Friday, August 31, 2012

On the controversy surrounding the image of Michelle Obama

Those of you who are following the news online will notice that there's an debate raging about a picture that depicts a semi-nude Michelle Obama on the cover of a Spanish magazine. You can read about it on the Huffington Post.

As you will notice, there are two issues being addressed. One is the decision of the magazine editors to feature the portrait on the magazine cover. The second is the decision of the original artist, Karine Percheron Daniels, to create the image in the first place.

With respect to the former, I have no idea what the motivation of the magazine editors was in the first place or how the image is related to the featured articles of the issue. So I can't speak authoritatively about it.

With respect to the latter, it is indicated that the picture of Michelle Obama is part of Daniels' "Famous Nudes" series. Other personalities depicted in the series include Queen Elizabeth II, Michael Jackson, Eva Peron, Prince William, his wife Catherine, Che Guevara, and Princess Diana. You can take a look at all of these images on Daniels' FineArt America portfolio.

The thing that strikes me is the fact that many are rushing to label Karine Percheron Daniels a racist for depicting Michelle Obama in the nude. Many of the articles written in this vein mention, as an aside, that the image is part of a larger series of famous personalities in the nude. However, they conveniently avoid further discussion of that series.

Well, I don't want to avoid that series. I think that any genuine discussion of the original artist's intentions should address at length the fact that other powerful men and women of our era are depicted in the nude in her other paintings: and these men and women are not all black. Some of them are Latino/a and some are white.

If creating the image of Michelle Obama makes Daniels a racist, then what does it mean that she portrays Queen Elizabeth in the nude? Is that also a racist act? Perhaps a misogynistic act? What about the depiction of Prince William? It seems to me that fitting the image of Michelle Obama into a larger story about white racism requires one to ignore the context in which that image was produced.

I don't think there's only one legitimate way to respond to art. It is perfectly fine for people to hate a piece of art if it violates their ideals. But, along the same lines, just because this particular image offends a particular group of people, it does not follow that their opinions are the only legitimate ones.

It's actually unusual that I'm writing this piece. I'm not a fan of nude paintings: I've never been interested enough in them to even remember their titles or the identities of the artists who created them. I can certainly see why Americans and particularly African Americans are offended at the depiction of Michelle Obama. From their perspective, it fits into a history of dehumanizing depictions of black people. I can also see why the choices made by the artist in creating that single picture could be interpreted as racist. If I didn't know that the artist had depicted other personalities in the nude, I would probably have thought it was a racist image too. But (and this is what I want to emphasize) I would want to know what the context was before rushing to condemn the artist.

The reason why I sat down to write this piece is because I think there's too much of a tendency to jump to the worst possible interpretation of events in this day and age, even when there is clear evidence challenging our assumptions. I've watched as one controversy or another has made it into the headlines and people have expressed outrage and brushed aside any nuances. I've also read strongly worded opinion pieces that suggest that there's only one way to interpret certain events, and that anyone who dares to suggest otherwise is racist/ sexist/ unpatriotic/ a self-hating member of some ethnicity or another. Frankly, I am tired.

There's a part of me that's wondering how many people realize that their perspectives are not universal perspectives. For instance, even the idea of what constitutes nudity is not set in stone. What people may consider to be evil in one context or sexual in another is simply a fact of every day life in a third. Think about this: in some cultures it is considered immodest to leave one's hair uncovered; in others, it is perfectly decent to wear little more than a wrap and to breastfeed in public. In some contexts, wearing knee-length skirts can almost precipitate a national crisis. In other contexts, for instance in art or in anatomy classes, the human body or form is natural: nothing to blush about. There is something to be said about that diversity of views, whether or not we agree with every single one of them.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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