Art and Politics

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
Art in the Mantle of Science

The trouble is that modern art in various ways abandoned imitation, representation, naturalism, and it now has to make out a case for its products’ still being truth. This is where science certain aspects of science are seized upon, assimilated, or sometimes simply plagiarized in decorative words, so as to bolster up art’s claim to cognitive value. One such use, and it is a curious reversal of Aristotle, is the boast of factuality: the work of the artist is said to be research; his creations are findings.
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Beauty, the Mantra

Beauty will save the world—a mantra among contemporary Christians issuing from the mouth of a character in nineteenth century Russian fiction. Susan Walp. Small Red Apples in a Berry Box (2011). Augustine’s Beauty has already saved the world. Our ransom has been paid. What matters now is whether the world cooperates with its redemption or flouts it. History will tell in the end. The arts of the beautiful are weightless in the balance. They can only scratch at the surface—if that—of moral beauty. Continue Reading