The Obama Portraits: But Is It Art?

When I was in art school, studying pretentious subjects alongside pretentious students taught by pretentious professors, we had the privilege of learning about basic forms of visual expression, expressed at their highest levels.  You can learn a lot about the human condition and the yearnings of the heart through the passionate articulation of a great artist.  A painting of a landscape or still life can move one to tears, especially when done by a sad genius like Vincent van Gogh.  One of van Gogh's biggest fans, the brilliant Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, said of him, "We knew he would either surpass us all, or go mad. We never thought he would do both."

My art school was literally connected to a world-class museum, and many of my classes were actually taught in the picture galleries, where we could discuss artistic theory in front of famous masterpieces.  Masterpieces have a tendency to shut you up, especially when you think you know a thing or two.  You can't do much more than just inhale the genius around an old master painting.  You're confronted with the reality that what you're looking at is far beyond your talents and abilities.  The best thing you can do is keep your mouth shut and try to learn something.

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 official portrait is part of an old tradition perfected by Renaissance painters more than 500 years ago.  The artists were generally painting powerful old men, who tended to be a bit ugly.  To make up for what lacked in the sitter's physical beauty, the artist would emphasize the internal.  A great painting of a king or pope tells you something about the subject's inner thoughts, his psyche.  The image is more about what's going on inside his head rather than the outer trappings of his position or status.  Great paintings by Titian and Velázquez show us the most powerful men in their world, but we feel we know them intimately.  This is what a great artist can do with simple paint and canvas – no copying photographs, no assembly line of assistants doing most of the work, and no gimmicks to hide their lack of ability. 

Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Diego Velázquez.

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.  With no budget limitations, you choose these two?  These substandard paintings will hang in the National Gallery for all time.  I assume that the Obamas wanted to prove a point.  With the Obamas, everything comes down to race and retribution, and here was one last chance to rub someone's nose in something.

The Obama portraits are a sad reflection on how bad a choice someone can make when given the opportunity to do something great.

Think of the position of absolute privilege you would be in, if you could choose any artist in the world to paint your portrait.  No ceiling on the budget.  You can choose any artist, and he will immortalize, knowing he will be paid handsomely, and his work will be prominently displayed in the prestigious National Portrait Gallery.  Bizarrely, you base your choice on political affiliation and race rather than artistic ability.  If we chose pilots and surgeons in the same way, most of us would be dead.

In that fancy art school I attended, we often had lofty discussions around art theory and "what is art?"  Many hours were spent pontificating about what separates art from propaganda and where "message" fits in in a work of art.  We never reached any satisfactory conclusions.

I later visited the Ndebele tribe in South Africa, the tribe where the women elongate their necks with metal rings and paint geometric patterns on their huts.  I was privileged to get to know some of these amazing women in a rural setting that no longer exists.  One of the ladies was building a stone wall in front of her hut that seemed to serve no purpose, as it was too low to keep out intruders, and there were no security issues anyway.  She told me she was building the wall so she could paint her tribal patterns on it; it was a kind of stone canvas.  That's when the penny dropped for me about art theory.  Art is art when it exists to showcase the pure expression conveyed by the creator.  This simple woman in the bush taught me more about art and art theory than any of my first-world professors in a gleaming American city.

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.  We don't need any more of their lefty propaganda, but I guess they're still on their mission to ensure that our noble institutions that celebrate American greatness contain the leaven of the hard left.

They could have left us with two great portraits.  Art to hang in an art gallery.  Instead, we got decorative propaganda.

Tim Mostert is a cartoonist, author, and art historian.  His latest book is Know Your Nation.  He can be reached at

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