[Editor’s note: For three decades, in artworks and writing David Robbins has promoted a frank, unapologetic recognition of the contemporary overlap between the art and entertainment contexts. His work Talent (1986) is widely credited with announcing the age of the celebrity artist, and The Ice Cream Social (1993 – 2008), a multi-platform project which included a TV pilot for the Sundance Channel, a novella, installations, ceramics, and performance has been cited by Hans Ulrich Obrist as pioneering the “expanded exhibition.” Evolving away from the prevailing model of the professional contemporary artist, in his books High Entertainment (2009) and Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy (2011) he identified and advanced other categories of imaginative endeavor. Among his six books are The Velvet Grind: Selected Essays, Interview, Satires 1983 -2005 (2006) and The Camera Believes Everything (1988). Chicago Artist Writers managing editor Dan Gunn exchanged emails with the Milwaukee-based Robbins to try to make sense of the Trump phenomena. Accompanying the conversation, David Robbins also presents a series of videos from the Dough Play project.1]
CAW: Donald Trump is a crossover politician/media personality like the USA has rarely, if ever, seen before. I am interested in asking you about his persona and rhetoric because you’ve thought heavily about the intersection of art and entertainment as well as the real and the imagined. What kind of characteristics do you see in the Trumpian media theater?
David Robbins: I don’t have an especially sophisticated take, but as a good citizen, I’ll give it a try. Trump has the potential to put this country at risk. We’re all grappling with what’s happened.
First off, we have to recognize — or really, admit — that American society has been heading in this direction for a few decades now. I refer to the confusion of democracy with capitalism. Since Reagan — the first post-modern president, an actor who seemed to approach the office as another in a long line of roles — the idea has taken hold that the value of American society is primarily understood as economic opportunity, the pursuit of financial self-interest, and the social mobility this sometimes delivers. Increasingly, narratives of ascendancy — of going from nothing to something, or from less to more, or from plenty to grotesquely more than plenty! — replaced all other narratives. Which is no surprise, exactly, since money has a way of devaluing everything that isn’t oriented around money. Ascendancy stories were always important, but they used to compete with stories of freedom, of justice, of sacrifice, of pioneer hardiness, and so on. After the world decided — late 1980s, the Berlin Wall falls in ’90 — to give up on formulating any real challenge to capitalism, narratives of opportunity and its conjoined twin, self-actualization became the only stories that really mattered. This was the news that Jeff Koons delivered, no? A world of self-actualization, minus criticality.
With capitalism the only option, criticality just gets in the way. You don’t need it. And voila! A few decades into an ideology of unfettered pursuit of self-actualization, people are striving to emulate the condition of legal tender itself — identifying self-interest narrowly, mapping identity onto business opportunities, embracing the infinite flexibility of lucre while downplaying the ethical or moral objections to any unsavory behaviors that the marketplace may elicit from us. People behaving like money — isn’t that the logical endpoint of the ascendancy narrative? But with Trump, it becomes the starting point. We’ve put at the center of our civic life someone who seeks to emulate money’s condition of amoral flexibility. How could this possibly turn out well?
To imagine that the office of the presidency is going to be immune from this evolution is to kid ourselves. Something like a Trump candidacy was inevitable, by him or by someone like him. We now have a president who is going to treat the office of the presidency as a business opportunity. “Forget NASA! Trump steaks are out of this world!” Whatever the other damage he may inflict, it’s the office of the presidency itself that will suffer the heaviest blow. What does money truly stand for, other than its accumulation and purchasing power? Money has no moral position. The problem faced by a “business president” will be, then, transitioning from constant, narrow self-interest to, instead, public service. There’s no guarantee Trump will be able to make that transition.
Here we need to touch on the nature of capitalism — its personality if you will. Capitalism is flirtatious, a tease. “Come here. Come over here. A little closer. A little more from you, please, and we’ll show you a little more. If you give us just a bit more, you arrive at a big prize. You’re almost there. Buy just this one thing more and you’ll be happy. Buy this and you’ll finally know what we know.” Capitalism is a continual, perpetual tease. Trump understands this very well. His career has been based on it — “the art of the deal” and all that crap. He is a salesman. A salesman may be interested in the truth but then again he may not; his real expertise is in the story told about the product. Trump is going to bring the teasing, “come hither” tone of capitalism to the presidency.
That’s where social media comes in. Trump uses Twitter as a shortcut, to develop positions he’d never had to have as a private citizen. He overuses it. It’s like getting calls from a crazy relative in the middle of the night! But in an information age where many different intentions and motivations have access to the production as well as, importantly, the distribution of information, a P.T. Barnum with presidential powers will be inevitable. Trump’s election isn’t based on the conditions of another planet. Is it a good idea to let the flirtatious, teasing aspect of capitalism become inseparable from our civic life, which life is supposed to about the best in us? No, but we’ve “elected” to do it anyway. We’ve decided to do the experiment. People have been hankering for a “CEO President” for a while now. Alright, let’s see what’s good and bad about it. We might have chosen to make the experiment with a better human being, but alright, let’s get it out of our systems.
CAW: President-elect Trump has an actual history of professional wrestling, hosting the Wrestlemania events in Atlantic City beginning in the 80’s and finally appearing in the storyline in 2007 for Wrestlemania 23 dubbed the “Battle of the Billionaires” for the contest between him and Vince McMahon.2 He was even inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. You’ve written about comedian Andy Kaufman’s reality bending detour into the world of professional wrestling. How does the aesthetic of wrestling emerge in Trump’s rhetoric? Is he a classical “heal” or something else?
DR: The discovery that Andy Kaufman hit upon can be stated simply enough: When you apply insincerity to a context of dubious sincerity, the yield will be a genuine experience of some kind. Something genuine — difficult to name, perhaps, but genuine — will be synthesized. This was a fascinating discovery. Comedians have, generally speaking, a liberationist agenda, they want to free us from the shit of society and return us to a state of joy — to the animal wonder that attends existence. Intentionally or not, that’s what the feeling of laughter is — that joy. Kaufman liberated people toward a greater sophistication about media culture’s fictions and mythologies.
Is the Kaufman discovery transferable to Trump? Maybe. In a dark way, perhaps. We know that Trump is adept at insincerity. Practices it daily, it seems. But what, then, is the context of dubious sincerity to which it would be applied? The only possible context is the government.
It’s no secret that capitalism has been writing the rules of democratic society for decades, what with the revolving door between the private and public sectors and lobbyists helping to write laws for the industries they promote — and those are only the examples we know of! It’s not a real democracy because it favors the propertied classes and also imposes substantial limits on what’s open for discussion in civic life — matters such as publicly funded elections, distribution of wealth, privileging the second amendment to such a grotesque degree that the citizenry lives in fear, and so on. These matters are completely off limits, and because they are we live in an irrational society, even an insane one. When a madman can walk into an elementary school and murder dozens of toddlers, and legislators’ “response” is to do absolutely nothing to restrict the availability of guns because of the influence of a special interest, you’re living in an insane, cowardly society that values money over life.
It becomes possible, consequently, to perceive Trump as someone who is replacing the, to borrow his term, “rigged” theater of capitalism-democracy — the context, in other words, of dubious sincerity — with a new theater of governing that is so crazily and brazenly to the advantage of a few that it’s impossible to camouflage its oligarchical nature. So, applying Kaufman’s discovery, does this become the “sincere” yield? I don’t know. Maybe that frankness, that admission, will liberate us from some illusion about how free and open this society is, and we’ll get so disgusted that we’ll make some serious changes. We suspect that we’re never told the truth about how things actually work, so in response, we elect a known liar. It’s a perverse logic that may yield a kind of liberation. At the very least we’re going to get a good look at the ugliness of his world — aides, advisors, cabinet picks — which may disabuse a few people of their fantasies of extreme wealth. Who knows? On the other hand, we may have a president who is crazy.
Kaufman exploited the artifice of pro wrestling. Since his day, this artifice has spread throughout television — “reality television.”
Reality TV has lasted because it’s actually based on a substantial insight. If you build a platform — “attractive young strangers living together in a house” — and then place people on it, those people will adapt their behavior to the platform, to the particulars of the artifice. The behavior will be real behavior, atop a platform of artifice. An audience will watch this quite complex event, for the simple reason that people are interested in people. This was the discovery of reality TV, and it’s not a small discovery. Theater and movies do this platform-and-adaptive-behavior thing as well, but they do it in a small window of time, so the artifice is less subtle and the component of make-believe more pronounced. TV is different, for three reasons. One it’s piped into your home, so there’s a psychological intimacy. Two, TV introduced a factor of duration — the TV show is a repeating modular unit, the same every week but also a little bit different every week, and the module may repeat for years. Three, and perhaps most significantly, the economies of video: you can turn the video camera on and leave it on, and it doesn’t cost much to just let it run. Combine platform, duration, and the economies of video, and you can merge the time of artifice with literal time. This was the principle behind the early Warhol films, by the way, the ones known as the Screen Tests. Warhol put the film cartridge into the camera, pointed the camera at someone, and turned it on. He left the result unedited, so he now had three-minute filmic portraits of literal time. Each Screen Test film is both a performance and a documentary, in three minutes. Still a brilliant idea, fifty years later. Pretty soon we’ve got “The Real Housewives of Whatever” — a confusion of literal time and television time, all set on a platform of artifice to which the participants are adapting their behavior. Trump is a reality TV candidate — it’s a performance in TV and social media. He treated the election process as a theater — a platform, an artifice. Warhol is the underwriter here. Whether Trump will be able to adapt this psychology to the office itself, we’ll have to see. There’s a chance that he’ll get creamed by the reality of the responsibilities.
CAW: How are the aspects of his visual persona or attendant props (big tie, exaggerated hair, Trump Tower) work with the messaging? Do they reinforce Trump’s bravado or humanize it?
DR: Costume, props, stage set. I don’t have much to say about them as texts.
But we’re definitely dealing with a man of theater. Since Trump doesn’t do or make anything that the world needs, his job becomes convincing us that we do want what he’s offering. He’s from capitalism’s theater wing, and he’s insecure and vicious because he doesn’t make anything that’s necessary. He’s an impresario of a middle-class-idea-of-wealth theater — a corny, Dynasty-type aspirational theater. His “art of the deal” thing is the argument of a man of theater, emphasizing the “deal” rather than knowledge of manufacture, right? It’s a post-industrial position. Trump arrived at public life through theater, not politics, which explains why anything he says puts us off-balance; it’s theater first, an artifice detached from the real. It’s a “Stephen Colbert”-informed character, transferred from the theater of comedy to the theater of civic life. Trump placed the “Colbert” foreground against another background.
CAW: In your book Concrete Comedy you’ve written about the aesthetic of “deadpan” as being “outrageousness of conception, presented with a veneer of fact-like neutrality”. Does Trump meet the definition of deadpan given his propensity to advance bankrupt notions like birtherism? What’s the difference between deadpanning and lying?
DR: Trump has the outrageousness down, obviously, but he’s not deadpan. He allows far too much noise into his message.
If you look at comedy in terms of signal and noise, the joke is the signal, and the noise the manner of its presentation. Usually, via body language and facial expressions, a comedian will indicate that they’re telling a joke while telling the joke. A deadpan presentation, though, withholds that kind of indicator, with the result that the audience can’t get oriented. The audience can’t tell whether the deadpan comedian “means it” or not. But where deadpan sets the affect knob at zero, Trump turns the affect knob up to eleven. His bluster adds a lot of noise to the signal. It’s theatrical but it’s not deadpan. In his manner, he works hard to orient you to the theater he’s selling, and his means of doing so isn’t limited to telling you the truth.
What’s the difference between deadpan and lying? Good question! Deadpan is in service of revealing that sincerity actually has a grammar. Deadpan is saying, “Sincerity is a kind of theater. Be alert!” It has our interests at heart. Lying is the intent to deceive. It’s destructive.
CAW: What is Trump’s relationship to the real coming out of reality television? The businessman to TV-businessman to TV-businessman-as-president transition?
DR: Trump’s election mashes up many public theaters. Government is to some extent a kind of theater, always, isn’t it? Public identity — media identity — is always a kind of theater. Social media is a new space of theater. Trump’s base, though, is television. The guy wasn’t known to the millions of people who voted for him by his businesses or his tweets but because of The Apprentice. That show gave him name recognition. TV is his baseline platform.
This recent election marks the point where television finally engulfed civic life. We’ve been heading toward this for decades. George Trow foresaw what we’ve experienced with this election in his prophetic book Within the Context of No-Context, first published as an issue-length essay in The New Yorker in 1980. About television, Trow wrote: “The work of television is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context and to chronicle it.” What have we just witnessed but the establishing of false contexts and the unraveling of existing contexts? Trump is a public figure whose home is in the context of no-context, which is a place where history, and everything that goes into history, little things like facts, don’t count as much as how the audience regards the fact. History is replaced by demographics and poll numbers. Trump constructed himself, and the construction now comports in public life without regard for or knowledge of history. Ronald Reagan was the candidate from the era when movies were central to American public consciousness — “Life is like a movie” and all that. Trump is the media candidate from the era when TV, the context of no-context, replaced movies as the central organizing force in the nation’s civic life. It’s the difference between movie stars working at the Hollywood Canteen during WWII and The Celebrity Apprentice. A few decades from now, no doubt we’ll get a president formed by the internet era. People eventually vote according to their imprinting, turns out.
CAW: Another part of Trump’s appeal is that “he says it like it is” and dispenses with the typical modes of political doublespeak. Part of this is also clearly set against liberal norms of civility. Is the usage of offensiveness as a rhetorical device related to the appeal of so-called “black humor”? If not this then what is it and what makes it satisfying to so many people?
DR: To excuse Trump’s personality flaws by treating them as another “text” is a kind of aestheticization I resist. I prefer to judge the guy! He’s a crass, dangerous narcissist. That said, it’s clear that a lot of people — not just Trump supporters — who are weary of the political establishment’s self-serving management of the national life are inclined to read any rupture in that control as some kind of “truth,” whether or not it is. We enjoy blooper reels, too, right? It’s the same principle: a tear in the manufactured fiction. We cheer that.
Trump is a bull in a china shop. Things we value are going to get smashed up. But one of American democracy’s strengths is that the election process occasionally delivers someone who throws the cards in the air. “Anybody can grow up to be president,” we’ve always said with pride, and we didn’t add “except billionaire assholes.” Hey, a deal’s a deal. No president does only good or only bad — they’re never powerful enough to do just anything they want — and in politics as in life, there can be good side-effects to bad actions. These may take time to manifest, but they’re happening even so. Anyway, he may not be in office long. It may be discovered that he colluded with the Russians during the election, and so committed treason.
CAW: Thanks for noting the dangers of aestheticizing him. I think the contours of the rhetorical space he occupies asks serious questions about what kinds of art and pop culture would rebuild civic life. While I hope that you’re right about the durability of the American project, there is no necessary reason that it has to continue. Isn’t this (buzzword approaching) normalization?
DR: Right. Democracy is an artifice. It’s not natural. And, yes, the Constitution is an agreement, a contract, which survives because of our belief in its value. America is conceptual. It’s an idea about place. How do you become an American? By agreeing to the idea. The difference between the conceptual and the tribal is the difference between the New World and the Old World. One of the big mistakes our educational system has made during the past decades has been to encourage tribal thinking. You want to think in tribal terms? The white supremacists welcome the opportunity! No, the whole “tribal identity” thing has been a wrong turn. Think tribally, and eventually you end up with private compounds filled only with people who share your last name. Understanding the conceptual basis of American society is the better way to go, by far. Also the more difficult path.
Trump is a post-modern president. Much of what he says is theater — he means it to the extent that it’s expedient. What are his real convictions? We don’t know. The idea that he ran for office because Obama humiliated him at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner — this is a terrible reason to become president. We don’t know that he has any real convictions apart from not wanting to appear a loser. Your personality is not a basis for governance!
CAW: What’s the right question to ask about Trump?
DR: “If the president of the United States doesn’t pay his taxes, why should I?” Credit that gem to my friend Lisa Sutcliffe.
CAW: What do you make of the fake news phenomena?
DR: Fake news is nothing new in itself. William Randolph Hearst used fabricated news stories to spur the U.S. to go to war against Spain. The difference now, and it is considerable, is that a “publisher” need no longer identify themselves and can just insert the “news” into existing streams. Since we don’t know the source, we can’t know the motivations behind the release of the “story.” We don’t know whose interest the story serves. Hearst’s papers served Hearst’s interests.
Trow had pointed out that television deprives us of a sense of scale — the trivial and the substantial appear adjacent, and nothing signals a shift between the two — and the same is true of the web. The internet offers no sense of scale. The misinformed, deluded, and false are a click away from the well-informed, substantial, and true. Everything has roughly similar weight. Everyone should obtain and read the book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, by Peter Pomerantsev. It chronicles the uses of disinformation in Russia, the construction of reality — fabricated, opposing “rights” groups, deployed to disorient the citizenry… subtle versions of which will happen here. Are happening here.
CAW: In the run-up to the election most of the US media apparatus; late night TV, celebrities, musicians, viciously lampooned Trump to no effect. What makes the current political climate immune to satire, say the kind that The Daily Show or Colbert Report put forward?
DR: This question suggests that things should be otherwise. But power isn’t the comedian’s brief. The job of the comedian is to puncture vanity. And not just among the powerful.
In the old days, the fool served at the king’s behest. The fool was licensed by the king, to make fun of the court. The fool was granted this power by the king because alone among those at court, he, the fool, by accepting his role, announced that he had no plan or desire to usurp the king’s role. This granted the fool a particular license. The fool didn’t attack policy but instead made fun of the vanity of court.
In a democratic age, the fool is not appointed but, rather, volunteers. That’s the main difference between then and now. There is no shortage of volunteers! Comedy is booming. Alongside the comedian’s ability to self-elect is the freedom to choose the means of comedy — the where-when-why-and-how of it. And today the “king” is abstract — it’s capitalism, patriarchy, mass media, stuff like that. So all of that has changed, but I don’t know that the comedian’s relationship to power has changed, fundamentally. The fool can only make a particular act of governance or application of power look foolish, petty, small, and in that way add a layer of protection to the governed. The comedian’s target, ultimately, remains human vanity. It falls to laws to do the really heavy lifting.
Trump seems to want to be both king and fool. That’s a new one! Although he only appears a king to himself. This is going to be complicated!
CAW: Some studies have suggested that conservatives enjoyed satire like the Colbert Report non-ironically, leading people like The New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell to question the effectiveness of the whole genre.3 Is satire still available to artists in the increasingly murky post-truth landscape?
DR: People will always be foolish. Comedians will never be out of a job. But American satire has had the same configuration for a good fifty or sixty years, and it appears to have worn thin.
A thread has run through mainstream American satire since the early 1970s. Beginning with National Lampoon magazine and continuing through Saturday Night Live, Letterman’s shows, The Simpsons, and all their progeny and ilk, American satire has been configured according to the baby boomers’ ironic relation to capitalism, to war, to media, to adulthood and, crucially, to its own agency. It tends to be a written, narrative, make-believe type of comedy rather than a non-fiction comedy of real actions in real space and time, but that’s a conversation for another day.4 For now let’s just note that it communicates a specific attitude about power, in response to a specific historical era. It is also one consistently influenced by the values of Harvard University, via the Harvard Lampoon, a comic institution that’s been a pipeline to many an American mainstream comedy enterprise during this period. These ambitious comic minds are imprinted with, trained in, Harvard’s relation to power — which is not the same relation to power as held by, let’s say, Ball State. If you go to school with the Kennedys, you’ll come to understand the Kennedys as people and become basically sympathetic to the Kennedys, right? You’re not going to be looking to overthrow the Kennedys. With these Harvard Lampoon people at the controls of a lot of our mainstream comedy, we can hardly be surprised that it should operate with similar, if not identical goals as the culture it is satirizing. I don’t look for this to change, it’s proved much too financially successful, but surely we can at least say what’s happening. The comedy machine and the power machine are part of the same entertainment-industrial complex. Tina Fey and Sarah Palin appear side by side on Saturday Night Live. Comedians dine at the White House. The President appears on late-night comedy shows. Odd man out, here, is The Onion. Born in Madison, away from the coasts, and now run from Chicago, The Onion served up much tougher and more despairing satire, possibly because it had a much better feel than did Harvard grads for what truly attaches to powerlessness.
We don’t need to change the targets, necessarily. Instead, we may need to re-think the internal structure, and the goals, of American satire. Maybe Harvard University’s relation to power shouldn’t have so much say in mainstream American comedy. We need to fashion another model of satire than the one inherited from the baby boomers. And the work of re-tooling needs to be carried out away from mainstream public view for a while.
CAW: What kind of approach should entertainers and artists take when they confront their powerlessness? Is it time for ambiguity or agitprop?
DR: For starters, we can stop telling ourselves that we shouldn’t have to go through this. Is there some reason why generations who came along after the Vietnam War should be exempt from being tested by anything? Other than 9/11 we’ve never had anything very difficult asked of us. Why should we later generations be excluded from any experience that requires us to examine, protect, and fight for our values?
CAW: How should entertainers and artists make art in this era without context?
This past election suggests that the art world has been deluding itself about its reach and power. Barbara Kruger’s “Loser” cover for New York Magazine5 is exhibit A of art world hubris. What accounts for this delusion? Part of it is due, I think, to the proliferation of MFA programs, which creates a profusion of MFA grads trained in an increasingly narrow language of “contemporary art.” Contemporary art depends more and more heavily on a specialized language, and that leaves it weak. Ways have to be invented to extend “contemporary art” sophistication to the wider culture, so that it gradually comes to mean something to someone other than curators, collectors, and other artists. Choose a path out of the insularity. Keep the visual sophistication and experimental ethos of art but drop the hyper-specialized, learned language of intent. Balance art’s sophistication and experimentation with a greater accessibility — what I call High Entertainment. It’s one strategy for going beyond the habits of mind of both the art and the entertainment contexts.6
Further, I’d suggest to people that they stop formatting their imaginations to meet the needs of some professional context or another, come to understand how their mind works “naturally” without constant reinforcement by the market or academe, figure out a way to root out of themselves the anxiety about “success,” take a look around and see what’s missing from the cultural landscape, and then try to provide that thing, to themselves and others. Take the culture where you want it to go. That’s real politics, to me.
And if, as one of the governed, you begin to feel yourself pulling away from governance, go with it. You’ll have plenty of company!