Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 17, No. 1, 2018
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Robert J. Lewis
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Anthony Merino, renowned independent art critic, has published over 70 reviews. He is a ceramic artist and has lectured internationally on contemporary ceramics.

Every object, idea, deity and personage that exists or ever will exist has two qualities: what it is, and what it is perceived to be. The human mind can tolerate a certain amount of deviation between these two qualities for most types of objects. One of the institutionalized exceptions is art. The essence of the object is never what it appears to be. This umbrella observation works just as well for a trompe l'œil still life and a revered Dadaist work. William Harnett’s Music and Good Luck, 1888, appears to the viewer to be a violin hanging on a wooden door. Pigments are floated in oil on canvas. The Fountain, 1917, is viewed as a seminal work in Dadaism. It is, however, a urinal with graffiti scrolled on it.

This distinction has lost all functionality during the past 30 years. Not because art has changed much, but the world we live in has changed. In our post-Nietzschean nihilist wonderland, every object, idea, deity and personage’s perception is completely unfettered from whatever it is. The term ‘post-truth’ emerged to define this age. It is personified by American President Donald Trump.

How does an art distinguished itself when there is discord between its essence and appearance in everything? The term post-truth was predicted fifty years ago in the visual arts; it was given the name “aesthetics of theatre.” The term was originally coined by noted modernist zealot Michael Fried. In his seminal essay, “Art and Objecthood,” Fried observed that Minimalism (which he called literalist art) pivoted the mechanics of representation in art. Over-simplified representationalism of any sort was what the epoch of modernism strived to free art from. Before the literalist, representation happened after the experience. So, Jean-Paul Marat had to have been assassinated for Jacques-Louis David to paint La Mort de Marat (The Death of Marat), 1793. Fried argued that the minimalist was creating future experiences -- and therefore their works became representations of their experience.

Oddly, as Fried walks his reader through this aesthetics mechanics, he can be read as predicting the genius -- however accidental, of Donald Trump. Trump frustrates many. He seems completely unrestrained by decency, empathy or even logic. All of these are manifestations of a certain manner of thought that comes very close to Fried’s theatre of aesthetics. Trump sees what he says now, not as representations of conditions as they were or are, but as they will be. In this light, the term post-truth has a completely different and perhaps more accurate meaning. Commonly, the term suggests truth is dead. Accepting that this has become the normative aesthetic of American society, Post Truth equally becomes an affirmation as much as it is a rejection. Truth gets defined before it happens. It is the projection of truth.

Quite a few writers have observed how Trump manifests the philosophy of Norman Vincent Peale. Peale was a Minister best known for his book The Power of Positive Thinking. In his 2016 article, “Donald Trump, Man of Faith,” Matthew Schmitz describes the difference between Trump and Peale: “Peale meant to preach a gentle creed, one that made hellfire and terror into mere afterthoughts. In Trump, it has curdled into pagan disdain.” Peale also argues that how we mentally frame the world defines our ability to succeed in it. It is a kind of soufflé in which he folds hedonist self-help tips with Christianity. The first of ten steps Peale prescribes to harnessing the power of positive thinking:

Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding. Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade. Your mind will seek to develop this picture. Never think of yourself as failing; never doubt the reality of the mental image. That is most dangerous, for the mind always tries to complete what it pictures. So always picture "success" no matter how badly things seem to be going at the moment.

One can see how Trump embodies this. It is hard to argue that it has not worked. Until 2016, running for president was a political death gauntlet. The smallest mistake could doom a campaign. Al Gore stated he invented the Internet. Dan Quayle corrected a student on how to spell potato. Howard Dean yelping. All were small missteps that all but destroyed their political careers. Almost on a weekly basis, Trump did or said something during the campaign that was far worse. He never apologized nor retreated, and he never paid a political price. Unhindered by reality, shame or regret, he willed the picture of Trump as president into existence.

Central to Peale and Trump is the concept that an individual can create a future reality not just of what they are -- but how they are perceived. Fried states this is what the literalist did in their artwork.

Literalist sensibility is theatrical because, to begin with, it is concerned with the actual circumstances in which the beholder encounters literalist work. Morris makes this explicit. Whereas in previous art “what is to be had from the work is located strictly within [it]," the experience of literalist art is of an object in a situation - one that, virtually by definition, includes the beholder.

It is hard to read this and not see Trump as a literalist performance artist which is his projection of future experiences, by framing how the world will behold him. By 2004 Trump Casino Hotels & Resorts had lost over half a billion dollars. People who owned stock in the company lost 90% of their investments. Trump got signed on by NBC to head the apprentice -- cementing his public persona as a master businessman.

Furthermore, Fried distinguishes David Smith’s conglomeration of metallic geometric shapes from Donald Judd’s conglomeration of metallic geometric shapes, which provide an uncanny insight into the difference between Peale and Trump. Fried argues that the experience one has encountering Smith is that of stasis. Of Smith, Fried asserts “’The experience of the work necessarily exists in time’ -- though it would make no difference if he had not.” Whereas artists like Judd create works that depend on time. He accuses the literalist of being obsessed with the “duration of the experience.” It is theatre because it exists in time.

Trump embodies only the methodology of Peale -- he does not seem to understand its intent. For Peale, the purpose of positive thinking was to be better able to be with Christ. He defines the main benefit of this being with Christ as living of peace of mind. In his book, he quotes the following scripture.

Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. (John 14:27)

This is where positive thinking will ultimately lead the people who follow it.

It is a philosophy that seems absolutely antithetical to Trump. On a personal level, there is never a cheek turned. Trump seems constitutionally unable to ignore the slightest slight or criticism. On a public level, Trump’s rhetoric is that of dominance and conflict. Peale seemed to yearn for a world governed by peace and security. Trump thrives only in a world of chaos. Like the great and powerful Oz, no one knows who he is because all we see are dazzling lights projected on fog.

As a writer, Fried frustrated me. His modernist purity read more like a doctrine to accept rather than an argument to consider. Prior to Trump, I thought “Art and Objecthood” was a baroque and confounding essay. It was the last puff of air coming from the corpse of modernism. Ironically, maybe I was wrong. Fried’s essay was far different than what I thought it to be.

By Anthony Merino:
Dylann Roof Racist & Murderer
African Art Against the State
Code Replaces Creativity
Updating Walter Benjamin
Ego and Art
Nick Cave & Funk(adelic)
Foucault for Dummies





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