Beauty In An Age of Monsters
I have found myself unable to stop thinking about the aesthetics of the most recent election. No discussion of Trump that I have encountered has failed to mention his taste, or more accurately, his lack thereof. Leibowitz’s quote on Trump — “a poor person’s idea of a rich person” — has been the idea of Trump that has stood out the most to me, if for no other reason than it begins to address the sort of fantasy that Donald Trump’s conception of taste most accurately rests upon. Jesse Kornbluth’s work on Angelo Donghia’s contribution to Trump tower emphasizes the emergence and collapse of personal and private life for Trump. Donghia’s mistake, which was quickly ameliorated by the efforts of Trump’s then-wife Ivana, was to build Trump’s personal apartments to the end of taste for the eighties. Ivana, however, working in concert with casino designers, reimagined Trump’s apartments toward a vision of authority.
Is there a vision of authority as wealth in the popular imagination as widely and commonly engrained in America than our vision of Versailles and the French Rococo? Americans have worked to legitimate our authority as a state and a people by co-opting the design and movements of Europeans since the emergence of the nation, and no small amount of scholarship exists emphasizing how eighteenth-century Gothic has left its fingerprints in American design and thought. If Americans signal piety by aping the Gothic, Americans signal unconquered wealth — and its intractable connection to power — with the French Rococo.
Perhaps the best popular analysis of this trend is 2012’s The Queen of Versailles, an embattled documentary that unintentionally documents the 2008 housing market collapse through its effect on Jacqueline and David Siegel’s attempt to construct Versailles in Florida. Opening with a justification from the eponymous queen herself, the documentary trains its deadpan eye on what David Siegel calls, “the largest home in America.” We are awarded with shots of “five million dollars of marble” and “Louis the XIV style furniture” wrapped in crates and plastic, waiting to become the dressings and furnishings of the half-constructed shell of an American palace. This is following shots of the lush interiors of the Siegel’s current house.
Opening his personal home to a documentary crew is not without its own precedent from Louis himself. Within Versailles, there was no private existence; the court rose to observe the waking of the king and often the most intimate moments (the consummation of a marriage, the birth of a child). The collapse of private and public living in this house is evident in the exploding closets and bare feet, half-dressed children searching three freezers for dinner, impromptu games of catch in gaping, empty parlors; in the absence of a state to embody, almost unbearable physical intimacy takes place in a private home that asserts all the authority of a court.
This public/private blurring is disorienting in the absence of political authority; it is mind-boggling in the evidence of Siegel’s aspirations and authority. The documentary rests its eyes on Siegel’s politics — Siegel several times declares himself personally responsible for the election of George Bush, although he does not divulge what that responsibility entailed. Perhaps Siegel is not the state, and perhaps his house cannot even raise to become a pale shadow of the house that was the state — the 2008 market collapse proved to be the undoing of the American Versailles, and nearly ten years since construction began it is unfinished. The Siegels remain hopeful.
The Queen of Versailles thus begins to give us a model for imagining the intractable American connection between the French Rococo and the illegal seizure of power by wealthy Republicans. It even provides us that model from an explicit peer of Donald Trump’s — at one point, the documentary notes a comment Trump made of the brightness and height of Siegel’s timeshare hotel. Wealth is not enough for Siegel; political control is not enough for Siegel. Siegel grasps for the Sun King’s absolute control of the state as a logical extension of his aesthetics and his beauty, and for the absolute assertion that such a thing will never end.
Kornbluth’s piece on Donghia notes that after Ivana’s remodeling of the apartments into their present Rococo state, the Trumps frequently spent the night in their old, more modest digs. The Rococo Apartments were found exhausting to the Trumps; this is no longer true. Melania Trump and her son, Barron, will not be occupying the White House for at least the first four months of the presidency. Whether or not this trend continues following the end of Barron’s school year is another question. If initially the Trumps found living in an imitation of the state exhausting, I find no small irony in the fact that when afforded with the opportunity to live in the American iteration of the court, the queen and the scion retreat back into the realm of play (yet another habit copied from the pre-revolutionary French). A poor person’s image of a rich person is a person who consciously constructed himself in the image of a court in which aesthetic and authority were iterated and performed in precisely the same language. The ascendancy of American Fascism arrived wearing the clothes of French Absolutism, because the dressings of French Absolutism are so very beautiful. Trump’s voters have made no small supply media celebrating a return of style and beauty to the American court. What has Beauty done in this, America?
I cannot stop considering this beauty and what it means when I wake up in the morning and get ready for work. I cannot stop considering this beauty as I reach for lipstick and I put on my face. What has Beauty done? What will Beauty do?