Art and Politics

Scattered Notes on Notre-Dame

My heart splintered watching Notre-Dame go up in flames. The disorder of my own responses—a jumble of dismay, anger, and foreboding—permits no tidy structure. What follows is a series of thoughts in no strict sequence. Bear with me. •    •    •    • “Somebody did something” on 9/11. Taking a cue from Ilhan Omar, can we wonder if somebody did something to Notre-Dame? It is a rational conjecture. Watching the cathedral tower burn, it was impossible for the mind’s eye not to go directly to the burning towers of the World Trade Center. Continue Reading
Portraits: No Politics, Just Pictures

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery unveiled the official presidential portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama last month. Much of the fun of it was in reading pundit responses to the paintings. I resisted adding to the chatter. But so many people emailed to ask what I thought of the duo, it is simpler to do one post than multiple repetitions. Besides, now that the heat of the moment has cooled is a good time to take a second look at the portraits unfiltered through a political lens. Continue Reading
The Obamas' Portraits & Identity Politics

At the end of each presidency the Smithsonian commissions an official portrait of the outgoing royals for the National Portrait Gallery. Museum curators advise, suggesting names to suit the sensibility and self-image of the couple. Barack and Michelle Obama have each selected their individual immortalizers. Kehinde Wiley will collaborate with the former president on his own iconography. Amy Sherald will work with the former first lady on hers. Final commentary awaits delivery of the finished products. Meantime, there are things to be learned by looking at the signature styles that brought Mr. Continue Reading
The Vatican's Social Justice Créche

Joy to the world and a lump of coal in your bourgeois stocking. That is the mixed message of this year’s updated créche in St. Peter’s Square. Admonitory additions to the traditional créche illustrate Orwell’s contention that all art is propaganda. He did not have the ancient manger scene in mind, but he might as well have. Right-thinking Vatican set designers appear intent on proving him correct. And exhibiting their own high moral conscience at the same time. A polemic in disguise, this year’s installation is a leaden tutorial from earnest men with stern expressions and furrowed brows. Continue Reading
Pilgrim Art

Mortals that would follow me, Love Virtue, she alone is free; She can teach ye how to clime Higher than the Spheary chime. John Milton, “Lydidas” What do you mean, “Pilgrim art”? There wasn’t any. Precisely. There was none as we moderns understand it: a product of leisure and affluence enjoyed largely by spectators. The concept had no hold on their attention. They did not conceive of culture as we do, as a kind of sauce spread like Bechamel over the nexus of values that animate a civilization. Continue Reading