Each week, we bring you the backstory of work featured in our collection, written by a member of our curatorial team.

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Photo credit: James Bareham for The Verge

by Andrew Lipstein, Director of Communication  

Normally on Thursdays, we write an article about the backstory of a work of art in our collection. This week we’re writing about art that isn’t in our collection, and can’t be (that is, until we produce holographic frames): the five identical statues of the GOP presidential nominee Donald J Trump that appeared across the United States last week. In short, the pieces omitted Trump’s most prized assets, and left his most heralded development a bit underdeveloped.

I hesitate to write that word, art, as I know the piece was offensive to many on both the right (for demeaning their doyen) and the left (for propagating body shaming and transphobia). But it certainly wouldn’t be the first time a work of art was deemed too flagrant. As we wrote about in a previous installment of In The Collection, John Singer Sargent’s Madame X provoked outrage for being suggestive and lewd. And yet mores shift; today the painting seems about as quaint as the Quaker Oats guy.

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Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1884, Metropolitan Museum of Art

But I believe it isn’t just the Trump statues’ vulgarity that make us shy from calling it art. It’s the work’s pure populism. There’s something in the statues for every entertainment class: lowbrow (it’s funny and cruel), middlebrow (it’s partisan—a nod to the tradition of placing idealized statues of historical figures in public places), and highbrow (it recontextualizes a modern figure against fairy tale lore; the piece is called The Emperor Has No Balls after the Hans Christian Andersen story The Emperor’s New Clothes).

Modern ideas about art evoke images of sterile galleries, museums, auctions, top buttons buttoned and chins thoroughly stroked. But art is anything that transmits beauty, meaning, or emotion. Perhaps the first of the three is a lost cause here, but there’s no denying the installments’ substance. Here is a man whose popularity and promise to his followers relies on his own success, relies on the concept that he is wealthy and undefeated and holds status far above the rest of us. But these statues bring him back down to our level, show his body flawed like ours, show him free to be picked at and prodded and, eventually, picked up by the authorities.

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Photo credit: James Bareham for The Verge

When the statue was finally removed, New York City authorities released an official statement: “NYC Parks stands firmly against any unpermitted erection in city parks, no matter how small.” Ironically, with the statue finally out of the public eye (probably in some airless municipal basement), it more fully resembles both the real Trump, and our old notions of what art should be: far away, secluded, kept behind blockades many and strong.