I’m about as far from a fine arts critic as one can get. I don’t consume art and I definitely don’t study art. Whenever I go to art museums, I usually spend more time on the benches than looking at the art. For that reason, I was surprised by my sentimental reaction to President Barack Obama’s official Smithsonian portrait.
As I walked toward the back of the presidential portraits exhibit to see Obama’s painting, familiar feelings of boredom and restlessness that tend to accompany these museum trips began to crop up. I passed former Franklin Presidents Pierce, James Buchanan and Chester Arthur on one side of the wall, and James Monroe, Grover Cleveland and William McKinley on the other. Almost all of the paintings were from a realistic art style, and all of the subjects had a similar pose — either sitting or standing with a stoic disposition in a plain room. Eventually, all of these portraits started blending together. As a result, the contributions and accomplishments of the men in the paintings didn’t seem so unique. When their official representations weren’t remarkable, their administrations didn’t appear to be either.
Obama’s painting, however, was different.
The green leaves stood in stark contrast to the white walls (and white faces) of the museum surrounding it. Even if someone didn’t know anything about the Obama administration, he or she could easily decipher it was unlike any administration the U.S. has seen before. Obama’s years at the helm were marked by bucked traditions — namely, by serving as our nation’s first Black president. In a nation built by slaves, that is a particularly notable achievement.
Admittedly, the first time I saw the portrait, I didn’t like it. “This isn’t presidential,” I thought as I scrolled through my Facebook feed. However, after seeing the painting with my own eyes, I now realize my definition of presidential isn’t an objective one; it’s simply based on what people in the past deemed to be “presidential.” The problem with using that standard as a criterion is that it was framed by a homogenous group of old, white men — many of whom upheld the institution of slavery and Jim Crow segregation.
Going by this standard, it’s easy to see why Obama’s portrait can come off as “un-presidential.” The problem isn’t with the painting, it’s with the label. There is nothing un-presidential about a man who humbly fought for racial, gender and marriage equality for eight years, just like there’s nothing un-presidential about having a Black man as a president (even though all 43 of his predecessors were not Black).
Obama’s presidency represented a different type of leadership, but it’s important to remember different isn’t inherently bad. In a similar vein, while Obama’s portrait definitely offers a stark contrast to the portraits of his predecessors, that difference alone doesn’t detract from its beauty. Obama’s painting — just like his presidency — was unique, and that’s what makes it so special.