Presidential portraits tend to be conservative affairs, but Barack and Michelle Obama were not the first First Family to choose artists whose style was at least as pronounced as their skill to capture them for posterity. Chuck Close, whose hand is immediately recognizable in the flurries of tiny marks that compose his photorealist images, painted Bill Clinton. If you were looking for presidential-portrait controversy, it wouldn't be a bad idea to look at Close, whose reputation is in jeopardy after sexual harassment allegations against him surfaced late last year. But while Close's picture of Clinton hangs untroubled in the National Portrait Gallery, controversy recently surrounded the first African-American artists invited into it.
Kehinde Wiley, a forty-one-year-old New York-based painter, was the main focus of the backlash, not for his vivid portrait of Obama (though Sean Hannity, in a bizarre and now-deleted blog post, thought he found secret images of sperm hidden in the painting) but for something Wiley painted six years ago that conservative media and online commenters called racist. But Amy Sherald, a forty-four-year-old Baltimore-based painter, was also criticized for her cool, geometric take on Michelle Obama, which some deemed insufficiently lifelike.
Taste is taste, but presidential portraits are not regular art. Their purview is necessarily collective, not private; they can't simply set and obey their own rules. Their aesthetics are inseparable from politics, and they inevitably become referendums on American vision and values. The ideas that Wiley's art is racist and Sherald's is not objective rest on a patently white supremacist view of what images mean in the context of Eurocentric art history—the very view Wiley and Sherald's work is calibrated amid and against. The criticisms of the artists don't hold water, but they are revealing of the systemic forces African Americans must contend with.
The national outcry against Wiley found a significant site at our own North Carolina Museum of Art. In 2012, the museum purchased Wiley's "Judith and Holofernes," the offending painting. It's one of two Wiley oil paintings depicting a fashionable black woman holding the severed head of a white woman, embedded in the vibrant floral heraldry that famously suffuses his portraits, including that of Obama. "Judith and Holofernes" is based on an art historical reference that has been rendered by Europeans from Donatello to Botticelli over the centuries; it bears no direct relation to the presidential portrait. But based on some responses, you'd think Wiley had painted Obama cradling the severed head of Donald Trump.
Last month, when NCMA used the unveiling of the Obama portraits to proudly highlight the Wiley work in its collection, there was enough positive response to sustain hope for the American capacity to appreciate challenging art. But there was also more than enough negative feedback, some overtly racist, to cause alarm.
According to the museum, it received a steady stream of calls, Facebook messages, and emails from appalled citizens who wanted to know how the museum would feel about the painting if the races were reversed. These private complaints found plenty of public expression on social media. A Twitter user called Billy Anderson (@Bloody__Bill), whose feed is textbook alt-right, captured the prevailing sentiment of the detractors when he asked, "If he painted a white woman brandishing the head of a black woman.... can you imagine the outrage?" (When NCMA tweeted a picture of a three-year-old African-American child during a Black History Month tour, Anderson also tweeted back a horrifically racist cartoon.)
Others complained, if usually in less vituperative terms, on NCMA's Facebook and Instagram pages, making plangent or indignant comments about the museum condoning racial violence. NCMA repeatedly replied with a blog post explaining the context of the painting, but if it changed anyone's mind, there was no evidence of it.
"This needs no 'context'! A black person beheading what looks like a white child is not art," tweeted @Rebel_Front. "It is a threat."
That last part might be the only thing the naysayers are right about. But the picture is not a threat of actual violence. Rather, it's a symbolic threat to white supremacy. Wiley, who is known for painting contemporary African-American men in a heroically proportioned Renaissance style, is bending a violent image from art history—which is rife with them, and no one hears conservative commenters decrying the many depictions of the rape of the Sabine women, for instance—to the needs of a country that is reexamining the violent underpinnings of even its most benign-seeming traditions.
Wiley's painting, like many before it, is based on a story in the Biblical Book of Judith, which Protestants consider apocryphal, in which a beautiful widow gets an invading general drunk and decapitates him. In the paintings of yore, the scene was often used patriarchally, illustrating the danger of feminine wiles. But Wiley hijacks it for completely different purposes. Look at it this way: Judith is able to destroy a hostile, more powerful entity with his desire for her. By recasting Judith as a black women and Holofernes as a white woman, Wiley turns the story into an explosive comment on how white culture's own lust for and rapine of black culture might be turned against it.
Is this idea revolutionary? Yes, by definition. Is it frightening? Of course. Revolutions always are. But it does not suppose anything about the nature of a certain race. Rather, it vividly describes, with an aggression that is quite understandable if you take the merest glance at history, a real condition of modern American life: a deeply ingrained social structure of white vampirism on black culture and labor. It is racist to describe a race, but it is not racist to describe the world as we find it.
If the image is shocking, well, art has to get your attention in order to do anything. This mandate, combined with the urgency of the issue, is why it is not only OK but necessary for Wiley and others to paint images that shock us. As for whether it would be OK were the races in the painting reversed, no, of course not. Not only is it absurd to expect "fairness" toward white people after centuries of grotesque unfairness toward black people, but any such parallel, presuming a level playing field, is nonsense. An existentially threatened population depicting violence against a dominant one is not morally the same as the opposite. It's the difference between resistance and tyranny.
Wiley and Sherald are part of a current African-American vanguard, descended from the likes of Barkley L. Hendricks, who are decolonizing the Eurocentric canon and redefining black representation on their own terms. Sherald does this in her unique way in her portrait of Michelle Obama, which may not have the warm grandeur traditionalists crave from First Family portraiture but which powerfully represents the careful neutrality African-American women must cultivate to be taken seriously and stay safe. Like Wiley's Barack Obama portrait, it represents new ways of seeing that must be accepted into whatever default purists have in mind if we're to keep nudging the American scales toward equality and justice.
Why did the first African-American First Family choose artists that were conceptual rather than strictly representational? Because they have great taste, for one, but also because black life in America is necessarily conceptual. It has to be to create space in an oppressive dominant culture—one built on condoned racial violence—that representation alone merely replicates. When the baseline of reality is considered white by the powers that enforce those borders, you need something more than simple reality to make yourself seen, heard, and felt in your authentic humanity. You need the piercing subjective vision of a Wiley or a Sherald.