It Took All of A Day For The Public To Weigh In

Posted: February 13, 2018 in Uncategorized

The newly unveiled Baraka Obama portrait is clearly not the kind of challenging art Leo Steinberg had in mind when writing his famous essay. Nor would I say that these derivative images are genuine expressions of the ‘plight of the public.’ Can you see why I make those to assertions? Nevertheless, it’s interesting to view this in the light of yesterday’s discussion regarding the public’s keen interest in emerging art, and the diminishing endurance of shock.

Obama’s Official Portrait Is Already The Best New Meme Of The Year

  1. Elizabeth Izampuye says:

    I can definitely see why this portrait would not be considered the “plight of the public.” Instead of making us uncomfortable, surprised, or maybe even offended, we laugh and make a meme out of it.Technology has introduced a whole other aspect of how people perceive art nowadays. We may see a piece that looks unique and hard to explain, but instead of trying to reflect on the uniqueness or think about the intent of the author, we find easier ways to make these images make sense to us and those around us. In other words, people do not look at a “challenging” piece of art and think about it, they make a joke out of it or try to dumb it down. In that sense, we lose the ability to stimulate our minds with new thoughts. Back in Steinburg’s day, a portrait such as this one would cause all sorts of social chaos for many different reasons. Today however, we look at a piece depicting a respectable and famous man in a different light than we are used to, and do not let ourselves feel any sort of strong emotions towards it. For what reasons that is, I do not know.

    • I think you make some good points. I don’t know that people in the 60s would have seen this as a conventional portrait. Still, it would not have been totally. All you have to do is consider the work of Frida Kahlo (for instance, the image below, from 1939) to realize that this new painting of Obama would hardly have blown any minds back in the day.

      My thought is that the Obama portrait is hardly avant-garde in the way Steinberg understands the term, because doesn’t make any sacrifice of the sort we discussed in class. The painter’s skill is everywhere immediately in evidence. Aside from the fact that Obama seems trapped in the rough, it’s fairly conventional portraiture. Nothing is really being done to challenge our understanding of either paint or the basic values of art. Somewhat more interesting, to me, is the portrait of Michelle, which is more aggressively flat and stylized, and which deliberately uses a combination of conflicting styles. I heard a radio interview with the artist, Amy Sherald, who claimed she painted African American faces gray because of the powerful response she had to first seeing African Americans in early b/w photographs. What seems to have emerged as more interesting than the paintings themselves, however, is the public debate they have immediately occasioned – especially in the case of the painting of Michelle. The verdict definitely seems polarized. Half the crowd thinks the painting is brilliant and beautiful (Baraka is in that camp), while they other half thinks it is amateurish and not recognizable as Michelle. For my part, it reminded fairly quickly of the cool ’60s California paintings of David Hockney.

      In any case, this seems to me to be a debate not over art, per se, so much as over celebrity and current fashions. But, yes, the internet has certainly accelerated the speed of the debate, as well as its banalization. Just two days in and it’s already possible to order a throw pillow with the Michelle Obama portrait silk screened onto it.

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