‘Pro-this, pro-that, anti-this, anti-that’: Everything that’s wrong with progressive politics in one, self-defeating artwork

“How we gonna make this shit okay to be a Nazi out here?” demands a guy in a red beanie, his bearded face filling half the shot. “That’s bullshit, bro, it’s not okay! He will not divide us!” He paces the street like a lion in a cage, circling back to the camera, angry. “He will not divide us!” he shouts and the small crowd responds, “He will not divide us!” A young woman steps into shot and takes up the chant to a different rhythm: “He will not divide us he will not divide us he will not divide us he will not divide us.” She holds up her palm: it has a love-heart on it. Meanwhile, in the background, the red beanie guy is quietly arrested by a team of cops. “Fuck you, you Nazis!” shouts a member of the crowd, as a stocky man walks forward, arms spread: “What the fuck just happened here?” Now it’s two young women in the frame – Love-Heart and another one – repeating the line with a studied lack of affect, like cult members waiting in line for the Kool-Aid: “He will not divide us. He will not divide us. He will not divide us. He will not divide us.”

Powerful stuff. Or, indeed, not. For whatever else “He Will Not Divide Us” has done, it’s certainly divided opinion. For some it is merely a glorified selfie, a tedious bit of virtue signalling combining millennial narcissism and dull groupthink. For others, it is a message of hope and solidarity, of resistance in a time of defeat. Some have called it a work of genius. Writing in The Week, Jeva Lange described it as “the first great artwork of the Trump era”.

Notwithstanding that “the Trump era” is only two months old, this strikes me as an extraordinary claim. I mean to say, what about Hipster in Chief or Sean Spicer’s surreal installation, White House Press Secretary in the Era of Fake News – a searing indictment of post-truth politics? (Watch this guy Spicer: he’s going to be huge.) But the problem I have with this protest artwork is not its lack of artistic merit. No, the problem I have with it is the kind of protest it seeks to channel, and of which it is itself an example. My problem with it is political. [More here.]