We often ask if art can change the world. A fascinating case of the world changing art just cropped up in an incident initiated by the Trump White House. Last year the Guggenheim Museum received a request from First Lady Melania Trump and the Office of the Curator of the presidential mansion to borrow the museum’s Vincent van Gogh’s 1888 Landscape With Snow to hang in the private quarters of the White House. It’s a beauty too, a pastel-colored winter scene painted the week van Gogh arrived from Paris in Arles. Museum deputy director Nancy Spector’s response was respectful, reflective, and simple. In a letter to the White House declining, she explained honestly that the work is “prohibited from travel except for the rarest of occasions,” and that it was already scheduled to be exhibited in the museum’s Bilbao, Spain, building. Then Spector offered the White House an alternative.
With the artist’s consent, she suggested Maurizio Cattelan’s 2016 America, a fully functional, gold-plated toilet, which she said could be placed in the private quarters “for a long-term loan,” adding that the work is “extremely valuable and somewhat fragile,” but that the museum would “provide all the instructions for its installation and care.”
At first glance it’s a simple gesture of protest, sending the president a toilet when he’d asked for a masterpiece — an empowering and fun gesture to some; flippant and disrespectful to others. A throwaway. The White House hasn’t responded, and other than a flurry of news items and the predictable Fox News outrage, nothing will likely ever come of it. The only thing Cattelan said about it has been this typically gnomic comment: “What’s the point of our life? Everything seems absurd until we die and then it makes sense.” Yet, this teeny gesture demonstrated some of the transporting powers of how art — in concert with other things and contexts — can change incrementally and by osmosis, making its idea spread, interact, and disseminate itself into the wider system, and even help make change possible. Perhaps more vividly, it demonstrated just how much meaning a new context gives to a particular work.
Here’s how: One of art’s most effective weapons is its bodily confirmation that pleasure is an important form of knowledge. And the small dose of “pleasure” imparted in Spector and Cattelan’s gesture is manifold. Some Trump haters will see the gesture as a simple middle finger and cheer. Some Trump supporters will see a gold toilet offered to the president of the United States as a mark of the elitism, corruption, greed, and the charlatanism of the art world. Neither is wrong. The beauty of the gesture is that while sincere, it is both.
Here’s where another one of art’s powers takes over: paradox — the belief that more than one thing is true at the same time. Since this is a credo for those of us in the art world, the pleasure in this gesture comes on several levels. First there’s the aforementioned “stick in the eye” by a famous curator and artist under the letterhead of one of America’s most important museums — the sense that big institutions (even if their boards are often composed mainly of businessmen and Republicans) aren’t only toadying to the administration, even for access or grants. The gesture reminds us that while maybe half the big-money people in the art world probably vote Republican, and that many major collectors support Trump, that art can still be in control and that money hasn’t taken over everything. (Trumpist examples include megacollector and casino owner Steve Wynn, who was the finance chair for the Republican National Committee, but resigned following allegations of sexual harassment; super-hedge-fund manager and major collector of trophy art Steve Cohen, who had to pay a $1.8 billion fine for not curtailing insider trading at his firm, is a longtime major Trump supporter; Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump famously collect no-risk, high-end art stars.) It’s reassuring that the Guggenheim is willing to annoy some of its own board members. Good for them. Especially at the same moment when things have grown darker for other institutions, as with the Queens Museum pushing back against its activist director Laura Raicovich, causing her to step down. In an emergency like the Trump years, little acts of resistance like this count.
Then there’s the headier, more metaphysical sides of the paradox. First, the unexpected, almost shocking, inversion of one of art’s foundational acts. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp signed a urinal with a pseudonym and called it art. The invention of the so-called readymade changed everything in art, is changing it still, and is at work again in Spector and Cattelan’s gesture: the idea that new thought structures and meaning can be formed based on things already in the world. One-hundred-and-one years after the fact, Spector and Cattelan have reversed Duchamp, transforming the meaning of a work of art, suggesting that this formerly very public sculpture used as a toilet in the museum for over a year can have a new life as a very site-specific work, the private residence of the Trump White House. Here America would be used as a working toilet while also becoming an emblematic symbol, a solid-gold talisman of, on the one hand, civil disobedience, on the other, of Trump’s love of gold and gaudiness. That’s new meaning. Indeed, in 2016 Cattelan called America “one-percent art for the ninety-nine percent.” In the White House, suddenly, this showpiece would become the opposite — art of the resistance but served up on a platter to the ruler who embodies Louis XIV’s “L’etat, c’est moi” (“I am the state”).
When I first saw Cattelan’s gold toilet in 2016 I considered it just another obvious comment on art and the market. Something expensive and shiny to look at once, never think about again, and used as a selfie site. Yet at the White House, America would have a new and much more charged meaning, in part because suddenly we see the goldness of the toilet in a different light when it is being used and displayed by this man, obsessed in every way with gold and what he thinks it represents — including his dictator-chic 66th-floor Trump Tower McMansion interior outfitted in 24-karat-gold lamps, vases, and crown molding, a diamond-encrusted front door, fake columns, living-room fountain, ersatz Roman wall paintings, crystal chandeliers, and kitschy fresco paintings depicting Greek myths. Or his outfitting his $100 million Boeing 757 jet with 24-karat-gold-plated seat belts, silverware, plates, bathroom sink, and personal leather-covered toilet.
We must remember that art can often be political when it doesn’t seem that way. Warhol may not have passionately cared about capital punishment but he noticed intensely when he made paintings featuring electric chairs, car crashes, suicides, and fallen celebrities. As with all art, even Cattelan’s toilet, once stuck in a very limited optical/cerebral rut, exists within the larger world. And the world changes everything. At the White House, America isn’t a better sculpture. But in this one place, at this one time, it’s meaning and use value mushroom.
One of art’s powers is that it is a static thing that can change through time. That’s America in the White House, even if it will transform back into a pumpkin after Trump is gone. Regardless, this small protest not only expresses the minds of its makers, it successfully accesses the wider group mind — one that understands this gesture even without seeing it; grasps the almost-healing power of even the smallest acts of resistance, rebellion, and revolt; and knows that trying to speak truth to power can have efficacy.