When The Guggenheim Offered Donald Trump a Golden Toilet
Sotheby’s’ Ed Tang tells us about his candidate for "most extra art moment" of 2018.
January is a very slow month for the art world, but this year it started with a bang, when Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector wrote a letter to the White House after they requested the loan of a Van Gogh, which was part of a collection that does not leave the museum. She declined and offered instead Maurizio Cattelan's America, which is a gold toilet. I don’t think the White House responded, nor did they accept it—and that’s not surprising, although you’d think Trump would like shiny, gold things.
When America was at the Guggenheim, I lined up and went to see it, and I thought it was typical of Maurizio Cattelan: it’s filled with humor and it’s daring and controversial. The work itself is such a preposterous piece. It’s referencing Duchamp’s Fountain, which, when it was first shown, was so controversial as well—I like that the piece is citing something that was also extremely extra.
The fact that Nancy Spector, a very esteemed curator, had the balls to offer it to the White House was also totally extra. I don’t want to say that she was trolling the White House. It's a very precious work of art; it’s made out of 18-carat solid gold; It is by a very renowned, legitimate, celebrated artist. It was installed at one of the world’s greatest museums. If you take all of that into consideration, it can be seen as a sincere counter-offer, given that the Van Gogh was not available. But the letter is very tongue-in-cheek; you can really read between the lines.
The work itself wasn’t controversial in terms of its political context until Nancy Spector offered it to the White House. Superficially, it’s a toilet; it’s about people do with a toilet. And the good thing about that is that it’s a piece for everyone. Anyone who goes into the museum can use it, very much like the White House is the peoples’ house. I like that democratic analogy, and I think the gesture made it so much more captivating as a story.
Spector ultimately had to apologize: there were a lot of people who thought it was not her place to voice her own political opinion when she represents the museum. But I don’t think there was anything wrong with that. I think it was brilliant. Thank God for freedom of speech and social media, for Twitter. It can go both ways, but at the best of times, it can be used to spread messages that could change all our thoughts for the better.
And I think the White House can certainly use some good art, too.