Thursday, July 16, 2009

Obama: Part V

I promised yesterday that I'd be writing more about a painting that startled me in our friend Lynne McDaniel's studio. Here it is:

(This past Monday, by the way, was the 30th anniversary of Jimmy Carter's malaise speech, in which he--modestly, but unwisely, as it turned out--itemized a long list of complaints about his presidency from Americans of all walks of life, invited to Camp David to meet with the President precisely for that purpose. In the speech, he identified the malaise of which he spoke as "a fundamental threat to American democracy... a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity and purpose for our nation. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and political fabric of America." It seems a good time to revisit those remarks.)

Lynne's double portrait of Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter (enlarge for full effect!) is called "Through Their Eyes." Presciently, it was done long before Obama's presidential campaign and election, and shortly after the famous speech he gave at the 2004 Democratic convention--the one that turned the nation's head in this young man's direction. Lynne used photographic images for her picture. A part of the reason it's so striking is that she made one significant change: Jimmy Carter has Obama's penetrating dark brown eyes, while Obama has been gifted with Carter's blue ones. Hence, of course, the title.

I think it's an extraordinary and challenging piece of work--and not only because the painting itself is so terrific. It is. Lynne has done an excellent job with the likeness; the quality of her line and brush-work needs no comment from me. Much more than that, however, the painting is rich in both profound and provocative associations--which is the reason that I felt the need to share it. It deserves a wider audience than the one it has thus far received, hanging quietly on the artist's studio wall. (Please feel free to forward the image, with or without this post.)

Let's talk about those profound associations first--the notion of two men from astonishingly different backgrounds who came to share the same destiny as the world's most powerful leader. The painting is a study of that power from two points of view--its devastating after-effects on the face of the older man, and its emanation in the form of hope and promise on the younger. It's a study, also, that tells us much about the psychology of the men themselves, and about the aging process; we read much in this simple juxtaposition of images about the physical effects of age on the human face, and the different kind of energy projected by two men at different stages of their life. It's also, profoundly, as a study of black and white America, about the inexorable process of historical change. The picture confronts us, unambiguously, with a reality that has changed radically for the better in the past forty years. Lynne's painting seems to assert that black and white are, quite simply and inarguably, equal.

Provocatively, though, the painting raises the frightening specter of the "Carterization" of Obama. I recall, as perhaps you do too, the hopes that we liberals and progressives pinned on Jimmy Carter when we elected him in 1977, after the bitter taste of the Nixon years and the interregnum of Gerald Ford. We wanted radical change, we wanted a more transparent and responsive government, we wanted an end to war and partisan strife, we wanted principled compassion and justice to prevail over heartless greed and power-mongering, and we projected the responsibility for all these needs onto this one, all-too fragile figurehead who could never have hoped to match them.

When he failed to meet up with our expectations and projections, we began to think of him as weak and ineffectual--and projected those qualities, in turn, on the man in whom we had vested so much power. The eventual failure of his administration was, to my way of thinking, as much ours as his. The electorate, childish as ever, began looking to Ronald Reagan for the daddy figure we seemed to need to take care of us, and to compare Carter's image unfavorably with the skilled performance of that screen actor, whose illusion of strength we were eagerly taken in by. (I say "We..." Not me, of course! It's never ME. Is it?) Sure, Jimmy Carter had his failings. He was, in reality, far from the perfect model of strength and manly authority we longed for. So we settled for the illusion instead.

It's my fear that we could easily end up doing the same with Obama. When I wrote the original essay in this series, "When Do We All Grow Up?" it was this fear I had in mind. Once more we have a President who is far from perfect and far from all-powerful. He needs the help and support of millions of others if he's to achieve those things he promised to strive for. Once more we are beginning to perceive--and name--the man's weaknesses, and our points of disagreement. And once more we risk creating the reality we project on him. Government, as I've tried to say, is a contract, depending as much on a willingness to be governed as to govern. I've tried to say that, certainly, yes, it's our job to criticize and hold our man's feet to the fire. We must do so, though, with a clear understanding of the risks involved in each of us insisting on the achievement of our own particular goals at the cost of the substantive change we need--a change that can only be arrived at through deliberate means. It's a big ocean liner we're all sailing on, to use that old cliche; it won't be turned around with a quick or easy spin of the wheel.

Obama is not Jimmy Carter. I happen to think he's made of tougher, less relenting steel. I don't see him offering a "malaise speech", like Carter's exercise in self-deprecation, in order to mitigate his falling poll numbers. But the juxtaposition Lynne McDaniel offers us in her painting is certainly striking, poignant--and more than a little worrisome.

(For an interesting historical reminder of the Carter speech and its ripple effects, see this book review in yesterday's New York Times.)


Anonymous said...

hi... just dropping by!

Gary said...

Beauty and prophecy all in one fine work of art.

Both presidents have asked that we look outside our window and do what we can to help others. Both have expressed clearly their commitment to truth and reason tempered with patience and consistency.

Both Carters are still working to add to the world by
caring for others and are establishing the economic
means for those less fortunate than themselves to
overcome adversity. They are setting an example
by walking the walk.

Obama continues to work cleaning up the mess he inherited with and without the help of those who say no and point their fingers rather than get their hands dirty with him and build a new fabric of accountability.

Artists do see into the souls of humankind and this
painting is a wonderful example of this truth.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks for the good words, Gary. I have forwarded them to the artist.

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good thoughts, good words, good deeds said...

Amazing, keep writing. I'll keep reading.