An Insipid Blame Game: Tony Cokes and the Monotony of Art About Trump

Over the past four decades, Tony Cokes has perfected the art of the social justice slideshow. His video essays pair appropriated text with corporate typefaces, found imagery or monochromatic backgrounds, popular music, and some modicum of political critique. He is broadly interested in the political mobilization – and manipulation – of populations, and the way we are produced by various forces of ideology, capital, and state power. Cokes’s slideshows are typified by his Evil (2003-ongoing) series, which identifies moments of American cruelty and media’s role in their promulgation. From Selma to the aftermath of Katrina and the Iraq war, they draw from a wide range of source material and variously incorporate texts from presidential addresses, political commentators, philosophers like Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek, and the newswires.

Particularly memorable are works like Evil. 16 (Torture.musik) (2009-11), which addresses music as a device of psychological warfare and is soundtracked by songs that the US army uses as an interrogation technique in Iraq. The music – anodyne pop like Britney Spears or David Gray, children’s ditties from Barney and Sesame Street plus the occasional Metallica – provides a jarring contrast to the brutal accounts of US military-inflicted torture. Of course, in the case of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, the choice of music mattered far less to detainees than the ear shattering volume at which it was blasted.

In August, Cokes debuted a new five-part video series commissioned by The Shed. The parts were released in prestige TV fashion on The Shed’s website and social media channels, one each week, and are studies for a longer new work. Titled Of Lies and Liars, they pair elephant red and donkey blue slides with excerpts from David Frum’s April 2020 article about pandemic denialism in The Atlantic, called “This is Trump’s Fault.” The article is what liberals and #nevertrump types might describe breathily as a searing indictment, equal parts finger pointing, chiding, and indignant. It takes the reader step by step through Trump’s response to Covid-19 – or lack thereof – from December 2019 through April 2020. The accompanying music is easy listening for Xenials and includes The Postal Service (subtle!), the Specials, and Lali Puna. Trump Lied, over 225,000 Americans Died, and so on and so on. 

Tony Cokes, “Collision/Coalition,” at The Shed. 2020 (install view). Image: JSP Art Photography. Courtesy the artist, Greene Naftali, New York, Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles, and Electronic Arts Intermix, New York.

Unlike the Instagram social justice slideshows that have been proliferating this summer, Cokes never presents his views or thoughts head-on, instead engaging in a kind of bricolaged ventriloquism that makes it all too easy to evade accountability. Presented without comment, it would be possible to assume that Frum’s text, in all its smug, smarmy, tone deafness – exacerbated by the fact that Cokes bizarrely chooses to abbreviate Trump as a chummy “T.” – speaks for Cokes’s views, too. But the time for this kind of detachment – and lazy mimesis – is long over. Does anyone truly believe that reiteration is magically tantamount to an actual response? Isn’t that precisely what the media, aghast at the very concept of someone like Trump, managed to do with an estimated $2 billion in free airtime?

By all rights, Cokes’s videos should hit differently now, after the Rose Garden superspreader event, and as temperatures drop and the US enters a terrifying third wave. With global death tolls poised to approach 3 million by the end of the year, it’s difficult to fathom what even another few months will bring. But if anything, the videos feel even more banal now than they did before. Watching them on YouTube brings its own dissonances. “The clearest statement of that knowledge was expressed on February 28,” referring to a South Carolina rally at which Trump simultaneously called the virus a hoax and said his administration had it under control, flashes against a bright red screen in Of Lies and Liars Study 02 (2020). At the same time, smaller closed captioning at the bottom of the screen croons a lyric from reggae band Steel Pulse’s “Babylon Makes the Rules”: “A wah dem a go do when the time comes around.” What will they do, indeed.

Yet here, too, as with the Evil series, the juxtaposition of text and song can be effective, granting all the pleasure of a timeline coincidence. Later in the same video, as Frum pontificates, “Yet we can discern, through the mental fog … ,” the closed captioning seems to retort, like a Greek chorus reminding us of the unscientific fallacy of “thoughts and prayers”: “You’ve had all night and day to think and pray.” The February 2020 Trump quote cited by Frum (often, their voices seem to converge) –  “Nobody [has died so far]. And it doesn’t mean we won’t [lose any Americans to the virus] and we are totally prepared” – meanwhile lines up with ska band The Specials’ singing “Now it’s you that’s threatening me.” The song, “Gangster,” then bounces into the rather apt line, “Can’t fight corruption with con tricks.” Turning off closed captioning diminishes the effect, though synergies (when they are perceptible) seem all the more poignant as a result; felt rather than forced.

Tony Cokes, “Of Lies and Liars Study 04,” 2020 (still). Courtesy the artist, Greene Naftali, New York, Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles, and Electronic Arts Intermix, New York.

Of course, since the videos were released, Trump and many of his inner circle have caught Covid-19 and mostly recovered, some with the help of two experimental treatments in which Trump appears to hold financial shares. It’s an event that you might expect to have precipitated a change of heart or at least some acknowledgement of the seriousness of the virus but seems to have just functioned as an opportunity for a spot of patriotic jingoism: that America and also Trump are great and just getting greater, and the same goes for the American healthcare system, the greatest in the world.

I write this now from Dubai in between rounds of tests and scans and doctor visits that are finally getting close to the bottom of a sudden, non-Covid-related illness that had me bouncing around from clinic to clinic in New York City, being misdiagnosed or just flat-out ignored. I’m painfully aware that, were I still in the US, I would still have no answers. I don’t doubt that America has the greatest healthcare system in the world, but how many people actually have access to it?

I think of Elias Canetti writing in Crowds and Power that “A murder shared with many others, which is not only safe and permitted, but indeed recommended, is irresistible to the great majority of men.” This is the failure at the heart of Cokes’s new series: that the lies are presented as something someone said or didn’t say and not the system itself that justifies the preventable deaths of so many as sad-but-unavoidable collateral damage.  The issue for many, I suspect, is not that Trump and his cabal lied, but that they did it indecorously, bellowing the quiet part out loud. Just like the empty political theater of Trump’s impeachment – arguably along with the International Criminal Court at the Hague – the series indicts a single person for a problem that is both systematic and systemic in nature. Much of this is due to the choice of text (“It’s Trump’s Fault”), though election fatigue and, above all, Trump fatigue certainly play a role, too. I wonder whether it’s even possible, not so much to make good video work about Trump in 2020, but for audiences to view and engage with it as art and not as advertising. As such, at this point it feels like the very strategy of pairing appropriated text with music – what is this but five-part campaign stumping for Biden? – has worn thin.

But to paraphrase another feelgood bromide, abuse of PowerPoint comes as no surprise. It’s crucial to remember that culpability doesn’t fall neatly along party lines: even as he was being praised for his handling of the pandemic, New York governor Andrew Cuomo (to use just one example) was busy quietly slashing Medicaid, a move that will prove especially catastrophic in the face of soaring unemployment. What becomes clear is just how much of an abstracted, academic blame game it all is: if one party prides themselves on being sensible about Covid-19 only to kill the marginalized through austerity and economic attrition, are they really so different?

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