To fight Trump, look to the vulgar style that’s long ruled American art.
In 2014, the National Gallery in London acquired their first American picture, George Bellows’s Men of the Docks (1912), in which hulking workers loiter in the dead of winter. White horses join the dockworkers just as the scene cracks with the faintest suggestion of activity. The ship and the city are an imposing frame for an otherwise bleak, bathetic subject. The work, when it comes, will be toil. But it’s better than the idle cold. This little drama never ends, really. Bellows leaves the men trapped somewhere between hope and despondence. It’s a vulgar scene.
If the Ohio-born Bellows walked through the National Gallery today, he might recoil at the gauntlet of gentility that lay before him. The Gallery doesn’t have an American wing. Instead, Men of the Docks hangs chronologically alongside the Gallery’s Impressionist and Modern masterpieces, standing out like a sore thumb alongside the l’art pour l’art of Cézanne and Van Gogh. It’s an even ruder departure from the National Gallery’s standard fare, where scarcely a room passes without a meditation on Ovid, a Madonna and Child, or a court-commissioned history painting. To an American of a certain persuasion, this all seems like a powder keg of Whig history. Bellows’s is the first and only painting whose figures appear unfazed by that history’s watchful eye.
You find you own vision adjusting from the wedding feasts and triumphal processions just to take in such a sobering document of industrial labor. For one, Men of the Docks is the only work in the entire museum where you notice the weather. In Poussin’s idealized Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake, nature is little more than a set piece. It’s the same with Turner, whose tempests are sublime, canvas-swallowing things. Titian shows Dionysus gifting Ariadne with the sky, rendering it into a foreign object. Monet was outside while he worked, but his pictures are about the light. For Bellows, the cold isn’t part of the landscape. It’s a part of the workers. They feel it in their bones. The Ashcan winter puts the iconography of Empire into sharp relief. The docks are callous and bleak, but they’re an Arcadia, a Jerusalem, and a Rome all at once.
The tension between the European museum and its colonial cousin is nothing new. From almost the beginning American art has been fragmented into two camps. On the one hand, it mimics the highbrow order of European refinement. Yet in greater measure and influence is the American art borne out of vernacular experience. In essence, to see American art is to see a struggle between the stentorian and the quotidian, the patrician and the plebe, and the academy and the vulgate. The critic Harold Rosenberg called it a duel among “Redcoats” and “Coonskins.” American art’s triumphs, he says, “have been achieved against the prevailing style,” emerging like sly shots from the margins. In the American wilds, he goes on, “the Redcoats fall, expecting at any moment to enter upon the true battlefield, the soft rolling greenswards prescribed by the canons of their craft…” In literature, Philip Rahv divided it up into “Palefaces” and “Redskins.” The Paleface “moves in an exquisite moral atmosphere; at his lowest he is genteel, snobbish, and pedantic.” The Redskin, meanwhile, gives expression to “the aspirations of the people,” but “at his worst he is a vulgar anti-intellectual” given to the “crudest forms of frontier psychology.”
What we call vulgarity isn’t an American invention, but on these shores it generally wins out. From the “Freake Painter” to William Gropper to Robert Rauschenberg, American art seems most alive when it’s working in orders of vulgarity. The Redcoats have been around, too, of course—in the Brahmin caste of New England, the Yankee plutocrats, and the National Academy. They are, as Rahv explains, “drawn to allegory and to the distillations of symbolism.” You find it in the history painting of the early Republic—the John Trumbulls, the John Vanderlyns, and the Peales. They give you a sense of European erudition, but they were the purveyors of aesthetic fraud.
This dualism has never been neat or simple, but recent events have perverted it against us. Last November we witnessed a vulgar and expressive Coonskin outwit a staid, smug, and condescending Redcoat. What we call Trumpism worked because it had little regard for political decorum. It defeated, albeit narrowly and by electoral anomaly, the abstract symbolism of the Democratic Party. Clinton’s case was delivered as a sort of inevitability, a march of history constructed not by the people but for the people. Like the Redcoats, it kept waiting for the open field on which to do proper battle. Trump, on the other hand, simply read the weather report and motored on. Low on information and high on emotion, our garrulous new leader is a reflection of our Coonskin past.
But Trump’s appeal to the underdogs of American society is, today, its own type of fraud. He hijacked our penchant for vulgarity and twisted it into something reprehensible. Such a crime could only be perpetuated by a cruel change in the political trade-winds. From its birth, the left has traded in the currency of vulgarity, in fact and in fiction its greatest source of revolutionary potency. Yet today’s liberal is quicker to mock vulgarity than embrace it. These new liberals are coastal business elites who believe in meritocracy despite soaking in privilege: merchants of performative moralism who trade not in bombast but in the comfort of subtlety. Despite their aesthetic symbols, they are the unrepentant guardians of the status quo.
Contemporary liberalism works a lot like Thomas Hart Benton’s regionalism, for some the “official” American art of the early twentieth century. There’s little doubt that Benton’s America Today murals use the vernacular to give life to the would-be American superpower. In that sense they’re folk art. But Benton’s figures have the same vacancy as the DNC’s campaign props. His panoramas of symbolic empowerment glazed over degradation and inequality. His pictures, however firebrand, were blinkered versions of the American scene.
When Amber A’Lee Frost called last year for a return to vulgarity, she rightly referred to it as a “crucial rhetorical weapon of the politically excluded.” Bellows’s Men of the Docks captured the brutality of its time. These workers aren’t allegories for virtue, patience, or thrift. They aren’t props in an official history or facile signs for a folk imaginary. They take no delight in the pathos of the peasant. Their gaits are earnest—less concerned with representation as they are with compensation. When confronted with widening inequality, the Redcoat can only call for more decorum. Today we call this “liberal elitism,” but on a personal level it’s an emotional deference to the ruling class. It haunts the National Gallery at every turn, but Bellows breaks it by wielding vulgarity like a master.
Of course it’s a mistake to equate the aesthetics of the working class with the rise of Trump. The reality is more complex. Trump was propelled less by hatred and fear than by a distinctly Coonskin shoot-from-the-hip brashness. Our inability to stem Trumpism began with an unwillingness to acknowledge a hard truth: he is more American than we know. This tendency is not too unlike the spirit that animated America’s triumphant avant-garde. Abstract Expressionism circulated through machismo and verve, working in opposition to European fine arts. New York knew it could never hang with the Europeans; instead, they offered a mix of the imaginative and the unrefined—at times chaotic—unmasking charlatans at every turn. Theirs was a coonskinsism worthy of replicating, one that captured the hostile energy of American artists yearning to break with what had been imposed upon them.
The hope is that today’s artists respond less to Trumpism’s sordid rise than they will to liberalism’s dazzling fall, which is not so much a lapse of principles as it a disastrous change of style. Your typical American artist of the MFA generation has been swaddled in the shibboleths of the liberal status quo. This vacant moralizing is deeply intertwined with contemporary art’s orthodoxy. With each passing year the contradictions grow more pronounced. In 2016, critics of the Berlin Biennale alleged that its curators, the American artist collective DIS, had done little to confront rising neo-fascism in Europe or the refugee crisis in the Middle East. This was because the exhibition largely avoided the didactic tone of what the critic Peter Schjeldahl has called “festivalism”: the curatorial mode of empty political gestures that so often decorate the international biennial circuit. The charge—that the work stood idle as atrocities raged in foreign lands—is precisely the perversion of social-justice spectacle from which art must be freed.
DIS, meanwhile, represents one part of new generation grown wise to the fact that biennials are mere entertainment, parlor games for a privileged jet set wherein luxury consumers are morally subdued by vernissage displays. The Biennale was called out not just for political apathy but for violating decorum: their curatorial program busted the liberal myth about the connection between the VIP preview and the treaty table. A scathing critique of imperialism can keep you talking all the way through the reception, but the refugees are still waiting for supplies. Pointing out such a contradiction can seem vulgar, but it’s a possible antidote to our political malaise.
As the implications of a Trump presidency grow more dire, the impact of our aesthetic tools becomes more pressing. Bellows’s dockworkers penetrated the sentimentality of the National Gallery’s official history, tunneling into a great reserve of the American psyche that shows no signs of flagging. We tend to be ribald, if not indecent, and we can sniff out a charlatan like a trained hound. Almost everywhere else the power of the artist owes much to contemporary art’s antiseptic, conceptual turn: it relies too much on an echo chamber of comfortable boundaries and likeminded theoreticians. In adopting this voice, artists have abandoned the best they have to offer. True, there’s scant hope in prescribing an effective political aesthetic to counter Trumpism, and art need not adhere to didacticism or heroics. But history can reorient our vision when a crisis is at hand. Installed in the National Gallery, Bellows’s work restates an indelible lesson: decorum is futile in times of upheaval. Artists might reacquaint themselves with vulgarity, if nothing else, to wrest it back from the demagogue right.
Mike Pepi is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in Art in America, e-flux journal, and The Art Newspaper.