It isn’t easy to make Christmas decorations pop. American Christmas - the pagan spectacle of capitalism as opposed to the religious holiday - is about excess, about competing with the neighbor’s bigger budget or lower taste threshold when it comes to gaudy lights and plastic reindeer. Every locus of Americana, from the town square to the corporate lobby to the antiseptic atrium of the mall, is in the fight, which is increasingly fraught with political tribalism. Scrutiny of holiday iconography is intense, from debates about the race of Santa Claus to the parsing of holiday greetings. And now we have red Christmas trees at the White House.
Critics have argued that Melania Trump’s trees, arrayed as an allée along the East Colonnade of the White House, are premonitions of an encroaching dystopian dark age. It is a surreal display of horror that, rather like the president’s rhetorical asides, inadvertently expresses the truth of the administration’s worldview. Possibly, these trees are a coded sign of the first lady’s mood, her marital discontent or spiritual torment. Online meme makers have had a field day.
Never mind that there is a ready American market for red tinsel trees, which are easily found on e-commerce sites and hardly an innovation in the class-inflected visual culture of the holidays. Or that color theory sets up green and red as fundamentally complementary colors, which heighten each other by contrast. They are not only the basic colors of Christmas, but also a recurring combination in national flags, and were beloved (in jarring juxtapositions) by 20th-century painters such as Matisse. In the National Gallery, one of the most striking abstractions by Mark Rothko (Untitled, 1956) pairs a red background with a panel of somber, muted green, not just intensifying the two hues, but also making both seem thicker and weightier. And let’s lay aside the long history of invoking the supernatural, the gothic and the violent at Christmas, found in stories by Gogol and Dickens, living on in the annual presentation of “The Nutcracker” and films such as Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
Melania’s trees may or may not be tasteful, and if judged by the standards of contemporary art, they aren’t particularly original. But they aren’t outside the bounds of permissible holiday decoration. They are, however, a classic provocation from the Trump playbook. People who might ordinarily chafe under the dead weight of Christmas tradition, at the cliches and predictability of holiday displays, now find themselves dissecting her innovation. By instinct, or by design, the Trump administration has been effective at getting its critics into uncomfortable places, arguing against what they might otherwise argue for. Consider the absence of the first lady at the traditional press preview of the decorations, an occasion used in the past for first ladies to appear in their seemingly most benign aspect, presiding over a celebration culturally gendered as female. To fault her absence is, perhaps, to affirm an old-fashioned, even misogynist ideal of the first lady. And so, too, to fault red Christmas trees seems to fault the idea of an avant-garde Christmas.
The administration is extraordinarily effective at distraction, and its critics chasten one another for taking the bait, jumping on outrageous presidential tweets as the global order is quietly disassembled. And then the red Christmas trees arrive, the bait is taken, and the administration’s supporters and apologists can say: You only want to talk about irrelevant things. This gets us close to the heart of one recurring discourse about Christmas: that we are perpetually distracted from its spiritual purpose. We care more about the presents, the ornaments and the food than we care about the purported “true meaning of Christmas.” By engaging with the color of the trees, critics align themselves with poor deluded Whos of Whoville, before their cartoon epiphany.
Two days after the press unveiling of the decorations, the first lady defended them, citing her take on the ancient Latin maxim, “De gustibus non est disputandum,” or, there can be no disputing about taste. “We are in the 21st century and everyone has different tastes, but I think they look fantastic,” she told an audience at the evangelical Liberty University, where the Studio and Digital Arts program emphasizes “the technical aspects of drawing through descriptive imagery” and “Christian” elements in traditional artistic representation, including a focus on “form and color.” The red trees aren’t about subverting old standards of taste or dismantling visual or artistic hierarchies. They are simply about baiting the president’s critics and testing the loyalty of his followers, a ritual that knows no season. These are not the things usually stressed in programs that prepare students aspiring to join the contemporary art world, where the focus is more conceptual, edgier and politically experimental. She brought red trees to a green tree audience, and no one was shocked.
Or perhaps they just didn’t notice the oddity of the moment. “Everyone has different tastes” sounds resolutely individualistic, broad-minded in its acceptance of cultural difference and postmodern in its denial of right answers when it comes to aesthetic matters. But that, of course, wasn’t the real message.