During his celebrated half-century career, the iconic artist Duane Michals, best known for his photography, has been skeptical of the efficacy of art as political protest.
Art’s “political aspirations are impotent,” Michals told Bomb Magazine in 1987. “They can never be seen. If they are, it will only be by a limited audience. […] Power is not with the artist. Artists are little pilot fish swimming around a great shark. We have to understand the nature of power. Power is in the hands of big money and oil companies.”
Two things, then, are surprising about the exhibition of new Duane Michals work that opened this week at the OSMOS gallery in the East Village. One is that Michals, mainly a photographer, is trying his hand at new mediums including sculpture and experimental film. The other is that his show, “Anti-Trump Agitprop,” wades, splashing, into the realm of the political. The 85-year-old artist is clearly unwilling to rest on his laurels, which is admirable. Whether this latest experiment succeeds is another question.
His half-century career has produced an impressive body of work; Michals is especially well-known for his elegant and striking portraits, mainly in black-and-white, and his arrangements of staged photo sequences. He likes to add whimsical hand-written captions to his work which function as part of the art. The art often has a lighthearted tone that asks not to be taken too seriously – a surprisingly difficult order in the art world.In keeping with that sense of playfulness, Michals’ new work – inspired by Soviet agitprop – takes the form of whimsical mixed-media sculptures and photo-sequences poking fun at Trump. In classic Michals style the pieces are text-heavy with little puns and rhymes. (The exhibition also includes some experimental short films by Michals: absurdist pieces not necessarily related to the political work but included to round out the exhibition.)
In “The Fifth Avenue Shooter” (2017), a wooden cutout of a man’s silhouette stands with hands raised; on the cutout is printed Trump’s infamous remark about how he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue without losing supporters. In “Zeus Strikes Trump” (2017), a thunderbolt leaps into the headless body of a suit-and-tie-wearing man. In “I Love Puty” (2017), Trump kisses Putin’s ass, literally.
In fact, you can generally get the gist from the titles: “The Bully’s Bullshit,” “The Lyin King,” “The President Pinocchio Tree.” Those who complain that contemporary art is too opaque and inaccessible shouldn’t have any problems deciphering these.
The overall tone is broad farce. Some pieces are rather charming – or a little too cute, depending on your taste. In “Rusky Business” (2017), a staged photo sequence, Trump (played by Michals, with long red tie and a floppy blond toupee) is courted by “Puty” (an aging actor whose lack of resemblance to Putin, like Michals’ lack of resemblance to Trump, is part of what makes the photos funny). Over the course of a romantic date they go to the cinema, and Trump falls asleep on Puty’s shoulder; they stand in front of Tiffany’s while Trump points out something he wants; they sip from a fountain drink with two straws, staring adoringly into each other’s eyes. (On the table is a bottle of Russian vodka.)These pieces are supposed to be fun, and they are. But even allowing for the fact that they aren’t meant to be taken too seriously, the humor sometimes feels lazy. In one sculpture, a soft-serve swirl of excrement sits in a bowl, accompanied by a caption reading “Executive Odors.” About as subtle as a lightning-bolt to the head. (Or perhaps about as subtle as “America,” the gold-plated toilet Maurizio Cattelan installed at the Guggenheim.)
To be fair, agitprop – literal propaganda – was never known for subtlety. But in the hands of some of the show’s influences, like El Lissitzky and Vladmir Tatlin, agitprop and Soviet avant-garde achieved a startling aesthetic vision. Contemporary art, graphic design, illustration, architecture – all are still in debt to the abstract lines and forms and bold color schemes of savants like Lissitzky.
Michals’ sculptures, though witty and often creative, do not stand on the same aesthetic footing. So instead they must be assessed by their political and intellectual content. That’s the problem.Satire, by definition, must challenge something or someone. But these pieces don’t speak truth to power; they are about as consequential to Trump’s project as the pilot fish to the shark, or rather less. Michals is ensnared in the same dilemma he identified in 1987 when he said that art’s political aspirations are impotent and its audience limited. But the bigger problem is that these pieces don’t challenge their audience, either. An overwhelmingly left-leaning New York art world already agrees with their anti-Trump message; rather than challenge the viewer these works will validate his preexisting biases.
To his credit Michals’ gentle anti-Trump jibes are hardly the worst offenders. Something about Trump, like Bush, Jr. before him, brings out the worst, most self-congratulatory cultural expression from the left – whether downright juvenile, like a Trump-shaped turd; or a weird combination of campy and shrill, with a bit of ad-hominem thrown in, like the Westboro Baptist Church-inspired GOD HATES TRUMP signs; or simply embarrassing, like the “pussy hats” at the women’s march earlier this year. These statements of protest are embarrassing not because there isn’t anything to protest – there certainly is – but because the vehicle that that protest takes is so cartoonishly shallow and pandering.
Instinctive, almost compulsive snark now seems to be the default mode of American elite culture. That’s unfortunate, artistically as well as politically. The humor that comes from it is too easy, too self-satisfied, and too smug to qualify as true satire. Instead of a bold strike by the leftist vanguard against the enemy’s ramparts, it feels like a retreat: the psychological defense mechanism of a nervous cultural elite walling itself further and further into its own castle.