The Trump administration has produced an explosion of creative expression, from searing comedy to visual statements such as the design of pink Pussyhats; MOMA’s substitution of Western paintings with those from the countries targeted by the recent ban on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries; the Hammer Museum’s activism teach-ins; and an art show “by the Undocumented” in Boyle Heights.
So how much of a role do artists play in protesting — or promoting — a regime?
And can you use art as a weapon against a man who seems uninterested in fine art but appears to treat the presidency like a kind of performance art?
DnA talked to Joes Segal, chief curator at The Wende Museum of the Cold War and author of Art and Politics: Between Purity and Propaganda, about today’s artistic resistance from his vantage point as historian of twentieth century art movements.
We also talked with Pierluigi Serraino, author of The Creative Architect: Inside the Great Midcentury Personality Study, about a research project in the 1950s that inadvertently made architects players in the Cold War.
Read on for more or listen to their stories here.
The Politics of Art
“Even if an artwork seems to be art for art’s sake, seems to be a very pure art work, in social life and in political life it inevitably gets a political meaning at some point.”
That’s the conclusion of Joes Segal, who explores in seven elegant essays how art movements in the 20th century became weapons in the fights over totalitarianism and fascism, communism and capitalism, sometimes serving both sides.
He writes, for example, about Diego Rivera’s efforts to squeeze Marxist messages into murals for the Rockefeller Center; how one of the Nazis’ “degenerate artists,” Emil Nolde, was in fact a devotee of the regime; and how the U.S. government used Abstract Expressionism to promote America’s openness in the Cold War (in part because the powerful art critic Clement Greenberg had declared it a truly apolitical, pure art form) even as some elected officials considered it a “communist plot.”
Reflecting on the current outpouring of visual reaction to Trump, Segal says that today’s situation differs from the 20th century artistic-political struggles because there is no shared art movement over which the regime and the artists can struggle.
Instead, he observes, “apparently Trump doesn’t like art very much so there is also not an art form that can easily be associated with the Trump administration.”
How about his love of interiors, asked DnA, citing the British design critic Stephen Bailey’s description of his Trump Tower apartment as a “glitter ball of Rococo kitsch.”
Segal added that indeed Trump declared about his Scottish golf course, “I am an artist and this is my canvas.”
Moreover, he points out, what Trump is doing now “could be interpreted as something that has been done by artists in former times which is creating an alternative reality. . . with of course the major difference that he has the power now to actually. . . make his fantasies reality.”
If he’s an artist creating his own reality, what art label applies to him? Dadaism? Surrealism?
Oh, says Segal, I’d call him a “Conceptual Dadaist. I guess that combination would do it.”
But, he cautions, “although all these activities and protests can generate a feeling of solidarity, I don’t think they will convince the other side. And I wonder whether it would be wise also for artists and designers to consider ways of reaching out and creating a public forum where you can actually be in contact with people with other realities and other convictions.”
The Wende Museum, where he is chief curator, is trying to do exactly this, through an upcoming series of discussions called Art Past Present where artists “present ideas about how they connect and are inspired by the past or by memories in giving their work topical meaning.” It’s intended to be a platform “where artists but also other people from different convictions and different backgrounds meet each other and start a dialogue with each other.”
The museum’s current exhibition relates to the same challenge.
Called Questionable History, Segal says “every work has two or sometimes three text labels with all accurate historical information but sometimes completely different interpretations . . . and I think it’s also important to do such a thing right now in times of alternative facts because this exhibition is not about alternative facts, it’s about accepting facts as they are but exploring the range of possible interpretations of that fact.”
Creativity becomes a weapon in the Cold War
Back when they were busy creating the buildings of tomorrow 40 of the top modernist architects of the era — including Richard Neutra, Louis Kahn and Eero Saarinen — received a mysterious invite from a man named Donald MacKinnon to come to the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research at the University of California, Berkeley.
Pierluigi Serraino, author of “The Creative Architect: Inside the Great Midcentury Personality Study,” explains “The idea was really to understand the personality traits of the creatives. . .what kind of environment that they were raised in, (what) kind of environment they can operate at their best, what their life history was, what their motivation was. So here we have the greatest of their era in a very confessional setting, dish out everything about themselves that they’re willing to reveal. . . and it’s an extraordinarily fascinating story.”
What makes it especially fascinating is that this study was conducted by a team of psychologists whose head, Donald Mackinnon, had previously worked at the OSS — the precursor of the CIA — testing the character of potential spies.
The goal was to find candidates who would be most “effective” under duress. After the war, the same testing tools were applied — but now to identify “creativity.”
In the era of the Space Race, “what changed the pace and also the scale of the study was the launching of the Sputnik (by the Russians) in 1957 . . . Really the idea was to figure out a way to have a more creative be part of American society and the American education infrastructure so that we could outdo the Russians.”
The study was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and hotly followed by magazines and newspapers. Donald Mackinnon reached out to artists and writers and scientists but his favorite group was architects.
They apparently were more pliant than the eighteen writers he invited — among them Truman Capote, William Carlos Williams and Max Shulman. They fought back against the tests.
But mainly he was interested in architects because he felt they represented a unique mix of artistic and scientific creativity, coupled with an art of salesmanship.
They were given psychological tests and interviews. . . fast-paced drawing sessions where they had to fill empty squares with ideas, the were subjected to conformity studies, and personality tests. The participants were even asked to rank one another’s creative prowess.
Serraino found a wealth of buried letters and records from the study, and reports “Eero Saarinen is described as ‘very nervous’ coming in, using sketching as a way to talk, whereas Kahn enters the room in a spirit of great cooperation, he shakes the hand, has a big smile and things of this nature.”
On the other hand, Philip Johnson “was extremely combative. He didn’t want to be there. He did not answer many questions. He was jumping up and down. And. . . the researchers said he was exhibiting manic type of behavior.”
So what in the end did the researchers conclude about the nature of creativity? Serraino says they found the creative person works best alone, and even in groups their ideas lead the way. Also, they found creativity is not fueled by IQ or talent alone. Rather the creative has to be driven by a motivation to create and has the courage to act on his or her own intuition.
“The mechanism of repression does not exist in the creative the the creative person just tries things. And is that is the courage to accept the failure of the attempt without thinking of this as a setback because the creative does not have identity issues.
There is an obsessiveness about keeping trying to do work that is better than the previous one, and work that has not only solved the problem but has to be aesthetically beautiful. . . the beauty of the solution its not just the solution per se which is to me is quite extraordinary because this was an era of problem solving. (They had) to solve the problem in a very beautiful way.”
Given the richness of this story, DnA wondered why it took until now to come out.
Well, says Serraino, what happened was, “they write papers. Don McKinnon goes around the country and abroad broadcasting some of the findings, with the promise of a book that will come out and the book never comes out. Each scientist took ownership of a particular segment of the study and it sort of broke down.”
It turns out testosterone got in the way. Not only were the architects a competitive bunch, recalls one surviving researcher Ravenna Hilton, who was in charge of studying women mathematicians and Mills College students, but it so too were the scientists.
Pierluigi Serraino will give a talk about his book, “The Creative Architect: Inside the Great Midcentury Personality Study,” and sign copies, at Modernism Week in Palm Springs this Friday, Feb. 24 from 10-11 am. Tickets are $10. Get tickets here.
Credit for image at top of page: Priscilla Frank, author of Huffpost’s What it Means to be an Artist in the Time of Trump