It’s been over a week and I still cannot stop thinking about the Obama portraits.
I mostly can’t stop thinking about them because of how stupid some hot takes were. I took a lot of my gripes to Twitter but the critique I have is in coverage of Amy Sherald’s painting of Michelle Obama. The New York Times‘ analysis craved “a bolder, more incisive image of the strong-voiced person I imagine this former first lady to be.” They also said Obama looked like she could have “anyone’s face.” Splinter put this critique more bluntly: “That does not look like Michelle Obama.”
Yes, it does not. It really does not! Art is subjective, to be interpreted and taken as a viewer likes, but art – All art! – is a conversation between an artist and an audience. In this instance, the subject (Obama.) is brought in but it still is a multilaned street. What’s missing in both the Times and Splinter‘s face-level looks are that they miss the context: Sherald, as an artist, has long explored representation of people of color by making their experiences more universal; Obama’s wish in the portrait was for something that represented more than just herself, that represented more people of color. The painting is highly successful in that, giving you Obama with a side of yourself or someone you know. That is brilliant. The entire painting is a grand slam for me but, as many have called out, it doesn’t look like her and that, for whatever reason, makes it a failure.
This mini-drama of Obama’s portrait highlights something I’ve been obsessed with in recent days: the need for artist statements, for context in encountering work. Like a foreword, like a preface, art shouldn’t ever be experienced in a vacuum and it is up to artists, viewers, and institutions to frame works in a way that art can appropriately be consumed and analyzed. This seems to be repeatedly forgotten as you have disasters like Dana Schutz at the Whitney and Manchester Art Gallery removing a painting with nudity: a time, a place, a story behind the creation were lost, giving viewers too little information to properly encounter. Critiques of art are important – but this cannot be a one-sided analysis. You wouldn’t review a movie just by the trailer, would you?
It’s tricky though because the final work – a painting, a book, a poem, a song – is what you should put above all things as it relates to digesting art. But what about the creation process? What about the intention? What about the months and years and, in some cases, a lifetime that built up to this one piece? You are given that with a little context. It’s a team effort.
That is what sticks to me most with the Obama paintings, after sitting with them for a week. It’s something I want to fold into my own work and hope more artists take the time to create – and stress – in the showcasing of their works. Take down as many walls as you can between you and your audience. Why prevent them from seeing the world as you see it?