Michelle Obama as political art

Is this Spanish news magazine cover of Michelle Obama art or porn? Is it racist and sexist? Or is it a political fantasy of the noble savage, an incisive commentary on the centrality of Mrs. Obama’s sexuality in the presidential election campaign? Is it Granada I see or only Asbury Park in this profile of the First Lady?

The cover ignited a firestorm of controversy and prompted accusations of racism in the “black blogosphere”, the Huffington Post reported. But behind the fun over the racy cover lay an article that exemplified a secular worldview — a philosophical construct about the meaning and purpose of life that sees the acquisition of power as the chief aim of life and where God is absent (or far off on the margins.)

But before I become too airy fairy let’s start with the fun. On 9 Aug 2012 Fuera de Serie, a weekly magazine insert of the Madrid business daily Expansión published a profile of Michelle Obama. The article “Michelle se como a Obama” was illustrated by a cover painting of the First Lady draped in an American flag and posed in the style of a famous 19th century painting — Portrait d’une Négresse on exhibition at the Louvre by French artist Marie-Guillemine Benoist (1800).

On 29 August the magazine published the full text of the story and some background to the cover in an online piece entitled “La polémica desnudez de Michelle Obama”.

The initial controversy was missed by the American press, but animated African-American publications and blogs.  The Huffington Post put the story into play within the mainstream press, shortly followed by Le Monde and other American and European publications. But their coverage focused on the cover, not the content of the article.

The Huffington Post was not pleased. It quoted one blogger as saying:

“By choosing to use such a jarring image to tell the story of how America’s first lady “seduced the people of the United States” and “stole the heart of Barack Obama,” as Fuera de Serie describes her,” writes Brande Victorian of Madame Noire, “it’s clear the magazine agrees with that mentality and wants to spread the message loud and clear: todavía estamos esclavos. We are still slaves.”

It cited other black interest publications who voiced similar objections, and likened the furore to the 2008  New Yorker cover that portrayed Michelle and Barack Obama as afro-centric terrorists.

Some European observers saw this negative reaction as an example of America’s lubricious Puritanism — a sentiment best summarized by Pascal Bruckner in last year’s Dominique Strauss-Kuhn affair.

It’s not enough though to describe [America] as puritanical because what governs [America] is a twisted puritanism which, after the sexual revolution, talks the language of free love and coexists with a flourishing porn industry.

Le Monde was less censorious than the Huffington Post and suggested the cover might not be so bad. It said the Portrait d’une Négresse was a celebration of the abolition of slavery and a symbol of liberation, of modernity, of freedom.  It also gave the artist, Karine Percheron Daniels, space to deny charges of racism.

In my eyes, the image I created is of a beautiful woman with a beautiful message. For the first time in history the First Lady of the United States is a black woman who proudly displays her femininity (nudity), her roots (the slave) and her power (first lady of the United States embraced by the American flag). … I’m not racist. I’m trying with my art to show the beauty not the dirt.

So what is going on here? And where is the GetReligion ghost in all of this? Let’s go inside the story and see.

Like the cover painting, “Michelle se como a Obama” and “La polémica desnudez de Michelle Obama” are artistic interpretations of the meaning of Michelle Obama. Facts are present, but the meaning of these facts are a construct of the author who frames the article from the very beginning as a hagiography. Michelle Obama is a secular left-liberal saint, whose:

popularity ratings exceed those of her husband, President Barack Obama. Experts even suggest that she will be the key to the reelection of Democrat in November elections. But how the first lady has managed to [steal the hearts] of the American people?

The article answers this question by contrasting Saint Michelle with the Wicked Witch of the West: Sarah Palin. While “attractive” and “quintessentially America” the former Alaska governor was also “vulgar, predictable, uneducated and arrogant.”

Mrs. Obama in contrast is “sleek, friendly, outgoing, direct, sometimes irreverent, and mother of two daughters.”  A woman whom nine out of ten voters believe “shares their values and understands their problems,” Fuera de Serie said. The article continues along these lines before moving to the heart of the story — the “why” of Michelle Obama.

Michelle is the daughter of Fraser Robinson, a worker who earned her living scrubbing floors in a water treatment plant in the city of Chicago, at the rate of $ 479 per month.

And it was this solidarity with the workers that drove the young Michelle to go on to Princeton and Harvard Law School and with Barack champion the cause of the poor and oppressed and right the “injustices” of the Bush Administration.

From the humble streets of their city [Chicago] emerged a community spirit, the spark that drove her husband to pursue his presidential dream …  even though politics was “a waste of time” that would detract from [Barack Obama's] responsibilities as a father and husband.

And like any good story from the “Lives of the Saints”, the article recounts tales of the miraculous and promises of divine intervention through the invocation of the saint’s name. For you see Michelle Obama is a better campaigner than her husband, one expert voice told Fuera de Serie, and her “passion and drive have triggered fantasies” that if her husband loses to Mitt Romney in the Fall, Michelle can carry forward the banner of change.

Let me step back a moment and say I am not denigrating or advocating the re-election campaign of President Barack Obama, nor am I slighting the First Lady. My target is this dreadful news profile of Mrs. Obama that is so over the top, so ludicrous, so one-sided that it is more likely to lead to ridicule than to admiration of its subject.

And absent from this entire story is any sense of what lay behind the family values and ethics of the parents that reared the young Michelle Robinson on Chicago’s South Side. Belief in God? Belief in history? We have snippets and slogans that hint at solidarity with the masses, but nothing else. The Michelle Obama in this article is identical to the artists portrait on the cover — a stylized fantasy that represents a cause, but is not representative of a person.

So GetReligion readers, tell me, is this racist, sexist, or vulgar? Is it beautiful, ennobling, a celebration of hope and change for a better world? Or am I taking a shovel to a souffle — seeing shadows and specters where none exist? What say you?

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  • Harris

    Are we really surprised that a Spanish publication would have a portrait that looked remarkably like the self-image of its Spanish readers, left and secular? The religious ghost is not about Michelle Obama, but about the role and understanding of religion in the Spanish/European press.

  • northcoast

    “Michelle is the daughter of Fraser Robinson, a worker who earned her living scrubbing floors . . .” This is Mrs. Obama’s father. How did the author conjure up the stereotypical hard working and downtrodden minority American mother? Elsewhere in the internet we learn that Mr. Robinson was a “pump worker” who tended boilers at the water treatment plant. See http://www.life-in-spite-of-ms.com/fraserrobinson.html.

  • Kristine

    I did not see or read the article, but the example cited of getting the mother/father thing wrong just says “shoddy fact checking” which would make me distrust anything else the article says, whatever its slant.

    As for the cover, it seems very European to me, and tells me more about the cultural divide between our European cousins and the people of The Americas. As Harris pointed out, this kind of “journalism” (yes, those are scare quotes) tells me more about the person doing the reporting than about the subject of the article. and the secularist/socialist slant of the Spanish news magazine is jarring to me, yet, on reflection, exactly what I’d expect.

    • Jimmy Mac

      Yep, it’s just an European lack of hangup about nudity. Snorrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrre.

  • northcoast

    OK, I just got around to reading the Huffington Post article. This painting is one of a series evidently created from digital pictures with famous people’s faces Photoshopped onto various nude paintings. After looking at other examples, I think we can safely say that the painting is not racist. Can we ask if it is art?

  • Passing By

    Or am I taking a shovel to a souffle

    Possibly.

    I don’t find the human form, including a woman’s breast, inherently pornographic. Specifically, I find the picture of Mrs. Obama very beautiful and appealing, as is the original. I’m a white man, so I’ll skip comment on it being racist, or sexist. I definitely don’t find it vulgar. On the other hand, being photoshopped, perhaps calling it art is a little much. :-)

    You could argue that it’s not appropriate to use the American First Lady’s face in this manner, out of respect for her husband’s office. Would they do it to Queen Sophia?

  • Francis X. Maier

    “Is this Spanish news magazine cover of Michelle Obama art or porn? Is it racist and sexist? Or is it a political fantasy of the noble savage, an incisive commentary on the centrality of Mrs. Obama’s sexuality in the presidential election campaign?”

    No. It’s merely worshipful.

    • Laura

      Yes. Good call.

  • Julia

    I miss being able to mark “up” or “down” on comments.
    Or was it “agree” or “disagree” or whatever, you all know what I mean.

    Good comments here. When I was going to the Sorbonne in 1964, the French students gave me a hard time about the civil rights struggle going on the US. Of course they thought they were much more open-minded – just look at how they accepted Josephine Baker and various US black jazz musicians, they would say.
    They are now dealing with the aftermath of giving up Algeria and accepting their nationals into France, in addition to other immigrants. And the Brits still look down on the Irish – and now it’s also the Polish plumbers who getting in as members of the EU.

    We [through our media] often look down our noses at other countries who supposedly are more sexist or racist than us, but we have yet to have a woman President and are not free of prejudice of various kinds. Within my lifetime there was no Equal Pay for equal work – I could tell some real stories about that and why women stayed home with the kids. We would do well not to point our fingers at other countries who are only a generation or so behind us.
    Meanwhile, we are behind in other ways. For heavens’ sake – India and Pakistan have had women presidents.

  • Brian Westley

    “But behind the fun over the racy cover lay an article that exemplified a secular worldview — a philosophical construct about the meaning and purpose of life that sees the acquisition of power as the chief aim of life”

    How is that particularly “secular”?

  • Julia

    “But behind the fun over the racy cover lay an article that exemplified a secular worldview — a philosophical construct about the meaning and purpose of life that sees the acquisition of power as the chief aim of life”

    It used to be that “secular” meant non-clerical or in the Catholic Church diocesan priests rather than priests in religious orders like Jesuits.

    In this case, I’m assuming it’s meant to mean non-religious. Then is Brian saying that making the focus of life “the acquisition of power” is what religion teaches their membership as well as the secular world-view?
    OR what clerical people are really after?

  • northcoast

    Reading Julia’s first comment I have some thoughts that are kind of off the subject here. I wonder how the French students would react to the anti-Semitism in that country, and aren’t women still devalued in parts of India? I wouldn’t defend finger pointing in either direction.


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