Kehinde Wiley, “President Barack Obama”

Other ages will not understand our cruel cynicism, exercised in the name of power. They won’t equate the painting below and Shepard Fairey’s “Hope;” they’ll see the latter as part of a campaign, more positive than propaganda. They may see the painting as an expansion on the poster, the Presidency the fulfillment of the campaign, and they’ll understand the quiet criticism advanced better than we possibly can.

I admit I am awash in cynicism. 16 year old American citizens guilty of nothing should not be killed, much less killed in drone strikes approved by the President. That President Obama’s administration tried to shift blame to a terrorist father—himself killed by a drone strike—was all the more reprehensible. When US citizens break US law, it is all the more important to hold them accountable by means of due process. We have to show our way works. Extrajudicial means, if they must be used, are to complement lawfulness, not replace it; they should never reduce the law to a mere matter of utility. They should ideally “do no harm.”

The law should be a source of value. Using it to hurt innocent people is anything but valuable. Regarding our present crisis, where the government of the United States makes sure that the most vulnerable suffer the most, Jonathan Katz writes that “Trump’s aides built this system of racist terror on something that has existed for a long time. Dilley opened under Obama. And while total deportations actually decreased under Obama, removals rose. He harmed hundreds of thousands of families as pawns in a political game.”

President Obama made grave mistakes at times. But while the present direction of the United States is unmistakably lawless, only those operating in bad faith hold him solely accountable for what the country has become. Quite a few will gleefully say Obama put kids in cages and that Trump is continuing this. They’ll then blame Obama for a host of imagined ills and praise Trump, demonstrating that they don’t care about an Attorney General literally paying the President; racist, deadly inaction with regard to the lives of US citizens; a gross inability to fulfill the most basic requirements of the job; a wanton disregard for national security. What those operating in bad faith do care about: Trump makes “liberals” cry, and also, he’s responsible for a surge in power by “very fine people,” i.e. those who aspire to be genocidal war criminals. A lot of people in America see the virtue of citizenship as indistinguishable from white supremacy. President Obama cannot be blamed for this fundamental derangement, a derangement as old as the republic.

Still, is it possible to see President Obama as somehow a sign of hope, a sign of something greater? Or is that indulging some sort of false faith? Wiley’s painting stands as a thoughtful, sincere answer. You could only see it as propaganda if you refused to see the illegal wars, coups & assassinations, and human rights abuses of other Presidents as issues. If you’re complaining about taking Wiley’s painting seriously, but haven’t complained about any other Presidential portrait before, you’re telling on yourself.

Kehinde Wiley, “President Barack Obama” (2018). Oil on canvas. On display at the National Portrait Gallery. Image from https://npg.si.edu/object/npg_NPG.2018.16

Typically, Presidential portraits feature the signs of office—maybe a flag, a statue of an eagle. They’ll be taken in an office, against dark paneling; if they’re bright and feature the subject outside, there will be classical architecture or official buildings around. The background speaks to power, the pose reflects that power.

Here, Wiley flips the genre on its head. The canvas is peppered with leaves of various greens and different flowers. The leaves and flowers reach over the chair, the sitter. It seems we are to believe there is something natural, full of life, and renewing about this Presidency.

It’s a daring claim, but the diversity of flowers and plants alone makes Wiley’s claim substantial. Previous administrations devoted themselves to appeasing slaveholders and excluding African-Americans from public life. They entrusted their legacy to denial of the Declaration and a cynical reading of the Constitution. Against that history, Obama’s Presidency is much more natural: it doesn’t try to outright deny the values on which the country was founded.

One might say that’s small comfort in the face of drone warfare and mass deportation. But the President did commute a number of sentences and tried in some ways to scale back mass incarceration. If the Medicaid expansion had been accepted by the states, that would have meant Obamacare would have saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. You can say he wasn’t terribly effectual as a progressive figure, but that’s missing the big picture. Over against hundreds of years of systemic racism—over against lynchings, segregation, severe limits on immigration, policing as a means of social control—Obama’s Presidency was one of the more substantial signs that diversity could flourish in this country. He could have done more, but partly because of him, we could expect more.

An open collar, open hands, and open stance speak precisely that: openness. We can’t say President Obama was terribly transparent with regard to press inquiries. The openness Wiley references, though, is not to be taken for granted. Much has been made about President Obama’s meeting with the Sandy Hook parents, and if I hadn’t seen a President utterly unable to convey any empathy, I myself would be inclined to think this propaganda. It’s vital a leader can be real. A leader should be able to command respect in expressing sincere emotion on behalf of themselves and the country. This doesn’t mean they should be idolized or seen as beyond accountability. They need to be seen as an actual human we’ve entrusted with power—otherwise, the office has been given to a monster or a god.

The promise of the Presidency matters. It’s a delicate promise, one wavering between hope and unreality. President Obama and the chair he sits on can be seen as suspended in the painting. Is even the hope things are getting better–things can be better–just a dream? Not quite. I’m drawn to the details of the wooden chair. It’s elaborately rendered, not simply treated as a minor detail. That the chair is an elaborate carving, a work of art within a work of art, seems to be a bit of a jest and maybe the painting’s most serious point. You can let a natural beauty roam free, like the plants. But you can shape what is given by nature, like the wood of a tree. Whatever power entails need not always be violence—it can speak hope and beauty and freedom credibly. President Obama was far from perfect. But because of what he represented, however imperfectly, there’s the possibility of something far greater if we work to end the current nightmare. Maybe we will end drone strikes, end mass incarceration, embrace diversity and greater immigration, provide all with a greater standard of living and genuine opportunity, “achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

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