ArtIssue 20

Offensively Patronising

Donald Trump is not a stranger to patronising the arts in America. He is a member of the ‘World Wrestling Federation Hall of Fame’, and was the star attraction in the ‘Battle of the Billionaires’ at WrestleMania XXIII in 2007, where he was seen body-slamming WWF Chairman Vince McMahon, before shaving McMahon’s head. Videos of the event can be seen on YouTube, and the pair remain firm friends; McMahon’s wife Linda is now a member of President Trump’s cabinet, as Administrator of the Small Business Administration.

During one episode in 2009, WWE Raw was sold by Vince McMahon to Donald Trump, before it was announced a few days later that McMahon had bought it back after the stock plunged 7%. ‘Monday Night Raw’ is, of course, a television show and not a company for sale or purchase, but in engineering this fake stunt McMahon had clearly not considered how his stockholders might react. Nevertheless, Trump’s announcement that the show would be broadcast “commercial-free” drew huge ratings for the following episode, and the publicity generated probably offset the temporary fall in stock price. Selling the WWE to Trump might have not have been a smart business venture. Pretending to do so was.

In 1957 the Metropolitan Museum paid $30,000 for Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm; at the time an unprecedented piece for a painting by a contemporary artist. The following year, ‘The New American Painting’, an influential exhibition organised by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, began a year-long tour of European cities including Basel, Berlin, Brussels, Milan, Paris, and London. It has been suggested that Abstract Expressionism was a propaganda tool of the United States during the Cold War, heavily funded and supported by the CIA. Whether or not the movement’s success overwhelmingly due to the agency there is a great deal of evidence for this claim of involvement.

In her book Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (1999) the British journalist Frances Stonor Saunders maintained that “In the manner of a Renaissance prince – except that it acted secretly – the CIA fostered and promoted American Abstract Expressionist painting around the world for more than twenty years.” It is well-documented that the CIA bankrolled cultural initiatives through organisations such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), an anti-Communist advocacy group active in thirty-five countries, which the CIA helped to establish and fund. Saunders’ argument is that the CCF financed several high-profile exhibitions of Abstract Expressionism during the ’50s, including ‘The
New American Painting’.

One can see how Abstract Expressionism might have been seen to illustrate, artistically, the values which America wanted to be seen internationally to espouse: individual freedom and an appreciation for emotional subjectivity in direct opposition to the strictly figurative and literalistic tenets of the Soviets’ Socialist Realism. In the same way, one can’t help but feel that Trump might want to promote the values espoused by the WWE.

First, Trump’s debating style against Hillary Clinton during the Presidential race had much more to do with wrestling than with running. His apparent need for revenge and retaliation rivalled anything professed in wrestling ‘interviews’. His disregard for truth and authenticity; his cartoon persona; his ability to whip a crowd in to a state of frenzy that blurs the lines between fiction and reality; his incitements to violence; and even the moves he suggests (“grab ‘em by the pussy”) are all things he seems to share with the world of wrestlemania. Second, both Trump and the programme have been accused of promoting stereotyped, simplistic and hateful attitudes towards women, queer groups, and racial minorities.

Trump’s administration isn’t yet promoting WWE, but it will be instructive to see what changes they do make to public spending on entertainment. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which partially funds the National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), may be privatised under Trump, whilst the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be eliminated entirely. This information – initially published by The Hill – stems from an undisclosed source in Trump’s cabinet, so it may be less than reliable and it certainly isn’t yet concrete. Moreover, the CPB and other state departments only supply c.2% of NPR’s overall revenue, and during the 70s and early 80s the majority of NPR revenue came from the state, which it was then successfully weaned off, so it has functioned over a transition before. Nevertheless, there is a possibility that there could be significant cuts to the arts under Trump, which would seem to tally with both the evidence of his personal taste, his political values, and the economic policy he has so far expressed.

But perhaps he doesn’t need, directly, to do so much. In just the time since his election the share prices of the WWE have risen 5%. Can you smell what the Donald is cooking?