed Shylocks clutching bags of gold. This is exactly (contrary to the recent words of Joe Biden) “who we are,” and who we have been as a nation. Yet in the case of historical Populism, “who we could be” is also enveloped within the mess, as a seed is enveloped within muddy soil.
Belgian philosopher Chantal Mouffe in her 2018 book For a Left Populism discusses a messy, conflictual quality, which she calls agonism, as a necessary ingredient for a fully functioning democracy. This idea reminds me very much of Occupy Wall Street — a movement which gave elites little to embrace, by earnestly attempting to connect issues such as housing insecurity, the corporate conquest of government, the ballooning of debt markets that target the poor, the warming climate that Hurricane Katrina and Sandy illuminated so starkly as social justice issues, and to some extent but certainly not enough, racism. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, for example, has described Occupy as a prelude to Black Lives Matter.
But the politics of inequality are precisely what the art world is not built to handle. As Andrea Fraser wrote back in 2011, in an observation more relevant than ever, “art prices do not go up as a society as a whole becomes wealthier, but only when income inequality increases.” One could therefore conclude that left populism in the elite-dependent art world is hopeless. But one might also conclude it’s the only way forward.
The Trump years and the global pandemic have produced spectacular contradictions: the stock market surged while small businesses were permanently shuttered; essential workers were publicly celebrated by the same people who voted against their right to a living wage; and tech billionaires leaped to within striking distance of becoming the planet’s first trillionaires. We have learned that a campaign around institutional diversity of representation can gain steam, while, in parallel, the health and wealth of the great majority of Black people and people of color can radically plummet.
This double reality presents an incredible conundrum, because the institutions that seem best positioned to heal the continuing legacies of racism and classism and environmental destruction, have the deepest ties to elites. The one percent will not willingly give up the very thing that could possibly bridge the gap: their near complete control of political institutions and of the nation’s (or world’s) wealth, because anti-populism is baked into their worldview. And yet, its precisely this conundrum which seems to guarantee the rise of left populism.
Before the pandemic hit, museum workers and adjunct teachers at one institution after another were signing union cards for the United Auto Workers, and the International Union of Operating Engineers — thus pushing back on ingrained skepticism in the art world at alignments with the working class. This summer’s massive BLM movement arose close on the heels of the brief threat-to-the-status-quo of Bernie Sander’s primary campaign, and the substantial overlap indicates a bright future for interracial populism. And now, in the face of a white supremacist insurrection, as we call on the largest corporations on the planet (the very ones who enabled Trump’s rise) to save the day by turning off the far-right’s lights — it would do us well to consider that political horizons (and artistic ones too) exist beyond the anti-populist/fascist binary.