Tribal Kitsch

Emmanuel Zacharovsky

The case of the official portrait of former President Barack Obama reveals many things about the American aesthetic condition. If by “aesthetic” I include political considerations, contemporary art norms and cultural ignorance then volumes can be written about the implications of Kehinde Wiley’s painting from the point of view of neo-liberal cultural colonialism alone. Supposing that President Obama (purportedly) chose Mr. Wiley of his own volition (and was not influenced by a cadre of advisors and art intelligentsia figures, each with his or her own agenda) we may at first glance examine the seeming self-serving provincialism and naivete involved in this decision with a critical eye and an ear towards the voices of identity politics in the head of contemporary art.

Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley, oil on canvas, 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. © 2018 Kehinde Wiley.

That a painter (Mr. Wiley) who employs a factory of assistants in China to undertake his work and refuses to specify the degree to which he actually paints anything sold and exhibited under his name was chosen to paint the portrait of a 21st century President who oversaw the continued proliferation of Neo-Liberal Corporatism and warfare on innocents (Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, etc.) during his eight years in office is all too fitting a symbolic destiny. Mr. Wiley, an African-American with an inspiring and triumphant tale of childhood overcoming akin to Mr. Obama’s (He was abandoned by his father and raised by his mother under enduringly difficult financial and social circumstances.), has risen to become one of the most famous and financially successful painters of the current day. Surely his narrative and origin mythology contributed to his being selected as the official portraitist for the 44th President. The choice of Wiley raises questions: Is it a political and cultural necessity to have an African American artist paint the portrait of the first President to have African parentage? What are the criteria that make for a legitimate depiction of a culture other than one’s own? Among contemporary painters and artists of African American origin was Kehinde Wiley the best, or most appropriate choice?

The Political Economy of Presidential Portraits

Indeed, the selection of Wiley as Mr. Obama’s portraitist is rife for analysis from both a social and political perspective. The political economics of this selection alone would make for an interesting pathway for critical reflection. What makes Kehinde Wiley a curious selection within the politically correct contrivance of the “artist of color” typology is the kitsch-like nature of his work that purports to subvert power through the use of stylistic elements that hearken to opulence while depicting anonymous or little-known men and women of African American heritage in various culturally-specific contexts. That kitsch is what defines Mr. Wiley’s approach to picture-making is indisputable. Indeed it is seen as a sign of his contemporaneity, an ingredient in his successful formula so endorsed by many so-called art experts. The irony of a painter who made his name and his wealth inverting pictorial power dynamics being chosen to paint the former President of the United States is rife for examination especially because Mr. Obama’s identity and presidency were anything but kitsch. In fact, one might argue that Mr. Wiley would be the perfect choice to paint the official portrait of Mr. Obama’s successor. That Mr. Wiley’s portrait is kitsch is without question. It is indeed, an obvious proclamation of the ideology of sampling and pastiche, smearing and pasting allusions to genres as diverse and seemingly as opposed as Baroque and hip hop, illustration and court painting. Indeed the Baroque is the most visibly ironic graphical element in the painter’s work, with its gilded patterns and backdrops employed in a hallucinatory usage of iconography congruent with the adulation of such perceived brands of luxury as Luis Vuitton, Tommy Hilfiger and Hennessy, brands brandished with bravado by rappers, basketball players, pop stars and others among the African American communities in the public eye who adopt the worship fulfillment of the world’s wealthy. It is symbolically appropriate that the Baroque Obama portrait be created with a stylistic tendency whose aesthetic properties in architecture, music and painting were most prominent during the time of the birth of the United States in the 18th century.

Kehinde Wiley’s entire approach to image-making is an illustrational one (both literally and metaphorically), crafted and edited from the inspiration of a miasma of comic books and flatly digital renderings that permeate the mediasphere of unpopular and popular image-making both. His work is illustrational in its attempts at myth-making and creating images of luxury and power usually associated with 17th and 18th century notions of European opulence. Instead of depicting French generals or English nobility, Wiley is depicting black men and women who take center stage in his dramaturgies of power subversion, mirroring the signs of conquest consecrated by various European and American elites. Wiley has been quoted as describing his work as “interrogating the notion of the master painter, at once critical and complicit.” His figurative paintings “quote historical sources and position young black men within that field of power”.[1] This strategy is perhaps most effective in his Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005, oil paint on canvas, 274.3 x 274.3 cm (108 x 108 in) (Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York). It is a work of bold grandeur, kitsch, appropriation and moderately humorous cultural subversion, substituting a triumphant portrait of Napoleon on horseback with a portrait of an anonymous African American man the artist encountered on the street with a faux pattern design background flattening space and combining scene painting with pseud-Royal portraiture. At once engaging, and garish, the work may be the pinnacle of ironic kitsch in the artist’s oeuvre, the best such a methodology can hope to achieve. But it can never escape the shadow of its own irony. Wiley’s “style” is one that speaks to a vernacular sensibility raised on a generation’s worth of kitsch film, kitsch television, and kitsch music, where editing and sampling (or appropriation) are equated with creating; and where the questions of good taste, aesthetics, and contemplation are precluded by the very ironic preconditions necessary to a kitschcraft philosophy of “art.” In fact it would be a mistake to utilize the term “philosophy” in reference to a methodology of image-making that relies on the previously-made as its source material, for kitsch is the product of a detritus culture mistakenly believing that the subversion of truth, beauty and aspiration are virtuous artistic and philosophical endeavors that undermine power. Kitsch is by nature recombinant, and contemporary artists like Wiley are third-order image-editors, following in the footsteps of Dada, Arte Povera, and land art.

The Origin of Kitsch in Contemporary Art

We have Marcel Duchamp to thank for the creation of kitsch in the fine arts. Kitsch is more an assumed ideology than a philosophy. Kitsch is a mode of cultural scavenging, the lazy thinker’s way of production.

Fountain, Marcel Duchamp, 1917.

There are no concerns or even thoughts for aesthetics and beauty within this ideology, other than to oppose them or usurp them with the ugly, the anti-art and anti-aesthetic. In this way contemporary art’s relationship to kitsch is always already one of a negative theology with regards to historical notions of beauty, truth, goodness and elegance. That this negative theology is thoroughly embraced by both the academic and gallery spheres of contemporary art influence, is now implied and assumed, canonized within any so-called discourse on contemporary American culture. This value has become banal and exists as wallpaper, a fitting metaphor for a painter like Kehinde Wiley, who utilizes grounds and patterns behind his painted subjects to subvert space and mock the foundations of art history as he mocks the depiction of physical space and his sitters in the process. For Wiley, the sitter becomes an instrument or ingredient of kitsch philosophy, at once a co-conspirator and a victim in the process of this grotesque image-making. When one couples this understanding of negative aesthetics with the false consciousness of the politically correct, itself a bad faith and half-hearted empathizing wit the downtrodden (women, gays-lesbians, people of color) in the name of racial and sexual justice (identity art) then Kehinde Wiley’s rise as an artist of prominence in contemporary art spheres is hardly surprising. The proliferation of kitsch among the gay, lesbian and African American communities may be viewed as an aesthetic coping mechanism, a tool through which and by which one crafts imagery out of an ironic self-defense stance so as to avoid emotional vulnerability, a vulnerability albeit, to the coercive powers of cultural normalization and bias inherent in our power structures. This is why hip-hop music is so popular today: It lacks musical artistry because artistry and the notion of disciplined creativity are beside the point within the ideology of kitsch. Hip Hop is to music what knitting is to art: a craft-like exploration of joining and sewing using the found threads and fabrics of other cultures and other sources. Hip Hop culture is the final alternative movement in the American cultural production system. The continuum from jazz to blues to rock and roll to hip hop is pretty much a straight line where one can trace capitalism’s co-optation of musical production and the subversive, and hence the normalization of cultural and musical movements that began as counterpoints on the fringes of Americana. Each of these movements existed as a challenge to American mainstream cultural and political power. Each was consumed by the corporate machine.










The Editor As Anti-Artist

Recombinant Culture

Make no mistake, kitsch is indeed an ideology, one born of resentment and refutation. The kitsch aesthetic begins with a mindset of revulsion, one that rejects the past and perceives standards and historical achievement in art as impediments rather than progenitors. Kitsch must reject its aesthetic antecedents because of their association with the coercive and normative powers of heterosexism, racism, colonialism, and sexism. Kitsch misidentifies power this way and is thereby forced to exist as a reaction rather than an action. It is for this reason that kitsch is devoid of ethos. Kitsch artists can only sample and steal because they do not aspire to or understand the birthing of a unique image. Artists ensconced in the embrace of kitsch lack historical perspective and cultural understanding.

They are editors par excellence, be they Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol or Kehinde Wiley and DJ Shadow. That their status as original and serious artists is now without question demonstrates the pervasiveness of the ideology of kitsch within the circles of art and music criticism. The guardians of taste and the evaluators of beauty have fallen by the side of American art history, forgotten and isolated, on the fringe of aesthetics or ostracized and dismissed as “conservative”, “out-dated” or “irrelevant.” History is dead. The production of a work of art is pre-necessitated by its place and understanding within a linage of history. It requires commitment, focus, intellectual rigor, discipline and an understanding of its place within a certain epoch or time. Such notions are concealed from those corrupted by kitsch, irony and the decadence associated with the meek acceptance of assumed contemporary aesthetics.

The argument of the kitsch artist is that culling, combining or collaging sounds, words or pictures is itself a form of creation and hence, no less a legitimate form of art worthy of any museum or concert stage. This postmodern philosophy of the recombinant is itself more than a little solipsistic in nature and worthy of greater scrutiny to be sure. For the purposes of Kehinde Wiley’s paintings, it is the very obvious, if invisible and poorly understood, (and never acknowledged) foundation for his entire output. One cannot countenance the grotesque and awkard portrait of President Obama without seeing the history and influence of the digital recombination and flattening of the pictorial world in a way that nearly matches the vulgarity of the German Expressionists, albeit without their world-weary Germanic existentialist angst.

Mr. Wiley’s version of flattened space is one of sheen influenced more by the luxury brand of Louis Vuitton than by any prior art historical utterance. His works are designed, in some cases like the Napoleon painting in an iconoclastic and memorable manner. But in the case of the Obama portrait, the design is failed by a paralytic illustrational designed meandering that cannot match the demands of Mr. Obama’s innate grace and the scope of the power of the Presidency. Mr. Wiley’s portrait is awkward in its design and in its style. It is also a half-hearted attempted at humanizing and making accessible the most powerful figure in the United States government, a position replete with the mythical associations of power and grandeur that is done a disservice by the painter’s attempt at depicting his subject in a less formally grandiose manner. This is one of the central conceits of contemporary cultural relationships to power and celebrity: That those in power must be made accessible, relatable and bestowed with the illusion that they are “just like us”. This is the central mistake made by celebrities and politicians today who interact with their fans and constituents on social media or refuse to wear dignified and formal attire in the name of “democratization” or “inclusion”. They are unattainable and unapproachable indeed because they have reached a level of fame and an aura of mystery beyond the quotidian.

Power Depicted

The President of the United States and the A-List Hollywood starlet have this in common: they are not like us. Their ascent to power and their exclusivity are the very hallmarks of their mythos and what makes them appealing. This ascent means they have become icons, illusions of our creation and removed, both practically and symbolically from the masses. It is a fraudulent and futile desire to wish to make Barack Obama accessible and a man of the people within the context of the official Presidential Portrait. Such an endeavor is both semiotically contradictory and aesthetically garish a drive. Mr. Wiley’s painting achieves both of these unfortunate conditions. When one considers the stylistic tendencies of Mr. Wiley’s design-obsessed painting techniques, this contradiction is made infinitely more calamitous.

The mismatching of subject matter with the illustrational techniques result in a highly forgettable portrait, a painting begging to be forgotten because to examine it closely fills one with existential and design revulsion. His is a painting that resembles more a poster for a fashion advertisement than it does a fine art portrait. This proximity to commodity aesthetics is precisely what renders Mr. Wiley’s paintings infinitely forgetful, works that seem to have appeared from the graphic designer’s computer created on a lark in some fashion magazine creative meeting.

The irony of the Obama portrait painted by Kehinde Wiley is this: In the artist’s illustrational attempt to lionize Barack Obama he created a work bordering on caricature, complete with a mysterious and strangely fantastical wall of green leaves and flowers, all flattened without any notion of naturalism and serving as simultaneous backgrounds and foregrounds, with the former President sitting weirdly on a semi-ornate chair that appears to be floating amidst the leaves and assortment of flowers (African blue lilies, jasmine, chrysanthemums etc.), each with some form of symbolism representing Mr. Obama’s life. What makes this painting a failure are not solely its technical and pictorial shortcomings, though there are many to explore, the failure lies in the latent recombinance of kitsch that belittles, if not renders invisible, Mr. Obama’s gravitas and dignity. Mr. Obama’s dignified gravitas is a remarkable testament to a true intellectual who elevated public discourse and maintained a pristine family image amidst a record amount of death threats and attacks on his legitimacy both as a man and as a President, while he was in office.

Whatever Mr. Obama’s shortcomings as President and politician, his impeccable comportment as a man, father, and husband represent the heart of his identity. Mr. Wiley’s portrait fails to integrate this element of Mr. Obama’s character and public image into the official portrait. Such is the degree of strange flatness and grotesquery of the Obama portrait that the painting looks, ironically, like some form of satire executed by an artist with secret white supremacist leanings whose agenda was to mock and defame Mr. Obama and render him eternally in a perplexing state of purgatory. The end result is a failed opportunity, as if the task at hand was too great for an artist who could only react to his cultural stimuli. This is the failure of the ideology of kitsch: it is forever an ironic reaction, one steeped in Nietzschean ressentiment and escapism, one born of a pathology of spirit and weakness of will.

This is why Kitsch can never aspire to greatness of vision, magnanimity of conscience in aesthetics and why Mr. Wiley’s painting was pre-ordained to miss the task of capturing the image of Mr. Obama, a man whose calm and dignity were, regardless of one’s political leanings, the hallmarks of his persona. Indeed, one may argue that it was Barack Obama’s calm and dignity that most disturbed the repressed white supremacist political order of the United States. One can draw a descending continuum from Mr. Obama’s intellectualism to the poorly-veiled hatred, resentment and cloaked racism of the Tea Party, and figures like the laughable Mitch McConnell (a man, who in the midst of an epic economic catastrophe, brazenly proclaimed the failure of Mr. Obama’s Presidency as his most important objective following the 2008 Presidential election). Kitsch is a methodology too barren, too self-obsessed for the demanding task of capturing greatness in art. The pre-condition of kitsch is a narcissistic coping mechanism of tongue-in-cheek dissemination. It is replete with false bravado, false pride, and false opulence, like those of a hip-hop performer who wears thick alloy chains finished in a garish faux-gold in a futile embrace to exude wealth and power and convey success. The nature of kitsch is falsehood. The nature of kitsch art is falsehood attempting to pass for truth. The failure of contemporary kitsch art apologists is not understanding this dynamic between falsehood and truth inherent in kitsch and indeed, in all ironic art. Mr. Obama’s pride, dignity and intellect are the genuine article, impervious to satire, mockery and facile depictions.[1]










Wiley’s Betrayal of Dignity

Kitsch and Identity Politics

The influence and impact of kitsch on the American psyche is profound. Indeed it is so thorough, so widespread that it is now invisible to most, particularly the so-called “art experts” who heap praise on the Obama Portrait and Mr. Wiley’s paintings in a tribal falling over themselves with the faint politically correct adoration of an gay African American artist they believe they must embrace to gain legitimacy within the circles of contemporary art and American culture at large. Kitsch is more than an ideology. It is also a tribal identity statement, a notion and way of life, of thinking inseparable from many understandings of contemporary art practice to many. That Wiley is the first black gay artist to be commissioned to paint a presidential portrait is not particularly important when it comes to the merits of the work. However these considerations are relevant on a symbolic level. It is likely that this landmark symbolism played a key role in the selection of the painter and illustrates why political considerations of identity now take prominence in most discourses of power within the art professions, be they academic or in the private sector.

This selection also illustrates the futility and laziness in such considerations. Indeed the public and media perception of the work comes to mind in illustrating the nascent spectre of the tyranny of identity art and its muscle: political correctness. There is a mirroring of reviews of the work: the so-called Liberal Media who profess praise for the painting oblivious to their mentally deficient aesthetic tribalism and blindness to the pervasiveness of the banal and and the kitsch. The conservatives bash the painting in a reflective tribalism of their own: in their simplistic and culturally tone-deaf ways, oblivious to their knee-jerk racism and the blindness as to the stakes involved in their condemnation and the transparency of their hatred for what Barack Obama represented: a refutation of the myth of the superiority of white male American power.

The simplistic binary conflation of progressive and tolerant relationships to sexuality and culture with the acceptance, indeed embrace of bad taste as exemplified in the kitsch of Wiley may be the most curious aspect of the phenomenon of the presidential portrait. As if a loving embrace of ironic kitsch was a necessary credo and entry point to be considered a liberal and progressive within American culture and its intellectual circles. This form of simplistic thinking is the very irony and regressive path bias takes down the road to dogma. The conflation of cynical irony aesthetics (kitsch) with beauty and greatness is mirrored in Gay and Lesbian aesthetics: That kitsch is essentially subversive and hence a laudable goal in art-making. The embrace of kitsch is tantamount to the celebration of bad taste, garishness and the opposite of beauty. It is essentially a perversion and inversion of the Ancient Greek concept of the good and the beautiful that are the foundations of Occidental and indeed global understandings of image-making. This is why irony is central to a misunderstanding of subversion and the rejection of power. This is the original sin of homosexual aesthetics and Kehinde Wiley’s paintings are the very expression of this sin because they are an affront to good taste, to intellectual craft and contemplation, to the appreciation of wholeness and originality in art of both a visual and mindful nature, regardless of its cultural origins and spiritual underpinnings.

The Aesthetics of Decadence

Ours (American) is the only culture in the history of the humanity that willfully celebrates the obscene, the found, the mawkish and the garish as beautiful. We export it to all cultures and all nations, impose our will on others so as to assert our cultural colonialism and call it “high art” or “contemporary culture”. This celebration is the very definition of sickness and explains why contemporary art as a movement and as an ideology (and make no mistake: contemporary art is very much an ideology, the bad faith of capitalism indeed) is bankrupted from knowledge and wisdom. This explains why contemporary art bears no truth and no emotional relationship to life as it is lived by most human beings. This is its barrenness and shame. Within a philosophical paradigm, Wiley’s paintings are the expression of spiritual and aesthetic decadence disguised as progressive politics.

To love Wiley’s work and by continuation, the Obama portrait, is to embrace the glorification of cynicism and bad taste within the history of aesthetics. To build gay-lesbian (ie. Queer) imagery out of irony and bad taste is the decadent’s path and a failure of the task of emancipation for those who are victims of bias and hate. It is the path of negative mirroring to the oppressiveness of power and its intolerance to otherness. True image-building, value-building and tolerance-building must embrace a newness in its aesthetic that is not based on co-optation and inversion of hatred and demagoguery. This is the task of progressive world-building set out by great artists, from Robert Rauschenberg and David Hammons to Yoko Ono and Malcolm X.

That Mr. Wiley builds his own worlds is without question. The question that must be posed is: what are his worlds based on? What is the relationship between craft, design and art in his work? What drives the understanding behind the influence of digital imaging in the Obama painting? What are the political and philosophical stakes involved in such a discussion? What role does Nietsche’s notion of ressentiment play in Kehinde Wiley’s work? Ressentiment can never lead to an ethos, only a negative theology disguised as a new aesthetic. The embrace of Wiley’s work by the contemporary art world is the essentially cowardice response to the tyranny of kitsch. The art world embraces the paintings of Mr. Wiley because they confusingly and falsely equate his work with progressive politics. If one lays claim to the idea that painting black men and women in positions of power is subversive and emancipatory, as do many who embrace such tactics in Kehinde Wiley’s work then a re-examination of what constitutes emancipation is in order.

No black man has ever found a good job or raised a healthy family because he was depicted in an ironically-constituted position of power by a contemporary artist. If artists wish to see truly emancipatory and progressive politics in action then they would do better to understand that art’s purpose is not to effect political change but to inspire, and seduce, to create new worlds and new images. Political change can only come about by crafting ideas and putting them into action via mobilization and influence over those who hold economic and political sway over us. The mistake inherent in identity-based art is the misunderstanding of the power of seduction and the perversion of aesthetic grace for purely selfish and narcissistic ends. Ultimately the most profound error of all so-called “political art” or “identity art” is its vanity and its utter blindness to the true workings of power.

Contemporary African American Painters

All of these considerations beg the question: Must the choice of artist for Mr. Obama’s painting be an African American? This is a question perhaps only Mr. Obama himself has a right to ask. If so I believe there are other better and more engaging and artists primed for this task of painting the Obama portrait, from Henry Taylor and Kerry James Marshall to Jennifer Packer.

Jennifer Packer, Tia, 2017, oil on canvas, 39 x 25″.

In a more interesting and humorous proposition, George W. Bush would have been a stunning choice and a truly iconoclastic one to paint the official portrait of the 44th President. The courage of making art with integrity, honesty, and commitment without falling prey to the illusory paths of irony, parody or the influence of the technological/faddish moment is the challenge artists are faced with today. This is a momentous challenge because it begins with sensibilities and values, attitudes and ways of thinking that have permeated and conditioned the contemporary creative mindset of today’s culture purveyors. Within a culture so steeped in kitsch, the obsession with wealth-accumulation and the false promises of social media and other delusional and mind-altering technologies (internet, pornography, gaming, mainstream films, etc.) an artist must first possess the ability to evaluate, and dissect the world we live in with criticality before creating a unique cosmos based on authenticity and righteousness.

Such an artist must first understand and filter the impulses and stimuli of one’s time and critically evaluate their place in relation to the older and historically transcendent phenomena that precede us. For such a creating to take place an openness to all things outside oneself emerges as a crucial step on the path towards creating something genuinely meaningful. This openness begins with a knowledge of and commitment to history and in particular, the history of art. Today’s painters enter art with the handicap of never having known authenticity in aesthetics and living within a cultural paradigm devoid of the sacred.

They act and make work as if no artist ever came before them. Their work is devoid of meaning and beauty because ours is a culture that has banished these ideas to obscurity. Ours is the age of irony, of ugliness celebrated as sublime, as untruth and lie raised up as fact. Ours is an age of madness where the distortion of values and the inversion of understanding are now immanent and banal. The challenge of today’s artists is to understand our age and then transcend it through their work. It is the task of great art to be made ready by the seduction of truth and timelessness. [1]