‘Absolutely Gross, Degenerate Stuff’: Trump and the Arts


Andy Warhol, Trump Tower, 1981.


In the spring of 1994, an artist named Paul Rebhan walked into the Museum of Modern Art in New York and taped one of his paintings to a wall. Next to the work, he placed a card that read, “Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Donald Trump.” “I thought maybe it was the type of art the Trumps might enjoy,” Rebhan told the Calgary Herald, which reported the artist’s non-sanctioned installation at the time.

Trump’s name—not to mention his physical presence—is an unfamiliar sight in the city’s major cultural institutions. Wealthy public figures often fall into cultural patronage if for nothing else than the tax break. But since the beginning of his career, Trump has been, at best, apathetic to the arts in New York, and elsewhere. His first media spectacle, in 1980, focused on the then-33-year-old developer destroying a pair of Art Deco reliefs that were part of the facade of the Bonwit Teller Building in midtown Manhattan, which Trump tore down to build his Trump Tower. The Metropolitan Museum of Art wanted the reliefs for its collection, as the Washington Post recalled in a bit of retrospective reporting recently, and Trump agreed to donate them, if the cost of their removal wasn’t prohibitive. It wasn’t, but Trump’s construction crew destroyed the works anyway. Trump later told the New York Times that he was concerned for “the safety of people on the street below…If one of those stones had slipped, people could have been killed.” The Times also reported that no one involved with the construction of Trump Tower even bothered to ask the Met how the sculptures could have been removed safely.

In subsequent years, Trump has fashioned himself as a philistine par excellence. (Trump has been known to play selections from The Phantom of the Opera at his rallies; whether that alone proves my point depends on one’s taste.) He has been flirting with a presidential run since the late ’80s; as early as 1999, he made a public call for censorship and claimed that his hypothetical presidency would cut federal funding for the arts. That was the year that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani embarked on a crusade against the Brooklyn Museum for its exhibition of Chris Ofili’s The Holy Mary Virgin (1996), which depicts the Madonna in materials including oil paint, glitter, and elephant dung. Giuliani told the Times the work wasn’t art because he could make it himself. He went so far as to try to cancel the institution’s lease with the city, evicting it from its home of more than 100 years. Outside of religious groups, Giuliani had few allies in this fight in New York, besides Trump, who released a statement to the Daily News—in reference to what the paper referred to only as “the Brooklyn Museum’s elephant-dung Madonna”—saying, “As president, I would ensure that the National Endowment of the Arts stops funding of this sort.” (The Daily News pointed out that the organization’s correct title is “National Endowment for the Arts,” and that the NEA did not give any funding to the Brooklyn Museum’s show that featured Ofili.) Regarding the Ofili, Trump continued: “It’s not art. It’s absolutely gross, degenerate stuff.” Note the word “degenerate.” There was, of course, another politician who used that adjective to describe works of art that offended him. (Trump, for what it’s worth, would later lob the word “degenerate” at Rosie O’Donnell.)

But as a citizen, Trump has had a more tangible effect on the NEA beyond his mere endorsement of slashing government funding for the arts. In 2013, when Trump took over the lease of the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in order to build a 270-room hotel, among the occupants that were forced to vacate were the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities. (One of the potential leaseholders that lost their bid for the building to Trump was a National Museum of the Jewish People, according to the Post.) In a final bit of irony, James Lankford, a Republican senator from Oklahoma, claimed that Trump received a $40 million tax credit for his renovations of the building.

When Trump announced his plans for his new hotel in the nation’s capital, he told the Post, “Friends of mine, they spend these ridiculous amounts of money on paintings. I’d rather do jobs like this, and do something really that the world can cherish and the world can see and that everyone in D.C. can truly be proud of.”

There is no evidence that Trump ever entertained becoming a serious collector, and a Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. But Trump has often spoken of his buildings as works of art. Whether or not this is the case is a matter of some debate. When Trump added a massive sign of his name to his Chicago hotel, the building’s architect, Adrian Smith, said it was “done in poor taste.” But early on in his career, some critics were quite fond of the Trump aesthetic. Paul Goldberger wrote in 1983 that “the atrium of Trump Tower may well be the most pleasant interior public space to be completed in New York in some years.” Herbert Muschamp, the former architecture critic for the Times, once compared the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Columbus Circle to Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962). Muschamp actually took Trump to MoMA in 1999 to see Warhol’s painting; in the article Muschamp wrote about this encounter, Trump arrives in a foul mood, and tosses his overcoat and some binders onto a Donald Judd floor piece, apparently mistaking it for a conference table.

The comparison between Warhol and Trump is telling. The two met a few times—first, according to a post on the website of Pittsburgh’s Warhol Museum, at a birthday party for Joseph McCarthy’s lawyer of choice, Roy Cohn, who also did legal work for Trump before being disbarred. After his first meeting with Warhol, Trump visited the artist’s studio. He asked Warhol to do a portrait of Trump Tower that would hang over the entrance to the building’s residential quarters, as Warhol recalls in diaries, which were published posthumously. Warhol made a series of eight images, but Trump was “very upset that [the series] wasn’t color-coordinated,” the artist writes. The deal fell through.

Trump Tower may not have any original Warhols, but the man does own some art, sort of. A photo spread of his opulent Manhattan penthouse in the Daily Mail shows a reproduction of Renoir’s 1874 painting La loge (the original is at the Courtauld in London) hanging in his wife’s office. There is also a copy of GOAT: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali, a limited edition art book that includes contributions from Jeff Koons. Angelo Donghia designed the apartment, and “kept Louis XIV in mind while picking furniture and textiles,” as the Mail put it. However, at another Trump property, Mar-a-Lago, the former estate of Marjorie Merriweather Post, which Trump bought in 1985 and converted into a private club, more valuable works—two 16th-century Flemish tapestries—have been damaged due to Trump’s failure to protect them from sunlight, according to an interview the Times conducted with Trump’s butler.

A general indifference to the arts in America is not exactly surprising for a man who, before running for president on a platform of jingoism, misogyny, and fear-mongering, was best known to most of the country outside of New York for a reality show where he fired people and a series of commercials for stuffed crust pizza at Pizza Hut. But, oddly enough, Trump did have a brief moment as a public-art advocate. He was a major supporter in the late-90s of a planned installation along the Hudson River of a statue of Christopher Columbus by Russian artist Zurab Tsereteli. New York eventually rejected the sculpture, as did a variety of other American cities that Teserteli attempted to donate his work to, including Baltimore; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Miami; and—of all places—Columbus, Ohio. Looking back on it now, Trump’s pride in the sculpture seems just about right. The work is not so dissimilar from one of his hotels. Standing nearly 350 feet tall and weighing in at about 600 tons, the work—as Trump explained in a New Yorker profile from 1997—has “forty million dollars’ worth of bronze in it.”

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