Turning art upside-down to attack Obama

Turning art upside-down to attack Obama

Blog ››› ››› JEREMY HOLDEN

Given the gleeful mocking of President Obama over Chicago's failed effort to host the 2016 Olympics, and shameless smears of his unexpected Nobel Peace Prize, let's pause and ask: Is there anything conservatives won't turn into a cudgel to bludgeon the president? Take, for example, the art hanging on the White House walls.

As AFP reported earlier this week, the president and first lady have borrowed 47 works of art from five galleries to decorate the White House. AFP went on to describe the art:

They include pieces by seven black artists, including one by Glenn Ligon, a conceptual artist who explores issues of politics and race in works made of text, photos and neon.

A vertical piece selected by the Obamas was "Black like me No. 2," a riff on a 1961 book by white journalist John Howard Griffin who darkened his skin and then wrote about his experience as a "black" man in the racially segregated US south.

"Harlem Renaissance" painter William Johnson is favoured with four pieces, while Alma Thomas, a top African-American woman artist, is represented on the abstract painting front.

In addition, many earthenware pieces and other works by Native Americans were chosen.


On the more classical side, there is a melancholic "Sunset" by Winslow Homer, and two bronze dancers by Degas. Abstract artists like Mark Rothko, and Josef Albers, and conceptual stars like Edward Corbett and Jasper Johns also made the White House grade.

From across the Atlantic, in addition to the Degas, there are a still life by Italian painter Giorgio Morandi and a depiction of Nice by Nicolas de Stael.


William Allman, the White House curator, told The Washington Post that the Obamas' picks express "probably more interest in truly modern art."

So Winslow Homer, Jasper Johns, Mark Rothko, William Johnson -- seems pretty eclectic. In fact, it seems pretty benign.

Alas, nothing is benign with the contemporary conservative smear machine, as right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin amply illustrates with her attack on Alma Thomas, and -- by extension -- Obama. Taking her cue from Free Republic, Malkin complains:

Alma Thomas's "Watusi" (1963) looks to be an almost exact reproduction of a 1953 piece by Henri Matisse titled "L'Escargot:"

Malkin even provides a helpful illustration -- "side by side, with 'Watusi' rotated and on the left" -- to make clear the similarities in the two works to drive home her point -- that Obama picked art created by a fraud to hang on the White House walls. But the real fun gets underway over at Ann Althouse's blog:

Anyway, it's really sad to see this sentimental stretching to identify African-American artists. There are plenty of real ones, and mistakes like this make it seem as though there are not and that patronizing -- which really ought to be called racism -- is necessary.

So the Obamas chose a fraudulent African-American artist to display at the White House -- "sentimental stretching to identify African-American artists," a "mistake" and "patronizing," since all Alma Thomas did was knock off Matisse. This does sound bad -- and, of course, it's wildly off the mark.

Art historian Ann Gibson discusses the political message inherent in Thomas' "mimicry and revision of Matisse" in her contribution to Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings:

The close resemblance between Watusi and L'Escargot (especially evident when Thomas's painting is turned ninety degrees to the right) suggests an overlap between Thomas's determination to comprehend the lessons of modernism and her identification -- and perhaps her sense of rivalry -- with one of its principle figures. However, the title Watusi, which refers both to an African people and to a hit tune of the early 1960s (Chubby Checker's record "The Watusi" was released in 1961), suggests that she used elements of Matisse's art not only as models of abstraction but also to refer to African people and their representation in popular culture, just as elements of art made by Africans could reflect, in Western modernism, European desires and European high culture. Thomas's radical revisions of Matisse's colors (but not the values of his collaged shapes) to their near opposite on the color wheel, as well as her opening of the "frame" -- blues in her painting, oranges in his - are also noteworthy. By permitting the white shapes to penetrate the frame, Thomas animates and frees both the white areas and the colored forms: The frame no longer contains the central organization, and the framing shapes join in the "dance" of the shapes inside. When Thomas's mimicry and revision of Matisse is read in the context of her entitling her painting Watusi, one sees more than an implicit defiance of modernism's creed of originality. What does it mean for an ambitious but comparatively unknown artist to appropriate in paint an important recent work by an internationally recognized master? Especially when she changes the title from a word that suggests not only a sluggish mollusk whose movements are drastically curtailed by its shell but also an epicurean dish whose very name connotes elite privilege? And when the title she selects is the name of a people legendary for their height and strength and after whom, during the civil rights struggle, a popular song has been named? With the title Watusi, Thomas sets her critique (and homage) in the context of early-twentieth century borrowing from Africa by such revered modernists as Matisse, visually loosening his frame and conceptually replacing his upper-class European reference with one that connotes both African and popular American culture. The similarity of forms in Thomas's painting and Matisse's collage suggests the interchangeability, and thus the equality, of social, national, and economic values.

Wait. It's almost as if Alma Thomas intended to create a work of art that looked kind of like a Matisse. She even might have had a message in mind. Whoa. But, see, understanding Thomas' civil rights era message is not the point. The point is that Barack Obama did it, therefore it must be bad. You know, like the Olympics and the Nobel Peace Prize.

Michelle Malkin, Ann Althouse
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.