Suffering for Their...Art
A Pro-Trump Art Show—But the ‘Artists’ Are…Interesting
A group booked a Williamsburg gallery for a political art show. But when it turned out to be pro-Trump, the gallery canceled. Censorship? Well, it’s complicated.
“Martin Shkreli is really fucking around with me here.”
Lucian Wintrich is pacing the floor of his East Village walkup, chain-smoking cigarettes and drinking white wine. It is 2:30 in the afternoon on a Thursday, and a little more than 48 hours until Wintrich’s performance art show, #DaddyWillSaveUs, which Wintrich is billing as the first pro-Trump art show in the nation’s history, is set to open.
“Art show,” however, is perhaps not the right phrase. #DaddyWillSaveUs was more of a chance for liberals’, or, for that matter, mainstream Americans’ most hated villains to come together to see if they could offend people further. The show is a museum piece of precisely the kind of degraded public culture that Trump had unleashed, dropping its pants before anyone who dares believe civil norms can still be saved.
Besides infamous tech bro Shkreli, who has apparently taken up sculpture in his spare time (and who seems to be under the impression that Wintrich will actually assemble the installation, hence the “fucking around”), Wintrich said the show is slated to feature Internet provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos bathing in a tub of pig’s blood (to showcase Islamic anti-gay violence), Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes dressed as a white slave, and a number of paintings parodying George Soros and other liberal luminaries. James O’Keefe, the video saboteur who helped bring down ACORN, insisted on donating the “pimp coat” he used for that exposé, but Wintrich convinced him that the show was more creatively focused than historical.
Except that the morning before, Pierogi, a prestigious art gallery in Williamsburg that was slated to host the show, abruptly cancelled, because, gallery owner Joe Amrhein told the website Artnet, he had been “conned” about the true nature of the show.
“Our understanding of it, up to this point, is as a satirical, Andy Kaufman-esque project by the comedian/artist,” he said, pledging to donate any money raised from the now-nonexistent show to the Hillary Clinton campaign, which he said would serve as a “hopefully fitting irony for this narcissist asshole.”
Wintrich says that Amrhein—who didn’t return a phone call seeking comment—is lying, and that instead he buckled under pressure after receiving nearly a hundred emails excoriating him for participating.
And so now Wintrich and his business partner, Baton Rouge-based Republican political operative Ali Akbar, are calling seemingly every empty warehouse, gallery and event space in the five boroughs. They had until 5 o’clock on Thursday, or they would have had to cancel the entire show, since people are flying in from all over the country for it and at least 50 press outlets are expected to cover it.
“This is the first time since the days of Robert Mapplethorpe that a gallery has tried to restrict free artistic expression,” Wintrich says with evident delight. “We are going to make international news. This is not only the first conservative art show in the country’s history, as far as I can tell, but it is the first time that the New York art scene is trying to make not happen.”
Wintrich’s tiny apartment has been turned into a war room, with a mattress on the floor for Akbar and an intern to sleep on, and a warren of laptops and cords covering every flat service. Homoerotic art lines the walls—including a brightly colored painting of a young boy holding a machine gun on the beach. The bookshelf is crammed with works by authors both conservative and outré: Ayn Rand, Roger Ailes, Dennis Miller, Charles Murray, and a copy of Mein Kampf. The bathroom doesn’t have a light switch, so anybody who wants to use it has to screw in the light bulb hanging overhead. The bathtub is in the kitchen, and has been turned into a makeshift table.
The show was in part supposed to launch Wintrich’s and Akbar’s newest venture, Rabble, which Akbar describes as a Gawker-meets-Vice media company pulling in voices from the Trump right and the Occupy left. Akbar once helped run an annual gathering of Southern Republicans, which is where he once met Trump, who backstage among assorted GOP dignitaries loudly told Akbar he looks like a young Sammy Davis, Jr.
“He was a friend of mine,” Trump told the room, according to Akbar. “You wouldn’t believe how much pussy he got.”
Wintrich and Akbar first met at the annual Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Washington, D.C, where Akbar was certain Wintrich was an O’Keefe-type mole from the left. In January, Wintrich got the idea to get some of his male model friends together—“I have slept with all of them. And I only sleep with good-looking people”—and photograph them in Make America Great Again hats and in various states of undress.
The resulting series, “Twinks4Trump,” has become something of a viral sensation and landed him a feature on NBC News. It also, he says, lost him his job as an advertising agency, and turned him into waging a year-long war against what he sees as an insidious political correctness.
And so, in addition to the art of others that he solicited for the show, Wintrich will be auctioning off photographs from his Twinks4Trump series while male models in pointed bamboo hats sell gold-flaked egg-rolls (“to show China’s role in currency manipulation.”) Other “little Twink boys,” as he called them, will don sombreros and serve mini-taco bowls. Pierogi’s cancelling meant that the miniature particle board wall he planned to have constructed out front by day laborers hired for the occasion would have to go unrealized.
“Oh look at this!” Wintrich says, opening up a package that arrived. Inside were second and third-grade arithmetic books. “We are going to have a Socialist bonfire too. This is for liberals who can’t do math.”
When asked if all of this seems to be a little much, not to mention in bad taste and hurtful, Wintrich’s eyes roll seemingly across the room.
“When did we say as a country that we can’t have a sense of humor anymore? When did college students start crying because someone wore a cap on campus that represented a conservative,” he said, in reference to one of O’Keefe’s recent provocations. He cited how Irish and Italians were discriminated against and mocked when they first arrived in this country en masse, as if somehow perpetuating the shameful moments of the country’s past was a hazing ritual necessary to build a more cohesive nation.
“This is the way assimilation always works in this country. If you have people come here and you say, ‘you can’t touch our culture, you can’t make fun of our culture,’ that never works. If it seems incendiary, that’s because it is designed to be so that people will realize how limiting the discourse is in this country.”
And so like much of the Trump movement, #DaddyWillSaveUs is a big-fuck you response to what conservatives see as the fuck you aimed at them by the mainstream culture. If a bunch of pranksters can put a statue of Trump with a micropenis in Union Square and have the mayor of New York City applaud them for it, then these right-wing pranksters will put up in the gallery a statue of Trump with a penis the size of a spear.
The PowerPoint that Wintrich and Akbar put together to sell donors on the concept included a quote from the art website Hyperallergic: “Trump has a micropenis. Trump is a pile of poop with a toupee. Trump is a barf bag. Trump has a face made of menstrual blood. When it comes to depictions of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, the more grotesque, the better.”
“The alt-right is trying to learn something from the left,” said Akbar. “You go to conservative rallies, and they are like a church service. Speech, applause. Speech, applause. You don’t see drag performers on our side. The right should be able to have more fun than the left.”
#DaddyWillSaveUs got it name because “Trump is the only one trying to shield us,” Wintrich says. “There is a real war against Islamic terrorism and then there is a culture war going on in this country too, a war of intellectuals and ideologues. So ‘Daddy’ will save us from the other side should he ascend to the presidency.”
“There are people who legitimately believe that people should not hold opposing views or fringe views,” he continued. “Go ahead and cancel the show just because you don’t like conservatives if you want. This is the first time that the hypocrisy of the left has been exposed. There is this narrative that conservatives are the ones who are on the wrong side of history, that conservatives are opposed to arts and culture and that we are the ones who limit self-expression.”
As news of the cancellation broke, both men’s cell phones started buzzing. Fox News called, McInnes texted, Milo’s people were wondering what to do. Many sent condolences. They kept writing back that it wasn’t over, that everyone should be patient, that they were just searching for a new venue. The show must go on, even as strangers pleaded with them to stop.
“Why do you support the company of hate in this country,” an elderly woman pleaded to Wintrich. “Please back down and stop this horrid show.”
Wintrich showed the message to Akbar. They were delighted. He thought for a moment of what to write back. He bowed over his phone. “We need a strong father figure so we can avoid the pussification of the country by the hands of folks like you,” he replied.
The more they got rejected, and the more hate mail they received, the more Akbar and Wintrich seemed to be enjoying themselves. They promised that they would put every space that rejected them into a press release. It was further proof of the delicate sensibilities of the New York art scene. And as far as they were concerned, why did it matter that they were pro-Trump? It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine a group of anti-Trump artists getting together and putting on much the same show. It would be read differently, of course, as mocking the excesses of the real estate mogul’s campaign, but it wouldn’t receive the same level of vitriol. Akbar and Wintrich see themselves as the art world’s last renegades.
“The alt-right is the new punk rock,” Akbar said.
They couldn’t talk about what they were doing on its own merits, however. If the left can insult their nominee, why can’t they insult the left? If the left can be transgressive in the anti-capitalist, or anti-religious art, why couldn’t they be just as transgressive in the name of country and capitalism? If some of their pranks were hurtful and personal, so what?
“I get death threats. I get hate mail. You think that only happens to liberals?” Wintrich said.
What about Alicia Machado, the Miss Universe who Trump fat-shamed, or Rosie O’Donnell, whom he still can’t stop talking about, or Leslie Jones, the African American Ghostbusters actress whom Milo Yiannopoulos ran off the Internet?
“Famous people and people in the public eye can fend for themselves,” Wintrich said.
It was because of Yiannopoulos that one of their back-up places fell through. The space didn’t have two exits, which Yiannopoulos’s security team said is necessary since his performances so often attract death threats. Other back-ups were falling through too. The Columbia University College Republicans offered to help find a space, but it would have required everyone to be pre-registered. A place in Long Island City looked promising; but Wintrich and Akbar wanted the commotion, or at least to plant a flag in the heart of the gallery district of Brooklyn. Another feared that as soon as word got out about the show, the owner of the building, “a flaming liberal,” would demand its cancellation. They thought of reaching out to Trump, but didn’t know how to get hold of him. They called New York Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, who brushed them, and the American Civil Liberties Union, which said they couldn’t much help them either.
“I don’t want to be one of those conservatives who see a conspiracy everywhere,” said Wintrich. “But there is a real conspiracy here.”
He pointed to an email that the culture writer Jamie Peck sent to some hundreds of her writer friends suggesting that they collectively ignore “Daddy Will Save Us.” Someone on the list sent it to Wintrich, who promptly sent it to Breitbart, fanning the flames even further. Proceeds from the show—tickets cost between $65 and $125—were meant to go to a charity that helped gay veterans. But another liberal media outlet shamed the non-profit from participating, and they said they wouldn’t accept the money. “Oh now look at this,” Wintrich said holding up his laptop. “James Michael Nichols of the Huffington Post is calling me a homo-nationalist.”
He doubled over with laughter.
This was of course the point too. The bigger the protest, the more publicity they would get, and the whole point of the whole thing, about who is entitled to free expression and who isn’t, would be confirmed. The culture wars would have at last flipped sides. Whereas before it was conservatives from the Catholic League protesting Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” now it would be liberals protesting drag queens lying in vats of pig’s blood, never mind that they would be protesting not the art or the expression so much as the unapologetically racist and provocative performances.
Just after 5:00, a gallery in Chelsea at last came through. The deal was they couldn’t use the gallery’s name in any of the promotional materials, just the address: 132 West 18th street. They put on the Abba song “Money Money Money” and sent the intern out to secure the lease. “We were lucky that someone had an opening on a Saturday night and could use the money,” Akbar said. They contacted a butcher to arrange for the delivery of cow’s blood, since pig’s blood was unavailable (“something about a Jewish holiday,” Akbar said with a shrug.) A bathtub would need to be procured. Wintrich called his mom, who was coming in from Pittsburgh on a bus, to tell her the good news.
The show, such as it is, is set to go on.