Okay, I am a bit choked my post way down the previous thread that got derailed has been dumped. Since I put some work into it and that makes me sad, I'm going to repost again, in the hope that this one does not go so far off topic. This is going to be long read, so buckle up. For those who don't know, there is a minor controversy over the Obamas having chosen Kehinde Wiley as their portrait artist for their official portraits. Wiley has previously done paintings depicting a black woman holding the severed head of a white woman. The Obamas have thus been accused of being racist themselves. Here are the portraits in question: A lot of people have deflected any criticism of the pieces on the grounds that it is just a new take on an old biblical theme that has been depicted in art many times; the killing of the Assyrian general Holofernes by Judith. The story goes that Judith, a Jewish widow, seduces and beheads Holofernes to save her city. The essential argument is that anyone who critiques the piece is a racist who hates it because Judith is depicted as black, and who also hates freedom of religion. This is a bit of a runaround. The use of biblical themes to get around the censorship of the Church has been a thing in Western art since before Brunelleschi started painting using perspective. It also stopped being a thing a good long time before Serrano unveiled the Piss Christ in 1987. So if someone is still using biblical themes in our modern context, it's either because they are trying to reconnect with the rich history of religious artwork, or because they are appropriating it for their own purposes. At a guess, Wiley likes being racially-charged and transgressive and imagines himself to be saying something very deep about power relationships, because the art community laps that shit up, and you have to play the game to get ahead. Don't take my word for it. See the quotes from a sympathetic interview with the man himself: http://nymag.com/arts/art/rules/kehinde-wiley-2012-4/ "In a soaring studio on the outskirts of Beijing, where Kehinde Wiley came in 2006 to set up the first of his several global production outposts, the 35-year-old painter is showing off his women. Most of them are still incomplete—their faces need touching up, their gowns (custom-designed for his models by Givenchy) lack texture. But one already stands out: a tall, elegant black woman in a long blue dress—the canvas is enormous, eight feet by ten feet—calmly staring down the viewer. In one hand, she holds a knife. In the other, a cleanly severed brunette female head. “It’s sort of a play on the ‘kill whitey’ thing,” Wiley says. [....] His next gallery show, called “Mr. President,” will feature portraits of presidents of various African countries as they wish to be portrayed, he says, and will address “notions of taste and vulgarity.” Painting a powerful political figure is different from pulling a kid off the streets, of course. “It’s redundant, almost,” he says. But as Wiley sees it, it’s not his job to judge. “The games I’m playing have much more to do with using the language of power and the vocabulary of power to construct new sentences,” Wiley says. “It’s about pointing to empire and control and domination and misogyny and all those social ills in the work, but it’s not necessarily taking a position. Oftentimes it’s actually embodying it.” It's hard for me to get upset about it, because this is the kind of thinking that dominates art theory. I wouldn't even say Wiley himself is actually racist, since he was depicting his own assistant as Holofernes, and presumably he doesn't actually want her beheaded. But aside from the fact that the artist himself viewed it as a 'kill whitey' thing, the obvious point when comparing it to other works on the topic on Judith and Holofernes is that Holofernes is a man, and they are typically depicted as being of the same race (although a number of depictions have Holofernes as fairly Semitic, and Judith as pretty white; read into that whatever you like). See for example this depiction by Caravaggio, for a classic depiction of the same scene. I tend to prefer Caravaggio's depiction, which is hardly a knock on Wiley, because it's hard to be compared to one of the great works of one of the greatest artists ever: So obviously Wiley sees himself saying something about race, probably race in the United States, but he is appropriating the piece on a purely surface level. Many of the most interesting depictions of Judith and Holofernes, historically, are about sex and power relationships between men and women; about the danger or the power of female sexuality. Wiley is turning that on its head by using a black woman as Judith, and depicting Holofernes as a young white woman, but in my opinion this depiction doesn't track very well, because it doesn't draw on the story itself for any greater depth of meaning. A young white woman is not, in any respect, in a similar position to a young black woman as Holofernes was to Judith. So as a message it falls flat, aside from any visceral reaction one feels one way of the other at the violence depicted therein, and the race of the victim and the killer. I will say I like some of Wiley's compositions from a technical perspective, but aside from his impressive gift for self-promotion, he isn't much of a thinker. But I can't really blame him for that. These particular works are the sort of tired, derivative, intellectually-bankrupt shit that the academy gulps down like chum. Three final thoughts: First, the Judith portraits themselves are obviously racial in tone, arguably racist, and certainly political, by the artist's own admission. I don't think they should be taken seriously, however, because I don't think Wiley takes them seriously. Wiley is a pop artist doing what pop artists do to sell art; being trendy and controversial. Race and violence is trendy and sure to attract attention. Moreover, the majority of his art isn't in a similarly racially-charged vein, so it would be a stretch to refer to his art as racist, unless copying the old masters and replacing their works with black people and flowers is cultural appropriation. Second, artists should probably spend less time being deliberately edgy for edginess sake. I think most artists are incredibly caviler and forget that most people don't realize they are just playing a game; some people actually take this sort of thing to heart, which leads to a serious loss of context. For someone like the TS from the original thread on this topic, I genuinely don't think it would occur to him that someone might create a painting like that out of anything but deep racial hatred. For someone who has some knowledge of art history (and I have only a little), they are more likely to read Wiley as being serious, but only in the same way that anyone playing a game is serious, within the bounds of the game. Third, I don't want to speculate what Obama was doing when he made this pick for his portrait. I tend to assume that any current or former president is smarter than me, so I would think he or his advisers would be aware that people might make this connection, but without asking the man himself, there is simply no way to know. It might be as simple as Obama liking Wiley's style, which is hardly impossible; Wiley has real talent. He might like to support a famous black artist, which is legitimate. Maybe it was done out of some cultural or racial animus; its not impossible either, given that Obama appears sympathetic to charmers like Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. The point is we don't know, and this whole thing has been overblown.