From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
Destroy, He Said
by Richard Howard & David Alexander
We commit to take action because of, along with so much else, an unforgivable act of cultural vandalism that should be remembered.
Perhaps it is not the worst act committed by Donald Trump. No one died. Well, possibly afterwards (about which more later). No one was ruined financially (ditto). Air and water were not polluted. Well, maybe a bit. The economy did not collapse and war was not started. However, what Trump did was a true sin against culture.
It was written about at the time, reported in various New York news media, and briefly brought up during the presidential campaign, but soon buried beneath a mountain of other revelations that would have sunk anyone else’s hopes of winning an election. It might be ancient history now, but it should not be forgotten.
Donald Trump was personally responsible for the destruction of two much admired works of art on June 5, 1980.
In 1979 Trump acquired the site of the beloved — by its customers and by art lovers — Bonwit Teller building in Manhattan. He was eager to erect a golden tower emblazoned with his name writ large in gold. The Art Deco building was not landmarked, although it could have been. The front featured a large ornate grill made of bronze with platinum and aluminum, and colored enamel glazes and glass. It was illuminated at night, apparently to magical effect. There were also, at the ninth-floor level, two fifteen-foot-high sculpted reliefs of dancing figures. Otherwise the building was relatively plain.
These pieces were considered important works of art and people were very concerned that they could be lost when the building was torn down. The Metropolitan Museum of Art made clear its interest in acquiring them. Trump agreed to remove and donate both the gate and the relief panels to the museum, if the cost was not too high. No doubt he felt the gift would burnish his image, something almost as important to him as money.
But not quite. Trump’s spokesman, John Baron (or Barron) — a not very effectively disguised Trump himself — told the New York Times that the grill and the sculptures were not so great artistically after all, not good enough to justify the time and expense it would take to save them. He claimed that three (never identified) art appraisers had told him they were “without artistic merit” and worth very little. The Met had estimated that they were worth around $200,000. After deciding that a cost of around $32,000 ($9,000 according to the museum) and a week’s delay were too much, Trump personally ordered the art destroyed.
Just as there are today, there were successive statements from Trump which were hard to credit in the first place, and which also contradicted each other. At first he said the bronze grillwork was missing, that “we don’t know what happened to it.” Four days later Trump admitted he had ordered the grill cut up and removed, and the limestone panels jackhammered out and smashed, as he was concerned that removing them, no matter how much care was taken, would endanger and possibly even kill pedestrians below. He now claimed that the cost to him would exceed $500,000.
It was later reported that Trump hired as many as two hundred illegal Polish workers for the demolition of the Bonwit Teller building, paying them as little as four dollars an hour without providing hard hats and masks to keep them from breathing in the dust. (How many possibly died prematurely from lung disease?) It was also contended in court that the workers had not been paid all they were owed, and were threatened by Trump subordinates with deportation when they protested. (How many were destitute when they returned to Poland?) Trump, of course, claimed he had no idea they were here illegally, and threatened lawsuits right and left in response.
It’s hard, now, not to think that Trump must, in the end, have been pleased with himself. He had socked it to the “elites,” the people he had always felt were looking down on him, the people who value Culture. He had hit them where it hurt: in their precious Art.
All of this was known while Trump was running for president. And yet he won the election. Perhaps not high crimes and misdemeanors, but what Trump did was an absolute disqualification for any kind of public office, then and now.
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Richard Howard is a poet, translator and Emeritus Professor of Creative Writing at Columbia University. David Alexander is a digital artist and designer. They live and work in New York City.