Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Art and Monuments: the Case of Trump’s Border Wall



What follows is a guest post from K. E. Gover (Bennington College).

Monuments are inherently political in a way that other kinds of artworks are not. As the recent controversies surrounding the removal of civil war monuments has made painfully clear, monuments make a public statement about what citizens should value and remember. The Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel has recently proposed that Trump designate as a “national monument” the eight border wall prototypes located along the US-Mexico border, claiming that they have “significant cultural value and are significant land art.” By petitioning that the wall prototypes be preserved indefinitely as a kind of memorial to bigotry, Büchel implicates anti-immigration Trump supporters and the liberal elite art establishment under the same proposal.

In October 2017 eight wall prototypes were installed along the US Mexico border near Otay Mesa Port of Entry, 25 miles south of San Diego. Four are made of reinforced concrete, and four incorporate alternative construction materials. The Trump administration spent $3.3 million to commission these wall samples as part of Trump’s election campaign promise to build “a great, great, big beautiful wall” along the border. The prototypes, which Trump himself toured on March 13, were built by six contractors. According to the design brief, they had to be difficult to scale or tunnel under, they had to be able to withstand assault from sledgehammers or acetylene torches, and they had to be “aesthetically pleasing” from the US side.

In December 2017 Büchel circulated a petition to have the eight prototypes designated a “national monument” under the Antiquities Act, claiming that they have “significant cultural value and are significant land art.” He finds the striking visual impact of the wall segments in the desert to be redolent of other monuments, from Stonehenge to Donald Judd’s minimalist concrete slabs at Marfa. As of March 30, Büchel’s petition has garnered 539 signatures. What’s more, under the aegis of his non-profit, MAGA, which stands for “Make Art Great Again,” he also launched a “land art exhibition” of the prototypes by organizing tours of wall segments which began in December and continued until March of this year. The tours, which cost $25, provided an English and Spanish-speaking guide, bottled water, and transportation for the participants to both the Mexico and US sides of the border to see the prototypes. They sold out quickly.


Donald Judd’s land art installation, Marfa

Who is Christoph Büchel? He is best known as an incendiary installation artist who creates large-scale immersive environments made of used and discarded materials. Viewers are invited to walk, sit, climb, and crawl their way through his installations, which can look and feel like post-apocalyptic, abandoned environments filled with clutter, decay, and detritus. Büchel’s work often courts controversy. In 2006 he walked away from an unfinished large-scale installation at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and the resulting lawsuit became a landmark case in moral rights litigation (and was the inspiration for my recent book on the subject). In 2010 he installed a sex club in the Vienna Secession museum near a painting by Gustav Klimt that was once labeled pornographic. In 2012, he had gallery assistants go out and offer homeless people money in exchange for their shopping carts full of belongings, which he then presented as sculptures for sale at the Frieze New York art fair for 100 times their purchase price. And in the 2015 Venice Biennale, his contribution to the Icelandic pavilion was to turn a 10th century catholic church into a mosque. It was shut down by Venetian authorities, ostensibly due to permit violations. This is all to say that Büchel’s work seeks, in both form and content, to offer provocative commentary on touchy social and political issues. Sometimes it is received as inspired, and other times condemned as insensitive. In this respect, the Prototypes project fits neatly into his oeuvre, having received both praise and blame.

Büchel’s main insight about the prototypes is that they unintentionally look like a certain kind of art, and so they should be preserved as such. This draws on another important 20thcentury art movement—the readymade, in which everyday objects are indexed as art. However, Büchel does not claim to be the artistic author of the wall segments cum land art—he could, perhaps, try to claim them as his, just as Duchamp once tried to index the Woolworth Building as an artwork. (Though Duchamp notably failed in that attempt.) In this case, however, Büchel is not claiming them as his art, but rather arguing that the prototypes should be designated by the president as a national monument.

We should say a few things about the act under which he proposes that this be done. The Antiquities act empowers the president to designate an area of federal land as a national monument without having to seek congressional approval. It was originally enacted by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 to protect archaeological remains, such as Native American structures and artifacts, from looting. Since its inception just over a century ago, over 285 million acres of land and marine areas have been designated national monuments by sitting presidents. It is probably not coincidental, however, that Büchel launched his prototypes petition just weeks after Trump had drastically reduced the size of two existing national monuments—Bears Ears and Grand Staircase. Some conservatives view the Antiquities Act as antiquated and unnecessary. Moreover, they see it as a symbol of federal overreach, because it enables the government to restrict land use without the input of states and local populations. Büchel’s idea essentially turns this position in on itself. His insight is to leverage the visual grandeur created by these eight prototypes in order to memorialize what could be seen as the ultimate fantasy of federal overreach and land restriction: the dream of a border wall that will keep the unwanted out.

Notice, also, that Büchel’s proposal plays on the multiple senses of the term “monument.” The Antiquities act is almost always used to designate areas of land as a so-called national monument. What is ‘monumental’ in the original sense of the statute is not just the land but the artifacts embedded in it that are protected for scientific study and cultural preservation. It also serves to distinguish such areas from National Parks, which are created by acts of Congress. However, Büchel wants the wall prototypes and the land they sit on to be designated a “monument” in the more conventional sense of a structure erected to commemorate a notable person or event. But notice the temporal dimension of the concept of “monument”—it marks and preserves something past for future generations to appreciate. Büchel’s proposal has built into it the prediction that there will never be such a border wall—otherwise there would be no need to memorialize the prototypes as an artifact of a bygone political era.

The response to Büchel’s petition has been predictably heated. In early January Michael Walker published an article in the New York Times about his proposal titled, “Is Donald Trump, Wall-Builder-In-Chief, a Conceptual Artist?” The titular question is, I hope, intended to be rhetorical, since the mere fact of commissioning some chunks of wall that happen to look cool is not enough to make one an artist, intentionally or not. The article does quote Büchel as suggesting that Trump and his supporters—not the private contractors who made the prototypes—are the collective artists of this unintended sculptural installation. But even if Trump were to declare the prototypes a national monument, it would not make him its artist. As a theorist of artistic authorship, I have to point out that as far as I know you cannot declare someone else to be a readymade artist. Since Marcel Duchamp famously submitted a mass-produced urinal for exhibition as an artwork in 1917, it has been accepted that artists can appropriate everyday objects as artworks. But this is the prerogative of the artist him- or herself; you cannot do it on behalf of another. One might be able to suggest to someone that they could or should declare some artifact to be a readymade artwork, but it would at least require their assent, and even then success is not guaranteed.

Of course, I very much doubt that Büchel is concerned with the feasibility of his proposal, either practically or theoretically. Büchel is essentially the artworld equivalent of an internet troll or, more charitably, a gadfly. The point for him is the gesture and the attention—both positive and negative—that it attracts. And he has had both. Fox & Friends aired a segment sympathetic to his petition. Another figure cheering in his corner is the Pulitzer prize-winning art critic Jerry Saltz. Saltz responded to Büchel’s petition with rapturous enthusiasm, calling it “brilliant” and praising the idea for its “alienated majesty.” Saltz’s argument rests on two main pillars: first, he argues that the eerily brutal yet beautiful presence of these wall segments is a fitting synecdoche for the “cocksure theatricality” of Trump’s “manipulative statecraft.” Saltz shares Büchel’s optimism that the full border wall will never actually materialize.

But this use of the term ‘monument’ is a mistake: Saltz and Büchel are, as it were, already looking back at these prototypes from an imagined future in which such a wall is no longer a serious possibility. In their view, the preservation of the prototypes as a national monument will serve as a kind of cautionary tale about a dark time in the American psyche, fortunately long gone. Again, the idea to preserve the wall prototypes implies that no such border wall would exist, because there would be no need to preserve them as a memorial to the moment and the idea if the actual wall itself were in place. Hence the first pillar of Saltz’s argument rests on a certain political position and a naïve optimism about the better days just around the corner.

Saltz’s second pillar of support for Büchel’s proposal is essentially art historical. He claims that the uncanny resemblance of the wall segments to high minimalism reveals something latent but long denied about the art movement’s iconic works: namely, their macho brutalism. Summing up the argument in his own words, Saltz says: “Büchel’s proposal allows us to see through layers of flimflam, illusion, posturing, and political theater” (this is pillar one), “while also revealing a dark side of one of art’s most respected recent art movements” (pillar two).

I am very happy to accept the second part of Saltz’s argument, about the nature of 1970’s earthworks and land art. If the darkly monumental presence of these contractors’ wall samples helps to teach Saltz a lesson about minimalism, or helps him teach us a lesson about minimalism, then I am happy for him. But the first part of his argument—that Büchel’s proposal pulls back the curtain on Trump’s political posturing—is more difficult to swallow. First, Büchel’s proposal presumes to expose cynicism, despair, and irony, but he does so with more of the same. He can’t possibly be in earnest about the feasibility of his proposal, either on conceptual or logistical grounds. So it is ultimately an empty gesture, but one calculated to make a point critical of the Trump administration that has the added bonus of taking a dig at the pieties of his own rarefied artworld circle for good measure. If it succeeds in pointing up the illusion and posturing of the Trump administration’s political theater, it does so by means of posturing and theatricality as well. And part of the theater here is the earnest outrage that his petition has provoked.

Hence it was not surprising, least of all, I expect, to Büchel, when a group of artists, curators, and self-described cultural workers circulated an open letter denouncing the project, and calling for Büchel, his gallery Hauser & Wirth, and Michael Walker of the New York Times to apologize for their insensitivity. The letter sees Büchel’s proposal as an example of a larger failing on the part of Contemporary Art for trafficking in “spectacle and irony” rather genuine activism on the part of the disenfranchised. It claims that Büchel and his supporters not only “fail at critique, they reinforce the use of art to euphemize and aestheticize state violence, and mock the lived experiences of those most affected by that violence.” It goes on to say that “the support and promotion of violent, white supremacist art is an unacceptable act of violence in itself.” In other words, Büchel’s proposal that Trump designate the prototypes as a national monument is not only tasteless, but harmful. I find it curious, by the way, that they implicitly agree with Büchel that the wall prototypes are, or at least could be, art. As of March 30, the open letter had received 577 signatories, more than the original petition itself.

So what does this all mean, or amount to, and what can it reveal to us about monuments and monumentality?

First, I am not sure whether those who denounce Büchel’s proposal recognize the extent to which their outrage plays into his hand. If we understand that there is no real chance that the prototypes will become a monument, and we see the petition as a piece of political theatre of his own, then he has succeeded in goading the left-wing cultural elites into playing their appointed role: the denouncement of irony in favor of earnest empathy, the charges of white supremacy and xenophobia, the expression of guilt, the anger that this Swiss-Icelandic jester would make an elaborate conceptual art joke about an issue that materially touches the lives of millions of people. It has been pointed out that the border wall has long been the site of meaningful artistic interventions, but by artists whose lived experience gives them the authority to do so with nuance and sensitivity. I suspect that Büchel is largely in agreement with the letter’s authors that contemporary art has long been complicit in the very structures of power, wealth, and influence that are also at stake in the border wall debates. His petition casts light on precisely that.

On the other hand, however, one can sympathize with Büchel’s critics that the irony deployed here is inappropriate, because this issue is just too charged, too painful to joke about. When Jerry Saltz praises the aesthetic power of the border wall segments—and in the same piece suggests jokingly that a 200 foot high border wall be built around his own home town Manhattan—he simply shines a light on his own insularity. It speaks to the contemplative distance required for an appreciation of the sublime: one can sit back and admire the prototypes’ resemblance to high minimalism, and the brutality that they embody, only when one is at a safe remove from it. Saltz is literally shielded from the border wars both spatially and socially, and he is looking at these prototypes from a projected future in which the hatred and xenophobia are but a distant memory. This seems to me to be not only naively optimistic, but mistaken about the nature of the political moment.

This points to a lesson about monuments and monumentality generally: Monuments, like comedy, are tragedy plus time. In the case of the border wall, however, we can’t make a memory of something that is still unfolding in an uncertain and terrifying present.

Notes on the Contributor:
K. E. Gover is a philosophy professor and art critic at Bennington College in Vermont. Her book Art and Authority: Moral Rights and Meaning in Contemporary Visual Art is available from Oxford University Press. Aesthetics for Birds readers may order the book using the discount code AAFLYG6 for 30% off.

Image credits: 1) US Customs and Border Protection, 2) Thomas Hawk.

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