The Triumph of Tackiness: The Materiality of Trump

This room in the Trump penthouse includes a statue of Eros and Psyche, a painting of Apollo in his chariot, and Barron Trump's motorized Mercedes.

This room in the Trump penthouse includes a statue of Eros and Psyche, a painting of Apollo in his chariot, and Barron Trump’s motorized Mercedes.

It has become commonplace to ridicule Donald Trump as “tacky” and dismiss his material style as clumsy excess, a crass display of wealth, or a complete absence of “good taste.”  For instance, in 2015 the National Review’s Kevin Williamson called the newly declared Presidential candidate a “ridiculous buffoon with the worst taste since Caligula.”  Williamson illustrated Trump’s taste with pictures of his densely gilded Manhattan penthouse replete with simulated classical aesthetics, Louis XIV furnishings, and a motorized toy Mercedes 10-year-old son Barron has outgrown.  In 2012 refinery29 interviewed Trump’s wife Melania and somewhat more kindly indicated that the penthouse had “over-the-top surroundings that might make Liberace blush.”  A host of anxious observers fret that the new President will gut the White House with a similar ocean of gilding, marble, and haphazardly assembled historical themes.  In the wake of Trump’s unlikely victory, The Mirror predicted a White House festooned with “gold cherubs, reproduction Renoirs—or a print of Melania naked on a rug from her GQ lads mag shoot”; in a similar vein, the New York Daily News predicted “gaudy gold décor and tacky touches.”

Trump's branded products include "Trump Ice" water.

Trump’s branded products include “Trump Ice” water.

It is easy to caricature Trump’s style, and Trump’s grandiose materiality and unfiltered public behavior make for fascinating if unsettling media theater.  However, dismissing that style risks ignoring the appeal of his distinctive tackiness.  The President-Elect appears to have long fancied vulgar displays of affluence as he has migrated from one opulent mansion to the next, indulged an affection for grandiose hotels and golf courses, and hawked expensive steaks, ties, wine, mineral water, and fragrance.  That style is tacky in the sense that it is a blatant transgression of the aesthetic, social, and material standards that constitute “good taste.”  “Good taste” certainly is dispensed by stylistic ideologues and marketers for self-interested reasons, but tacky is heartfelt: rather than view his penthouse as a transgression of stylistic restraint or good taste, Trump once told The Apprentice contestants visiting the penthouse that “Some people consider it to be the greatest apartment in the world.  I would never, ever say that myself—but it’s certainly a nice apartment.”  Trump’s style is absolutely populist in its visual and material accessibility: his massive opulently decorated homes signal wealth without any uneasiness over (or possibly awareness of) his privilege, implicitly establishing that wealth is a just confirmation of achievement.


A Renoir reproduction hangs on the wall of Melania Trump’s office alongside her Louis XIV style desk.

Like all kitsch, Trump’s Manhattan penthouse is a formulaic repackaging of the familiar, amplifying existing cultural traditions and historical styles.  For instance, the classically themed paintings covering the ceilings of the Manhattan penthouse invoke familiar Classical aesthetics; a massive statue of Cupid and Psyche invokes a Classical tale retold for millennia; and the reproduction of a Renoir in Melania Trump’s office displays the well-known impressionist tradition in a room alongside an ornate Louis XIV style desk (in 1996 Playboy writer Mark Bowden also was surprised to find a Renoir on Trump’s gilded airplane).  These familiar motifs are ideologically rooted in Western artistic and cultural traditions, and their display in the densely decorated penthouse perhaps validates those traditions.  Nevertheless, those things are not simply symbols representing Classical artistic traditions or overdone displays of wealth: Trump’s apartment may instead be a soliloquy confirming the consequence of his own idiosyncratic individual taste.

Melania Trump in the Trump Tower Penthouse in 2-12.

Melania Trump in the Trump Tower Penthouse in 2012.

Most critical analysis of Trump and material style has focused on the objects and architectural spaces with which he has surrounded himself, but of course his body and the bodies of his family cannot be separated from the President-Elect’s materiality.  No element of that corporeality is better known than his astounding hair, and the President-Elect seems determined to unite a nation of people with bad hair by embracing his color job and unruly comb-over as yet another symbol of his individuality: “My hair may not be perfect, but it’s mine.” His wife Melania often looms as an accessory, apparently evoking his appreciation of beautiful and thoughtful women (in a clumsy celebration of beauty, he told Fox News in an hour-long post-election interview that “beauty is a nice thing but after the first hour you need to talk to them”).  Melania sold a reasonably priced jewelry line on QVC that borrowed the signature Trump bling, but it appears to have been removed from sale this summer.  In contrast, Trump’s daughter Ivanka has long been among the most prominent family members, and when the President-Elect had his first post-election interview on 60 Minutes, Ivanka appeared wearing a $10,800 bracelet from her jewelry line.

The New York Penthouse is awash with gilding and marble.

The New York Penthouse is awash with gilding and marble.

The President-Elect’s ostentatious material culture might seem to separate him from the working-class voters he courted.  When Fox News interviewed the Presidential candidate in September, they hoped to narrate his story with “treasured objects he’s chosen to keep” in his Manhattan penthouse.  It was a clever idea to use some prosaic things to humanize Trump (albeit in the midst of his gilded penthouse), but the choice of a military school yearbook, a childhood photograph, and Barron’s Mercedes were not especially rich springboards establishing Trump’s common humanity with the electorate.  Nevertheless, the President-Elect’s tacky self-confidence seems to endear him to many Americans.  Trump’s materiality and his unfiltered public behavior ignore mainstream style, and rather than recoil from this some people seem mesmerized by his highly individual expressions of taste: for instance, while he could follow conventional styles and behaviors, Trump apparently decorated his penthouse the way he desired with no concern for dominant styles (though the penthouse was designed in 1985 by New York’s “glitziest interior designer” Angelo Donghia); and while he could probably secure a more creative hair stylist the President-Elect has brazenly embraced his golden mane without betraying any irony.

In contrast, much of the President-Elect’s political circle is populated by non-descript White men whose material culture betrays no especially clear signs of their ideological bent or wealth.  The prototype may be Vice President-Elect Mike Pence, who is touted as a “small town” Midwesterner and has nearly no distinguishing material style except for his motionless white hair.  Pence’s unremarkable plain-ness leaves him somewhat unexamined as a material thing; while Trump exploits his own distinctive materiality to paint himself as a political outsider, Pence instead seamlessly blends into the crowd of Washington Republicans and champions conservative religious legislation while viewing climate change science very skeptically.

The most unsettling Trump supporters gather under the banner “alt-right.”  The alt-right lingers on the edges of far right Republican politics, framing a White nationalist political agenda, railing on immigration, and championing anti-Semitism, sweeping deportation programs, and eugenic solutions.  Their startling agenda conceals itself within rather prosaic dress and materiality.  The ideologues on the alt-right aspire to use fashion in particular to distinguish them from the material caricature of hate groups like the Klan, Nazis, or eugenicists, despite their genuine social, historical, and intellectual debt to those very groups.  In August 2016 the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mark Potok described the prominent alt-right National Policy Institute as “suit-and-tie racists.”  In 2013 the National Policy Institute’s Richard B. Spencer told Salon’s Lauren M. Fox that “`We have to look good.” Spencer argued that the alt-right’s cause would be undermined if they appeared to be “`part of something that is crazed or ugly or vicious or just stupid, no one is going to want to be a part of it.’ Those stereotypes of `redneck, tattooed, illiterate, no-teeth’ people, Spencer said, are blocking his progress.”  Clad in commonplace business dress, Spencer and the National Policy Institute advocate for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” that would include sterilization, with a fundamental goal “to elevate the consciousness of whites, ensure our biological and cultural continuity, and protect our civil rights.”  In the wake of the election the National Policy Institute met in Washington and Spencer quoted Nazi propaganda in German while celebrating that Trump’s victory signaled that White people are “awakening to their own identity.”

Gilded cherubs can be found in the penthouse dining room.

Gilded cherubs can be found in the Trumps’  penthouse dining room.

It is not essential to pin down precisely what constitutes tacky; the more important point is to acknowledge that an ambiguous notion of tastefulness and style is constantly wielded to pass judgment on people who depart from mainstream style.  Ironically, some of Trump’s appeal may rest on his image as a “tacky” individual who owns up to and brazenly displays his taste and thoughts; while that tackiness may be repulsive to left-leaning Americans, it is conversely compelling to many of their neighbors who feel judged and excluded themselves.  There is of course a profoundly complicated class, color, and social analysis of how Trump ascended to the highest office in the land, and Trump’s construction in the media and popular discourse deserves a sustained analysis.  Yet there is also an archaeological dimension to understanding Trump as a material thing,  Trump’s material style has successfully fashioned an appearance of defying dominant stylistic standards, ignoring conventional political practices, and remaining true to himself that harbors enormous appeal to many Americans.



Melania Trump Penthouse image  and Dining Room Cherubs from Refinery29, Photographed by Sam Horine

Trump Penthouse Image from Wikimedia Ben Ashford For Dailymail.comMailOnline

Trump Penthouse Image Eros and Psyche and Melania Trump Office image from Wikimedia Quentin PerinelLe Figaro

Preserving Repugnant Heritage

A January 2016 image of the Calais "Jungle" (image Malachy Browne).

A January 2016 image of the Calais “Jungle” (image Malachy Browne).

This week few if any heritage planners have proposed a preservation or placemaking plan for Frances’ Calais migration camp.  The camp popularly dubbed the “jungle” was being dismantled this week, its host of makeshift structures to be removed after hosting perhaps 7000-8000 migrants at its peak.  Migrants from various reaches of Africa and Asia have set up temporary camps around the port city of Calais since 1999, with camp residents often hoping to continue on to nearby BritainThe Guardian reported at the end of 2014 that at least 15 people had died in Calais that year, and this year the camp has become an increasingly unpleasant symbol of migration woes.  In the wake of Brexit Calais uncomfortably illuminates lapses in humanitarian rhetoric and state policy disagreements over the accommodation or exclusion of a stream of people escaping countries such as Syria and Iraq.

A January 2016 image of a makeshift Calais library (image Katja Ulbert).

A January 2016 image of a makeshift Calais library (image Katja Ulbert).

Administrators’ commitment to dismantle the camp (by hand rather than bulldozer or fire, to avoid conflicts from earlier camp displacements) seems to confirm the camp’s significance.  Perhaps for most observers Calais can lay no claim to be a heritage site since it is an ephemeral place in our midst, yet Calais may be just the sort of place worthy of heritage contemplation—that is, a material presence inducing contemporary anxiety and rooted in a contentious history.

The silence over Calais stands in opposition to the flurry of heritage scholars advocating the preservation of Adolf Hitler’s birthplace and earliest home in Braunau am Inn, Austria.  Both Calais and Braunau share a repugnancy that revolves around their unpleasant stories and unresolved effects.  Hitler holds a persistent grip on our collective imagination and exerts an especially unsettling effect on right wing extremists; Calais lays bare the crisis of humanitarian idealism that risks being undone by state passivity and xenophobia. In both cases some planners hope that razing these reviled spaces will eliminate the public discussions they spark, but there seems to be a more productive discussion harbored in their preservation than in their absence. Read the rest of this entry

The Last Holdouts: Community Displacement and Urban Renewal on the IUPUI Campus

Some readers interested in post-war urban displacement, race, and Indianapolis histories may be interested in this piece from the Invisible Indianapolis blog.

Invisible Indianapolis

In April, 1980 the home at 725 West vermont Street sat in the center of this picture of the IUPUI campus. 311 Bright Street stood just to its south at the right side of the image (click for larger image). In April, 1980 the home at 725 West vermont Street sat in the center of this picture of the IUPUI campus. 311 Bright Street stood just to its south at the right side of the image (click for larger image).

In 1874 the first residents moved into 311 Bright Street in Indianapolis’ near-Westside.  The modest frame house sat in the midst of a neighborhood that rapidly emerged after the Civil War.  It sat across the street from Garden Baptist Church, which opened in 1872, alongside 36 houses in the two blocks between New York and Michigan Streets.

The same year the house was built on Bright Street Ira Johnson was born in Cassville, Georgia.  Johnson, his wife Lillian, and their 13 children worked on farms in and around Bartow County, Georgia for more than 50 years.  Lillian died in 1923, and in about 1930 Ira Johnson moved to Indianapolis. …

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The Trauma of Things

The Tower of Faces in the Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Tower of Faces in the Holocaust Memorial Museum

In 2013 the Washington Post’s Ken Ringle probed the unsettling experience of visiting Washington’s United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  The museum revolves around traumatic things, images, and narratives that visitors vicariously contemplate across time and in the face of the inexpressible irrationality of hatred.  The museum provides some concrete mechanisms like “privacy walls” to avoid some of the most unsettling material and visual dimensions of the museum’s narrative; nevertheless, Ringle argued that the museum perhaps collapsed that distance most effectively when visitors “have to look into the face of someone caught in the Nazi death machine.”  The Tower of Faces, for instance, is a massive three-story installation of 1,032 images of the residents of Eishyshok, a community in contemporary Lithuania where the Nazis massacred nearly the entire town in 1941.  Ringle argues that the pre-war family photographs are among the museum’s objects, images, and stories that force visitors to confront their “limit” by displaying prosaic humanity while acknowledging how these lives tragically ended.


Cutlery recovered from a holocaust site are typical of the prosaic things that populate much of the Holocaust Museum.

The everyday things populating the archaeological record secure much of their power from their familiarity—personal trinkets like eyeglasses and jewelry, food, and bodily remains themselves narrate humanizing stories, but those sympathetic and even uplifting human experiences are simultaneously complicated by sober realities.  Scholars often champion narratives that aspire to define the concrete realities of human adversity if not despair, often with an ambition to examine the lingering effects of historical trauma.  Archaeology in particular has gradually shifted its focus from material description toward “dark” histories of enslavement, racism, warfare, sexism, and violence that perhaps strike some observers as a rather bleak picture of everyday life across time and into the present.  Human tragedies and adversities materialized in things often spark emotional responses that archaeologists aim to channel into reflective discussion.  This may come as a surprise to observers who fantasize archaeology as a dispassionate empirical description of the distant past that has no substantive connection to contemporary life, and some people inevitably will find history’s trail of horrors profoundly disconcerting if not an ideological distortion of a more-or-less placid human experience. Read the rest of this entry

Spacious Vulgarity: The Aesthetics and Morals of McMansions

This Washington DC home features a massive garage and an ecelctic mix of oversized architectural features typical of McMansions (image DC Urban Mom).

This Washington DC home features a massive garage and an eclectic mix of oversized architectural features typical of McMansions (image DC Urban Mom).

Few architectural forms seem to secure as much overwrought disdain as the massive homes that are often referred to as “McMansions.”  Architectural aesthetes have a rich history of attacking built environments that spark deep-seated aesthetic and social revulsion, and over-sized 21st-century homes have become targets of comparable critique.  Critics of massive residential homes often lament departures from stylistic codes, which typically includes tract mansions’ massive scale, asymmetrical forms, lack of proportionality, inferior materials, and departures from established historical or local architectural distinctions.  However, such analyses routinely descend into ethnographically shallow social and class commentaries that fail to wrestle with our inchoate aversion for this particular material form.  It is indeed hard to fathom the attraction of many oversized residences, and it is unreasonable to simply ignore our emotional revulsion for them; nevertheless, a compelling assessment of McMansions–and reflective urban planning–should sympathetically wrestle with our experiences of these structures.

McMansion Hell is among the legion of observers ridiculing massive “garage Mahals” and “starter mansions.”  McMansion Hell is distinguished by its concrete architectural analysis of oversized residences, spending much of its energy dissecting specific material elements of the pejorative McMansion.  This is in some ways an archaeological approach to a class of material things, revolving around systematic material description of specific architectural features that unsettle many observers.  McMansion Hell does not try to stake a claim to contrived objectivity, instead acknowledging its aversion for massive residences, sarcastically deconstructing a host of aesthetic features, and painting a very distinctive social and material notion of the stylistic if not social deplorability of tract mansions.  However, it focuses on the stylistic dimensions of “bad” architecture and does not feature especially clear ethnographic evidence that might interrogate both the appeal of McMansions and the widespread distaste for them. Read the rest of this entry

Pokémon Go and the Sanctity of Heritage Landscapes

Soldiers' graves at the Kiiminki Church in northern Finland.

Soldiers’ graves at the Kiiminki Church in northern Finland.

One of Finland’s best-preserved wooden churches today sits outside Oulu, where the Kiiminki Church was completed in 1760.  The modest cruciform frame church in northern Finland was designed by church architect Matti Honka and is noted for its spectacularly well-preserved altar painted by Mikael Toppelius in the 1780s.  Like scores of other Finnish community church yards, the Kiiminki church is surrounded by a cemetery that includes the remains of local soldiers who fell during World War II.  Often referred to as “heroes’ cemeteries” or “hero graves,” these resting places are staples of the Finnish countryside testifying to the Finns’ concrete World War II losses—and at least implicitly underscoring the nation’s defense against global super powers.

In the midst of the Kiiminki cemetery a stream of visitors moves across the site in a very distinctive motion familiar everywhere in the world with wireless coverage.  In small groups shuffling forward, trading counsel, and studying their cell phone screens, Pokémon Go players hunt down virtual creatures in real-world surroundings including Kiiminki’s church and cemetery.  The augmented reality mode of Pokémon Go transforms prosaic spaces—neighborhoods, religious spaces, historic sites–into newly engaged landscapes populated by multi-colored creatures, Poké Stops to fortify your avatar’s supplies, and Poké Gyms to train and bond with other players. Read the rest of this entry

The Privacy of Style: Imagining Underwear

The anatomy of a $100 pair of underwear by Frigo.

The anatomy of a $100 pair of underwear by Frigo.

Last month the New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony joined 50 Cent to launch the rapper’s fashion line at Bloomingdale’s in New York City.  Observers attempting to fathom consumption are routinely befuddled by the apparently irrational expense consumers will devote to style, and 50 Cent’s endorsement will leave many of those observers once more scratching their heads.  The rapper has been joined by Anthony and Timbaland as investors in Frigo underwear, taking aim at the “premium” men’s underwear market with a line that includes a $100 pair with a patented “interior pouch”.   A surprising universe of companies appeal to this upscale men’s drawers market ranging from the likes of Versace (a pair of briefs at $175) and Derek Rose to upstarts like the Swedish firm Tani or Mark Mocy (which promises to protect you from an astounding range of personal offenses).  The pricey celebrity-endorsed undies illuminate the confluence of consumer desire, branding, and individual material imagination in what might seem to be the most prosaic of all things. Read the rest of this entry

The Security of Light: Streetlights and Criminal Darkness

Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett presides over a news conference at the installation of the city's first new streetlight in 35 years (image Joe Hogsett twitter)

Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett presides over a June 9th news conference at the installation of the city’s first new streetlight in 35 years (image @IndyMayorJoe twitter)

This month a new streetlight was installed in Indianapolis, Indiana to surprising fanfare.  Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett presided over a ceremony on Nowland Avenue, celebrating the city’s first new streetlight since 1981 and proclaiming that it and another 100 new lights would bring “light to neighborhoods that have been dark for far too long.”  Thirty-five years ago Mayor William Hudnut announced a moratorium on new streetlights that was continued by the three subsequent Mayors.  Hudnut’s policy was fundamentally a cost-cutting move to decrease the city’s electricity expenses and direct the city’s public works spending toward roads, sidewalks, and concrete infrastructure.

Streetlights were once prosaic objects we never contemplated, but now they have secured the status of things; that is, they have entered our consciousness because they are part of an urban fabric perceived to be malfunctioning.  Most of the civic material landscape is utterly outside our consciousness until it fails in literal terms:  for instance, a street is not part of our reflection until a pothole mars our motion, or only the absence of a maintained sidewalk compels us to articulate our pedestrian experience.  Yet street lights and luminosity itself address a host of breakdowns in cities like Indianapolis that reach well beyond the functional purpose of lighting streets for foot and auto traffic.  Light and visibility are viewed and experienced in distinctive social ways across the city: street lights are cast by various observers as symbols of government’s public service obligations, ideological mechanisms of urban surveillance, instruments of persistent racism and class prejudice, nocturnal pollution, and confirmation of apparently rampant criminality. Read the rest of this entry

Boredom in the Ruins of the Mall

A French Claire's shop.

A French Claire’s shop.

A host of observers repeatedly prophesy the death of the traditional shopping mall, disparaging the regional mall as an archaic spatial, material, and social experience.  Somewhat paradoxically, many artists, scholars, and explorers pick over the literal ruins of dead malls in an exercise that in various hands reflectively dissects materiality, transparently bemoans lost youth, or launches another attack on mass consumption.  Americans seem quite fascinated by the ruination of the enclosed regional shopping mall, fixated on its hulking material remnants, anxiously monitoring its demise in surviving malls, and acknowledging our boredom with much of the remaining shopping mall landscape.

A Claire's shopper in front of one of the shop's accessory walls.

A Claire’s shopper in front of one of the shop’s accessory walls.

Those people forecasting the mall’s demise may have felt their pessimism confirmed by last week’s news that the ubiquitous mall chain Claire’s is fighting off bankruptcy (a decline marketers have been watching for over a year).  Claire’s decline may indeed confirm malls’ fundamental design liabilities and reflect broad economic and demographic shifts, but our fascination with the declining mall almost certainly risks pronouncing their death sentence too soon.  While shifts in consumption and settlement patterns have transformed the contemporary shopping landscape for malls, our sheer boredom with the homogeneity and predictability of malls may be more dangerous to their survival than factors such as our attraction to online shopping or the decline of department stores. Read the rest of this entry

Abhorrent Bodies: Burying Evil

Rudolf Hess' grave was the scene of neo-Nazi pilgrimages until it was moved from this plot in 2011 .

Rudolf Hess’ grave was the scene of neo-Nazi pilgrimages until it was moved from this plot in 2011.

The Wal-Hamdu-Lillah Cemetery hails itself as California’s first Islamic cemetery, a 20-acre mortuary and burial ground established in 1998.  The cemetery adheres to Sharia burial rites, which include the ritual washing of the corpse, shrouding of the body, and burial without a casket, usually with little or no burial markers.  In January it was confirmed that the more than 1000 people buried in Wal-Hamdu-Lillah include Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, fundamentalist extremists who killed 14 people in a December 2015 attack in San Bernadino.  The two were themselves killed hours after their attack, and it apparently took a week to find an Islamic cemetery that would accept their remains.  Local observers soon suspected that the killers were interred in the cemetery in Rosamond, and the Mayor of neighboring Lancaster theatrically directed his City Attorney to prepare legislation that would outlaw the local burial of participants in terrorist acts.  The anxiety sparked by the couple’s burial reflects their status among the most repugnant of the dead, people so evil that their physical remains threaten our common values after their death.  Such figures’ literal corporeal remains hold a persistent grip on our collective anxiety, their memories firmly planted in heritage discourses even as we attempt to efface their human remains from the landscape. Read the rest of this entry