An art critic explains what the Guggenheim was really saying when it offered Trump a golden toilet

Saddam Hussein, it was reported after the fall of his regime, had golden toilets, or at least gold-plated toilets.

.. The conceptual piece advanced two ideas that were becoming fashionable at the time: How to create work that was entirely immaterial, rather than a physical object; and how to create work that called attention to the capitalist economy in which art was bought and sold, like any common commodity?

.. The Guggenheim contretemps also has both immaterial and conceptual elements. The immateriality is in the chatter it provokes, the jokes, the pleasure some will take in seeing the president humiliated, and resulting insiders’ discourse about contemporary art and irony. The jokes just seem to make themselves. But it also carries with it a conceptual element based on the exchange, or nonexchange, of one thing for another.
.. The Guggenheim has said no to the president of the United States, which is a powerful gesture in itself. But it has also presumed to offer him something “more” valuable according to the value system it imputes to him: a tawdry love of gleaming gold fixtures, common to vulgar despots all the way back to Midas himself. The subtext here is: We assume you only want the van Gogh painting as a status symbol, which we refuse to endorse; but we will give you what you really crave, which is crass gold.
If he accepts the golden toilet, he confirms their view of him. If Trump declines the golden toilet, by implication he would seem to believe that there are things (such as van Gogh paintings) that transcend money and commerce. And thus, he may undermine his own worldview, in which all things have their price and anything can be exchanged for something else if the money is right.
So the artwork here is not by Cattelan, who is merely instrumental in this game. Rather it is the work of Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector, who made the offer to the White House. Curators may be talented and creative, but they are not often in the business of making art itself. But now the Guggenheim owns a new work, a Spector original, which will add if not luster at least levity to the museum’s collection.