Blog / 2008 / When a Presidential Candidate Is Like a President.

September 21, 2008

What happened:

Artist Ron English painted a likeness of Presidential hopeful Barack Obama as Abraham Lincoln. He then plastered a few US cities with large-scale rainbow-colored reproductions of the work.

How people are reacting:

Maybe not surprisingly, there’s a lot less real discussion going on about this work than there is about Jill Greenberg’s McCain images. Most blogs simply announce that English’s work is going to be in town and/or provide information about how to purchase posters of this image. The difference in the conversation levels may have to do with the fact that English’s work is not a critique of the subject of his portrait, but probably has more to do with the fact that, unlike Greenberg, English didn’t dupe his subject.

Ron English’s Abraham Obama
Ron English Abraham Obama 2008

As with Greenberg’s McCain images, I’m not certain that this work qualifies as art instead of just propaganda. My impression is that the image is intended to be just one more positive take on a relatively inexperienced Presidential candidate from Illinois who could change the way this country understands itself.

When Obama’s campaign was just beginning, the papering of our cities with his image was important for his success. He was so unknown that he needed the exposure in order to have half a chance at the candidacy. But is it still useful at this point in the game—when he’s already been called a “messiah” for months now—to represent him in such a hyped manner?

I can’t help but think that this is the sort of painting that should be made after his term is over, once we’ve seen what he has done. It’s a lot—good and bad—to put on a candidate, casting him as the next Abe Lincoln. Generally speaking, I like English’s work a lot. I believe that art should cause change and I think English’s work usually does that. But his Abraham Obama is not of the caliber that I’ve come to expect from him.

Obama-Lincoln mashup by the Black Agenda Report
Obama-Lincoln mashup by Black Agenda Report

What’s more, English’s painting is nothing new. I won’t try to untangle who first made the allusion, but Obama has been compared to Lincoln by everyone from my neighbor to Al Gore. Black Agenda Report even fused the two visually in order to make a critique of Obama’s candidacy.

We seem to get so caught up in big personalities, big names, that we forget the message that the candidate himself has tried to deliver. “Yes we can” is what Obama tells his supporters, but “yes HE can” is what they chanted at Bill Clinton during the former President’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. Clinton allowed the shouting to run its course, and then said “but first we have to elect him.” Wrong. We have to elect him but that’s when the work is just beginning. A President can’t do everything: he needs us to work together to make things happen, not just to get him elected.

As the artist who intends to paint every person’s portrait in the whole world, it’s true that I may be a little biased here, but I can’t help but think that we don’t need more images of the same old people. When I think of the phrase “yes we can,” I think more of this.

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