Trump NFTs are not art. Unless you consider grifting an art form.

by AryanArtnews
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Trump NFTs are not art. Unless you consider grifting an art form.

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Perhaps the most useful and honest image of the new website advertising Donald Trump’s digital trading cards is at the bottom of the page, where Trump gives two thumbs up while winking at the viewer. The twofold message seems simple: Everything is A-OK, and it’s all a bit of a joke.

People certainly had a good laugh Thursday when Trump made what he called a “big announcement.” He now offered “limited edition” digital trading cards for sale, featuring what appeared to be highly amateurish images of the former president playing golf, posing as an astronaut, surrounded by gold bars and shooting lasers from his eyes.

This latest entrepreneurial effort from a businessman with numerous failures and bankruptcies appears to be a belated attempt to cash in on the market for “non-flippable tokens”. NFTS includes the sale of images with a unique digital stamp and thus, theoretically, an artificial rarity. NFTS uses bitcoin technology and can be bought and sold like any other commodity. The market for them may have peaked in 2021 with the $69 million sale of a digital collage by an artist named Beeple. Since then, the market has collapsed.

Critics derided the crude iconography of the statues and their clumsy construction. The website “Collect Trump Cards” attributes the designs to Clark Mitchell, an artist specializing in popular imagery, saying, “He has prominent working relationships with brands such as Star Wars, Hasbro, Mattel, Marvel.” Mitchell has a basic mastery of the hypermasculine tropes of comic book culture and professional sports.

If the images seen on the site are anything like the digital images that will be delivered to anyone who pays the $99 fee, the Trump cards will feature clumsy Photoshopped images of the former president’s face superimposed on reasonably fit male bodies grafted, dressed in various costumes of male bravado, including sportswear, a sheriff’s duster and lots of blue suits.

The Lincoln Project, a political action committee that specializes in slickly produced social media mocking of Trump, posted a clip of the online video announcement overlaid with canned laughter. “Stop. We can only laugh so much,” said the tweet, which racked up more than 19,000 likes a day after the big announcement.

Along with the laughs, however, was the pervasive sense that this latest scheme distilled the essence of Trump to its purest form. It was in a way more telling and disturbing than previous attempts to cash in on a name once associated with the Oval Office.

We can look to some of the darker trends in the contemporary art market to sharpen that intuition. In his announcement, Trump wrote: “These limited edition cards feature incredible ART from my life and career!”

Art is prominently capitalized, heightening the dissonance between a word that evokes thoughts of Leonardo, Rembrandt and Picasso and the image that followed — Trump as a superhero in tights and a cape. A similar dissonance is often felt in contemporary art museums and markets when seemingly trivial or worthless objects—garbage or things found on the street, random mementos plucked from the cache of memory—are relaunched as art and as both intellectually substantial and be treated as commercially valuable.

The shorthand criticism of this phenomenon is: “My child can do it.” And indeed, if your child has even a passing familiarity with pop culture tropes and basic proficiency with photo-editing software, your child can probably make images of Trump as ridiculously awful as the ones Trump is trying to sell now.

In the art world, the conceptual shift that transforms supposed junk as art is not quite so simple. It has a long pedigree, dating back to the work of Marcel Duchamp, whose infamous “ready-made” sculpture included a 1917 work known as “Fountain,” a urinal turned 90 degrees on its axis and drawn with a number for the artist’s name. And, yes, your kid can probably reposition a urinal and sign his or her name on it, but they probably couldn’t do it at just the right historical moment to start a century’s worth of discussion about what constitutes art. Is it the material object or the idea? An original form or its repetition?

The essence of Duchamp was playful subversion

People laughed at Duchamp’s urinal, and they still laugh at its offspring, which can be found in galleries and art markets around the world. This is not to argue that Trump’s ART is art. It is not. What matters here is how laughter defines community and how closely Trump’s attempt to market amateurish iconography parallels the way artists, critics and collectors have used laughter to define the boundaries of the art world.

Simply put, if you can’t take Duchamp or conceptual art seriously, you’re a philistine, by the art world’s definition. It proves that you are unwilling or incapable of a basic set of thought exercises and mental exercises essential to the appreciation of contemporary art. One of the hallmarks of Trump’s art, and the work of other artists who have tried to market Trump imagery as art, is the expectation that elites will laugh at it. Those who laugh are immediately outsiders to Trump world, where a taste for the tawdry is established as a fundamental template of loyalty and belonging.

Call it reverse philistinism: using intentional bad imagery, perhaps with a wink, to create an “us-them” dynamic. Other artists who align themselves with Trump have also done so. Jon McNaughton, who calls himself “America’s leading conservative artist,” has created insidious depictions of Trump as a saintly figure who nurtures a suffering America to rekindle its idealism and find its true soul. But he also created a cartoonish image of Trump and his wife, Melania, riding in a giant flag-adorned pick-up truck titled “Keep on Trumpin’,” a reference to a 1968 counterculture cartoon, “Keep on truckin’ ,” by artist Robert Crumb.

The text below the image (available as a signed canvas print for $399) makes explicit the economics of reverse philistinism: “YOU might be a TRUMP SUPPORTER if you think it’s patriotic to tape American flags to a 4-wheeler to make! … YOU might be a TRUMP SUPPORTER if you hang McNaughton Paintings in your home!” McNaughton also sells Trump NFTs, and Trump’s recent foray into that market is likely an attempt to edge out competitors.

Another artist, Julian Raven, began an ultimately fruitless battle with the Smithsonian in 2017 after the National Portrait Gallery refused to hang his 16-foot painting of Trump’s head next to a soaring eagle and American flag, a portrait that is only slightly better than Trump’s trading cards. Raven’s challenge to an established museum was a public performance, designed in part to suggest that the Portrait Gallery’s standards of quality and inclusion were simply irrational, and if you believe in reverse philistinism, they are. Once “high art” expanded its boundaries to include “bad art” or things that were never meant to be art, the makers of bad art were empowered to challenge the institutional authority of the art world.

Strategically, of course, the best thing for the Trump brand, the best hope for maintaining his popularity, is to get people who tend to laugh at Trump to keep laughing at Trump. This inflames the anger of his followers, who feel they are being laughed at, and this in turn inspires the pure tribal sense of identification with the former president.

The joke, in the end, will unfortunately be at the expense of people paying $99 for his NFTs, which, despite what appears to be an initial surge of interest, are likely to be extremely risky as a long-term investment. But it’s also very much on brand for Trump, a perfect distillation of his unique approach to marketing. NFTS is a reductio ad absurdum of art: You don’t pay for an object or a thing, just an idea or a feeling. Trump does the same for politics: When you invest in him (with your votes, your financial support or simply your affection), you get almost nothing tangible in terms of policy or achievements. But you do belong to its community, with all its intangible but non-slingable benefits.

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