All the Presidents' (Men and) Portraits

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Sunday morning's ritual: a large cup of coffee and piles of newspaper spread out all over my bed. Then, out into the world to the farmers' market, with its abundance of color, texture, and taste. The Santa Monica market is brimming with eccentric characters vying for attention. Last Sunday, it was a slim, shirtless young fellow, with his pants so low that the only mystery remaining was whether he'd been circumcised or not. Looking at the multitude of his boring tattoos, I wondered if he had been exposed to art in school or had ever been taken to a museum. You see, I have a theory that if our schools provided a decent art education, then maybe young people like him would at least choose more interesting tattoos. And maybe with more art education in school, we would be spared the embarrassment of seeing hoards of abysmal portraits of our leaders in the halls and chambers of power throughout the nation.

at090609a.jpgHere's the latest example. Last week, the seven-foot tall bronze statue of Ronald Reagan was unveiled in Washington at the Capitol Rotunda, and seeing photographs of it, I cringe at its dullness and lack of artistic ambition. Its stiff pose and bland facial expression echo thousands of similarly banal portraits – whether painted or sculpted – commissioned every year by public officials all across the U.S. As the pool of skilled figurative sculptors and painters is limited, such commissions are usually awarded to second-rate practitioners of the craft, and that's why this latest presidential portrait was awarded to Chas Fagan, a self-taught artist who knows how to please his less than demanding clients with a stream of banal likenesses of various presidents and iconic figures such as Rosa Parks and Mother Theresa.

at090609b.jpgLast year I talked about the controversy surrounding the ambitious monument to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. commissioned for the National Mall. The thirty-foot tall granite portrait is being carved by a Chinese artist who presented the best model of the competition. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that in Chinese art academies, young artists are still required to learn the traditional art of portraiture, while in American schools, this subject and the required skills are hardly considered worthy of attention.

at090609c.jpgIf you stroll through New York's Central Park, you may discover the large, cumbersome bronze portrait of Duke Ellington by Robert Graham, a distinguished figurative sculptor who nevertheless completely failed to capture the joyous spirit of the man and his music. I don't care that statues of Soviet leaders or dictators of Third World countries have the same dull appearance and lack of artistic quality, but it pains me to admit that most portraits of official leaders here in this great nation of ours are scarcely better.

at090609d.jpgHopefully Barack Obama will end up with a better-than-average likeness when his presidency is over; at least he is already ahead of the game with the semi-official portrait of his by Shepard Fairey. President Obama's popularity around the world is well acknowledged, but still I was surprised to receive an email from Berlin, written by a listener who is a plastic surgeon by day and an artist in his free time. He sent me an image of a life-size sculptural head portrait of Obama, which impressed me with its skill and definitely put this doctor at the top of the list of candidates for my future plastic surgery.

at090609e.jpgSo, if any of you has the ear of the President, tell him that the nation deserves good art education, which just might lead to public art that is worthy of our ambitions. And please tell him that my next art appreciation class starts on July 11 and that he and any of his colleagues are more than welcome to join as my guest.


Banner image: Crews work on a model of the planned Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Changsha, China. Some also have criticized the selection of Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin to design the statue.