An art historian weighs in on the Obama portraits

An art historian weighs in on the Obama portraits
Barack Obama portrait (detail), Kehinde Wiley, 2018. (Image via CNN)

[Ed. – OK, but is it art?  (FWIW, my perception is that the Barack Obama portrait in particular is what I think of as a “crafty pleasantry.”  It shows no particular artistry, and only art-factory-level skill, but tries to make up for that with superficial charm and cloying symbolism.  Michelle’s portrait is closer to real art and a meaningful study of the subject, and I continue to cut her painter a break for going with that, rather than P.C. portraiture, in which she would probably not have been successful.  The Michelle Obama painting verges a bit too much on crafty pleasantry, but doesn’t tip over as Obama’s does.)]

The recently unveiled Obama portraits are of a type that I have seen many times in my career as an artist and art historian.  The poses are wooden, the compositions hackneyed, and both subjects have obviously been copied from photographs.  To make up for the technical weakness of the painting’s execution, the artist relies on gimmicks to drag their image over the finish line, hoping that that will mask his limited technical abilities, or at least divert attention from them. …

The Obama portraits are kind of shocking – not only because the paintings are so clichéd and amateurish, but because Barack and Michelle would choose artists primarily by virtue of their skin color and radical views instead of whether they could actually pull off an official portrait. …

I’m happy for the two artists the Obamas chose, because they’ve made some money and increased their profiles, and it’s difficult to make a living as an artist.  God bless them.  I just wish the former president and his wife would not feel the need to politicize everything.

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