The Donald Trump Readymade
In 1917 Marcel Duchamp snatched a urinal, Hancocked it “R. Mutt,” and submitted it to the Society of Independent Artists. Although rejected for their upcoming exhibit, Fountain would become quite possibly the most influential artwork of the 20th century. It didn’t just make a statement, it affected change. Put that in your pipe—that isn’t really a pipe—and smoke it.
The readymade, such a great idea. You simply find an object worthy of artistic interest, sign it, and put it in a new context. Brilliant, right?
Remember when Sarah Palin gave PC LOAD LETTER responses to completely reasonabe interview questions from Katie Couric? Her phonemes were so ridiculous, so self-satirical, Saturday Night Live asked Tiny Fey to just repeat them nearly verbatim. That was the sketch. Added to this readymade routine was the fact that Fey looked exactly like—not a caricature of—Palin. Whether consciously or not, SNL’s Palin readymade was a legitimate political weapon.
It was devastating for the McCain ticket, not as comedy but as a stand-in for reality. Some fence Republicans were unable to tell Palin’s Palin from Fey’s Palin—many wrongly believed, for instance, that Palin claimed to be able to see Russia from her house. Performing in SNL’s satirical context, Fey was able to highlight the Alaskan mouth-breather’s gaffes, package them, frame them, and—best of all—prepare them for dissemination on social media. Some political scientists have asserted that Tina Fey’s Palin had a statistically significant impact on the 2008 election.
Fast forward to 2016, when SNL writers packaged Alec Baldwin’s Trump as a readymade. At one point in their second debate cold open, Baldwin’s Trump skewers the media for “taking all of the things I say and all of the things I do and putting them on TV.” Indeed, SNL’s debate sketches added little that wasn’t already there in spades. It wasn’t even mockery, it was mimicry.
On the campaign trail, Trump was a stalking, racist, misogynistic, swindling, conceited, unprepared & uniformed, bullying, tiny-hands Nacho Cheese Dorito. A readymade. And Baldwin nailed it, at times saying LESS offensive things than @realDonaldTrump.
But the Tina Fey Effect does not appear to have worked eight years later. Why not? Part of the problem is that everyone knew what Trump was all about. Sarah Palin was a relative unknown. Her readymade merely put her in the spotlight where she scared the living daylights out of a diehard but generally informed Right. The Trump readymade was a joke already told to a room already listening. The illiterati were already mobilized, while the traumatized Left sat in front of their televisions and laughed—or cried—at Baldwin’s Trump. Nothing was revealed.
Put another way, the Trump readymade was not satire. The satirical component had been neutralized by Trump’s omnipresence and popularity among idiots. As Shakespeare’s Olivia says, “There is no slander in an allowed fool.” Trump was already on center stage when his readymade hit 30 Rockefeller. There was nothing to satirize.
Perhaps we could compare his readymade to the ineffective “performance art” of Pierre Pinoncelli. He, one of many copycats, hoped to send shock waves through the art world by urinating in a replica of Duchamp’s Fountain. He also attacked it… with a tiny hammer. So. I will leave it to the scrupulous reader to evaluate the potential, political or otherwise, of Pinoncelli’s legacy.
Oh god help me! we aren’t laughing because it isn’t funny anymore. It’s too real. It’s just too real. I think it’s the thing itself.