The Washington Post is reporting that, last fall, the White House asked the Guggenheim Museum to let it borrow a 1888 painting by Vincent van Gogh, Landscape with Snow. The requested loan was to be for the private living area of the President and First Lady, but the museum’s deputy director, Nancy Spector, declined, explaining that the painting is “prohibited from travel except for the rarest of occasions,” and that it was on its way to the Guggenheim in Bilbao. But then Spector made a suggestion: the White House could borrow America, Maurizio Catalan’s 18-karat-gold toilet, which had previously been on view in a bathroom at the museum. Very thoughtful, Ms. Spector.
The White House seems to have declined this offer, and did not respond to a request for comment to the Post. The Guggenheim confirmed the request and Spector’s response, but pretty much left it at that. Maurizio Cattelan, reached by the Post and asked about the situation and his sculpture, said, “It’s a very delicate subject. . . . What’s the point of our life? Everything seems absurd until we die and then it makes sense.”
Presidents typically borrow work from the Smithsonian, and sometimes other institutions, for display in the White House. Readers with long memories may recall the kerfuffle that erupted in the right-wing blogosphere way back in 2009 when President Barack Obama decided to display an Ed Ruscha that featured phrases like “MAYBE…NO” and “MAYBE…I’LL.” “If Barack Obama’s lack of authority and certitude weren’t costing so many lives, this would be comical,” commentator Michelle Malkin wrote at the time, in an apparent reference to the president’s policy in Afghanistan.
In the run-up to Trump’s inauguration, the St. Louis Art Museum was criticized by some for agreeing to loan the George Caleb Bingham painting The Verdict of the People (1854–55) to the festivities, given the President-Elect’s by-then-already-well-established “expressed values of hatred, misogyny, racism and xenophobia,” as activists put it. The museum went ahead with that loan.
The White House’s decision not to take Spector up on her offer is perhaps most disappointing to the tens of thousands who waited in line to view, and in some cases activate, the artwork. With just a slight change of fate, they could have felt the special pride—and had the special bragging rights—of having used the same toilet as the President.