Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the unlikely muses

TWO weeks ago, David Gleeson and Mary Mihelic travelled to Jacumba Hot Springs, California to install a section of Donald Trump’s wall along the Mexican border. Using ropes, ladders and shoes that they found nearby, they created a poignant piece inspired by the presidential candidate’s controversial immigration plan. The pair has a history of creating politically inspired art: they have been travelling around the country in a redesigned Trump campaign bus that they bought off Craigslist. “We’re really trying to use different types of visual tools to get people to think about and experience what it is that they’re feeling when they listen to Donald Trump,” says Mr Gleeson.

They are not the only artists to be inspired by the inflammatory speeches and controversial issues that have plagued this election cycle. The race has been filled with art. Some present Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, in an unflattering light, but most of the (largely liberal) art community focus on shaming her Republican rival. There’s everything from “DonaldTrumpMakesMeWannaSmokeCrack”, a song by Ledinsky, a Swedish musical artist, to Sarah Levy’s menstrual blood portrait of the candidate.

These pieces have been effective because they are highly visible and clearly present election-related issues. Mark Wagner’s collage of Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton, made entirely of banknotes (“HILLARY BILLARY vs. DOLLAR DONALD”, pictured), offers a strong statement on the capitalism entwined with elections. Conor Collins, a British artist, has produced a surrealist portrait of Mr Trump made out of the candidate’s offensive statements, bringing together his racist and s.e.xist speeches into one concise piece. In an echo of the famous Berlin Wall image of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker, Mindaugas Bonanu, a Lithuanian artist, has painted a mural of Mr Trump and Vladimir Putin kissing. It is a comment on the sort of unsavoury allegiances that the Republican might forge; earlier this month Mr Trump said that he is “going to say great things” about the Russian president, and that Mr Putin is “really very much of a leader”. 

In an election season dominated by phrases such as “woman card” and “blood coming out of her wherever”, it is unsurprising that some artists have chosen to explore gender. Illma Gore’s depiction of Mr Trump as a naked man with a bulging stomach and diminutive penis—which is on sale for $1.4m—was created to prompt viewers to think about social constructions and why a large penis signals power. Many have responded negatively to the piece; one Trump supporter went so far as to punch Ms Gore in the face. 

These pieces share another quality: they are straightforward. They huddle around the surface of the election’s issues rather than taking a more in-depth or obtuse approach. So although they may be compelling today, the chances of these pieces resonating long after the nation’s new leader takes office are rather slim. Truly successful artwork “has a complexity and a depth that makes it have an impact beyond the moment for which it was created,” says Carin Kuoni, director of the Vera List Centre for Art and Politics at The New School, New York. An excellent example of this is Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” portrait of Barack Obama during the 2008 elections. The piece of art has continued to be effective long after that particular political moment because it flawlessly translated the hopeful pulse of the nation into a work of art, says Grace Aneiza Ali, an art and public policy faculty member at New York University.

Although Ms Ali says that she’s not yet seen a piece of art in this election cycle that captures a similarly compelling narrative, a mural created by Lushsux, a street artist based in Melbourne, stood out to her. It depicts Mrs Clinton wearing a revealing bathing suit with $100 bills stuck in it. When the artist was ordered to remove it, he painted over it so that the candidate was wearing a black niqab. That contrast of incorporating two extremely charged pieces of clothing forces the public to think about how the candidate has been judged based on gender, says Ms Ali. “My definition of art that is political goes beyond the comedic, goes beyond satire, goes beyond replicating the things that we already know,” she says. Ms Ali hopes that Lushsux’s piece has a long life in front of it.

Perhaps longevity is not necessarily the goal for artists this time round. Mr Gleeson and Ms Mihelic feel that it is vital for art to have a strong presence in presidential elections, to help the public understand the key issues and act as a catalyst for change. That is especially true during these “highly volatile and emotional events like this campaign has become,” says Mr Gleeson. For them, and perhaps many other politically-inspired artists, their work has been focused on the present political race and the threats that the result could have on the country. In fact, when Mr Gleeson and Ms Mihelic were asked whether they would likely be doing all of this were Mr Trump not in the race, they responded swiftly: “Probably not.” 


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