Art controversy in the Obama White House: performing tensions of race in the visual politics of the presidency.

Author:Finnegan, Cara A.
Position:SYMPOSIUM ON SCREENING THE PRESIDENCY - Report
 
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While presidents historically have used a variety of visual forms to communicate their beliefs, attitudes, values, and policies, one mode of visual rhetoric that has yet to be examined substantively by rhetorical scholars of the presidency is that of fine art. This is surprising because there is ample evidence that contemporary presidents use White House art as a mode of rhetoric (Finnegan 2014). Art functions as one of the screens upon which presidents communicate ideas about themselves and what they value. In this article, we demonstrate the value of attention to presidents' relationships to art by exploring two instances in 2009 when art by twentieth-century African American artists selected for public display in the Obama White House produced controversy. In the first case we examine, a 1970 bronze bust by Charles Alston of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was falsely argued to have "replaced" one of Winston Churchill in Obama's Oval Office, angering those who claimed that Obama had "thrown Churchill out" and therefore potentially damaged the nation's "special relationship" with Britain. In the second case, a 1963 abstract painting by Alma Thomas, Watusi (Hard Edge), was attacked by rightwing bloggers as "plagiarism," and Thomas's art branded as inferior, because of the work's visual resemblance to a piece by Henri Matisse. Both controversies emerged during the first year of Obama's presidency as the new president sought to establish his authority, and American citizens eagerly sought to learn more about the political and aesthetic style of the newest occupants of the White House.

The controversies could easily be dismissed as media frenzies whipped up by partisans looking for any reason to ridicule the new president. Yet to do so would be rash, for there is value in taking them seriously. Controversy, as Olson and Goodnight have argued, has the potential to "disrupt the taken-for-granted realm of the uncontested and commonplace," thus making explicit assumptions about the world which are often only implicit (1994, 250). In this article, we illustrate how the Obamas' choices about art, and the controversies that followed, constitute rhetorical statements about art, race, and politics that are worth investigating. Both Alston and Thomas were twentieth-century African Americans who achieved wide public recognition for their work in a time of deep division and ongoing racial unrest in the United States. They both trained as teachers at Columbia University (coincidentally, President Obama's alma mater), and though each pursued a different style--Alston's was more representational, Thomas's abstract--both publicly eschewed being pigeonholed as "Black artists." It is understandable why these artists working in the mid-twentieth century would resist the "Black artist" label, which could be used not only to marginalize their work in the art community, but also to limit their economic opportunities.

By contrast, as the nation's first Black president, Barack Obama would appear to have the power and opportunity to place cultural contributions by African Americans in a prominent place on the public screen. Indeed, despite critiques that President Obama largely has ignored issues of race, the Obamas consistently have used the rich canvas of the White House to perform the value of diversifying Americans' ideas about what constitutes "American" art, politics, and history. Yet this interest in increasing the visibility of diverse cultural productions has left the Obamas vulnerable to the kinds of critiques we explore in this article. Taking such critiques seriously reveals the extent to which the nation's first African American president, especially in his first year, was challenged in his attempts to publicly value Black aesthetic experience. Indeed, the art controversies involving the Alston bust and the Thomas painting unearthed deep cultural tensions about art and race. These tensions, involving the role of imitation, the ways we place Black artists and their art, and the value of presence, shaped the debate about the art works chosen by the Obamas and ultimately, we conclude, visualized anxieties about Obama himself.

Our article is organized in the following manner. First, we explore the question of how Obama has dealt with issues of race, especially early in his first term. Next, we examine the role of visual rhetoric in scholarship on the presidency and briefly describe the history and functions of art in the White House. We then go on to describe each controversy in detail, outlining the major arguments that circulated in the mainstream media and among right-wing bloggers and commentators. Next, we show how these arguments reflect perennial tensions surrounding Black experience and aesthetic expression, from the question of imitation to the role of Black art to the fraught nature of presence. Finally, we return to President Obama himself to explore how such tensions played out for a president who has been critiqued for not "talking about race" but whose visual aesthetics consistently have invited attention to the important role of Black art and expression in the American story.

Obama and Race

Throughout his presidency, but especially in his first term, President Obama has faced criticisms that he ignores issues of race, specifically with regard to Black Americans. (1) Even some who argue that they are his most ardent supporters believe that he has not done enough to improve the quality of life for African Americans. Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, two of Obama's most outspoken and controversial critics, see the president as mostly silent on issues of importance to African Americans and communities that struggle with poverty (Baker 2013; Kantor 2012). In 2010, Michael Eric Dyson urged the president "to stand up and use his bully pulpit to help us. He is loath to speak about race" (Gane-McCalla 2010). Yet others contend these critics are wrong to suggest that the president should behave as a leader of a social movement would. Responding to Dyson's critique, Melissa Harris-Parry (2010) argued, "Barack Obama is not the leader of a progressive social movement; he is the president. As president he is both more powerful than Dr. King and more structurally constrained. He has more institutional power at his disposal and more crosscutting constituencies demanding his attention." Ultimately, President Obama is seen as having to keep in precarious balance his commitments to all citizens as president and his desire to connect with Black communities. As the New York Times' Jodi Kantor put it in a 2012 profile, "Mr. Obama is balancing two deeply held impulses: a belief in universal politics not based on race and an embrace of black life and its challenges."

One place where President and Mrs. Obama consistently engaged race and arguably used their "bully pulpit" during the first term is in the area of visual rhetoric. In January of 2010, for example, a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln was put on permanent display in the Oval Office. The document, which appears regularly in photographs made of the president in the Oval Office by White House photographer Pete Souza, serves as a powerful visual reminder not only of U.S. racial history and Obama's unique role in it, but also of the president's recognition of the complexities of moral governance (Finnegan 2014). The Obamas have also used White House performance events to highlight the diversity of American aesthetic expression, offering, for example, concerts in genres such as gospel, folk-rock, classical, and contemporary rhythm and blues, and celebrating the achievements of African Americans at such events (Jones 2010; White House 2012). From the visual arts perspective, some argue that a "cultural revolution" has taken place in the White House, where the Obamas have introduced more modern and abstract pieces, some of which reflect racially and ethnically diverse art practices. While previous presidents may have included modern art in their private quarters, the modern pieces that the Obamas selected have extended into public spaces like the East and West Wings of the White House (Akbar 2009; Benac 2009; Vogel 2009). Finally, the Obama administration has also used art in the White House to call attention to issues of civil rights history. For example, during the summer of 2011 Norman Rockwell's 1963 painting, The Problem We All Live With, was installed in a reception area just outside of the Oval Office. The painting depicts schoolgirl Ruby Bridges' integration of her elementary school in New Orleans in I960; it was hung after Bridges herself and members of Congress lobbied the White House (White House 2011). While some critics of President Obama may contend that these sorts of representations of race during the first term were not sufficient to counter arguments that the president ignores issues affecting Black communities, our analysis below shows that issues of race nevertheless were very much present in the visual rhetoric of the Obama White House and in the controversies it sparked.

Visual Rhetoric, the Presidency, and White House Art

The media of television, film, the "photo op" and now the Internet figure regularly in discussions of the visual politics of the presidency (Adatto 2008; Edwards 1997; Erickson 2000; Hart 1989, 1994; Jamieson, 1990, 1996; Mullen 1997; Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles 2002, 2006; Ponder 2000; Rollins and O'Connor 2003; Sheeler and Anderson 2013; Streitmatter 1988). Yet with few exceptions, the role of fine art has been ignored (exceptions include Bumgardner 1986; Finnegan 2014; Greenhalgh 2007; Olson 1983; Ward 2004). Such neglect is unfortunate, because art matters to presidents. In 1814, First Lady Dolley Madison, scrambling to bring the household to safety, instructed White House servants to save a portrait of George Washington from British flames (Bolger and Curry 2008, 23; Goldberg 2011, 24; Kloss 2008...

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