Trump meets the Stones meets Duchamp at Belushi’s sports bar in Paris. Photograph: Meike van Schijndel
One of my all-time favourite works of political art is a demonic photograph of Richard Nixon, made by Andy Warhol in 1972. Nixon, who was running against the Democrat George McGovern, has been turned a sickly shade of blueish green, made worse by a background of lurid orange. Scrawled underneath, in capitals, is the message: “Vote McGovern.”
I think of this wonderfully understated – and prophetic – piece of propaganda whenever I see Donald Trump. The seemingly inevitable prospect of Trump becoming the Republican candidate is terrifying. But it does at least offer the prospect of some angry, hard-hitting art.
Politics has been the stuff of visual satire ever since William Hogarth painted his 1754 masterpiece An Election Entertainment, showing a riotous Whig banquet where all manner of horrors are unfolding. Shepard Fairey’s famous Hope poster of 2008, which captured the excitement of Barack Obama’s candidacy, is all well and good – but the best political art (like, some would argue, the most powerful political campaigns) is never positive. It is resoundingly, unashamedly negative.
Surely liberal and leftwing artists won’t be able to resist pointing out the monsterish qualities of Trump? We have, after all, already had the appearance of HP Lovecraft’s terrifying monster Cthulhu, who is apparently running for office, in a pulp-horror parody of America’s nightmare scenario.
Will others now follow? I am not sure Jeff Koons has ever expressed a political opinion but – with his German ancestry, orange face and super-kitsch hair – Trump would make a wonderful model for the Bavarian woodcarvers Koons has often employed. In fact, if he chose Trump as the subject of one of his polychrome statues, the result would make a fine decoration for Democrat rallies.
Perhaps Chuck Close could do one of his colossal closeup paintings of Trump’s face, as a Democrat poster. The sheer strangeness of Trump practically makes him a living work of art. What about some slowed-down videos of him ranting? Some photocollages touching on his surreal life and opinions – there’s so much material.
In Weimar Germany, the great dada satirist John Heartfield used photomontages to denounce Adolf Hitler. If Trump’s assault on democracy is as dangerous as it seems – talking about refusing Muslims entry to the US, failing to distance himself from the Ku Klux Klan – then America needs a Heartfield and quick.
Or does it? There is just one problem with Warhol’s mockery of Nixon and Heartfield’s visceral images of Hitler. Neither made much impact. Nixon got re-elected in 1972 and it would take a lot more than photomontage to stop the Nazis. Warhol’s Vote McGovern poster has an added pertinence in this US election year. We all remember Nixon – but who was McGovern?
He was the Bernie Sanders of the 1970s, a radical candidate supported by enthusiastic students and young idealists. It was easy for Nixon to defeat a candidate seen as way to the left, however many artists rallied to support his opponent.
Art does not win elections. Candidates do. That Hope poster was only effective because Obama was such a great candidate. So if Trump is to be stopped, this is no time to mourn for the utopian Sanders. If I were an artist, I would not be satirising Trump just yet. I would be making a poster of Hillary Clinton. And the message? Last best hope.
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