Spotlight Series

Spotlight: Chicago Artist Writers

Continuing our week highlighting the work of Chicago Artist Writers, today we bring you an extensive interview with artist and author David Robbins. In his books High Entertainment (2009) and Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy (2011), Robbins reimagines the role of the artist in pop culture. In this conversation with Dan Gunn, Robbins focuses on President Trump’s rhetoric, capitalism, professional wrestling, Andy Kaufman, fake news, the problems with satire, and more. This article was originally published on January 20, 2017.screen-shot-2017-01-06-at-10-35-25-pm-copy

Chicago Artist Writers: Donald Trump is a crossover politician/media personality like the USA has rarely, if ever, seen before. I am interested in asking you about his persona and rhetoric because you’ve thought heavily about the intersection of art and entertainment as well as the real and the imagined. What kind of characteristics do you see in the Trumpian media theater?

David Robbins: I don’t have an especially sophisticated take, but as a good citizen, I’ll give it a try. Trump has the potential to put this country at risk. We’re all grappling with what’s happened.

First off, we have to recognize—or really, admit—that American society has been heading in this direction for a few decades now. I refer to the confusion of democracy with capitalism. Since Reagan—the first postmodern president, an actor who seemed to approach the office as another in a long line of roles—the idea has taken hold that the value of American society is primarily understood as economic opportunity, the pursuit of financial self-interest, and the social mobility this sometimes delivers. Increasingly, narratives of ascendancy—of going from nothing to something, or from less to more, or from plenty to grotesquely more than plenty!—replaced all other narratives. Which is no surprise, exactly, since money has a way of devaluing everything that isn’t oriented around money. Ascendancy stories were always important, but they used to compete with stories of freedom, of justice, of sacrifice, of pioneer hardiness, and so on. After the world decided—late 1980s, the Berlin Wall falls in ’90—to give up on formulating any real challenge to capitalism, narratives of opportunity and its conjoined twin, self-actualization, became the only stories that really mattered. This was the news that Jeff Koons delivered, no? A world of self-actualization, minus criticality.

Read the full conversation here.