More art fabrications from the right wing
When the White House last week released an official list of art borrowed to hang in the public and private rooms of the residence, the right-wing blogosphere was electrified.
And, no, not in a good way.
The list had been generally known since spring, but that story had appeared in the Wall Street Journal's culture pages, not in its hard-right Op-Ed section, so the right wing paid scant attention. Now the Free Republic website was busily declaring "Fraud," with delightful blogger Beelzebubba gloating, "Freeper breaks the story."
Michelle Malkin, known for thoughtful deliberation on all the day's events, shrieked, "Art, imitation and the Obamas."
"Fraudulent art" yelled Brian C. Ledbetter at snappedshot.com. The blog's self-described "resident extremist" helpfully produced an animation to, uh, prove his claim that Barack and Michele Obama had chosen to hang a painting they were too stupid or, more likely, too corrupt to know was a rip-off.
And over at Big Hollywood -- the site that gave us lifestyle-event marketer Patrick Courrielche inflating a minor infraction at the National Endowment for the Arts into a paranoid fantasy of a presidential propaganda scheme, which he has since been parading around various Fox News programs -- we finally got the P-word: "The Obamas Plagiaristic, Silly Art," said the awkwardly crafted headline.
The ostensible plagiarist who had the wingnuts in a lather was the late Alma Thomas (1891-1978), an African American painter whose 1963 acrylic color-abstraction, "Watusi (Hard Edge)," was based on a monumental late paper-cutout by Henri Matisse. "Watusi (Hard Edge)" is an important work in Thomas' development, signaling a late turn in her own work; its relationship to the Matisse has been discussed for, oh, decades. But that didn't matter to investigative blogger Beelzebubba and his Stygian cohort, although, to give them the benefit of the doubt, they probably just didn't know.
Artists have been copying, adapting and basing new works on old ones since time immemorial. It's how they absorb what came before and then turn it to their own ends. As long as we're talking biblical mythology, courtesy Beelzebubba, here's the late Renaissance painting scholar James Beck on Michelangelo's depiction of the "Creation of Adam" on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel:
Adam records Michelangelo's relation to the antique; here he achieves a type that recalls Greek fifth-century statuary, although his actual sources may have been later gems, cameos and even Early Christian ivories, or some unlikely combination of antiquities.
Beck (that's James, not Glenn) goes on in some detail about this journey back from the 16th century through the Middle Ages to ancient Greece; but you get the idea. Doing what Michelangelo -- and Thomas -- did is simply what artists do.
And if the Obamas had chosen a Michelangelo for the Lincoln bedroom, the right-wing screamers would still have yelled. Because for them, it isn't about the art; it's about scorched-earth politics -- about not giving the president an inch, and about lying or fabricating or just pretending to be knowledgeable if necessary. And with Google and the great, bubbling Internet swamp at their cloven fingertips, they can fantasize all kinds of foaming fictions about art.
And they do.
Photo: Alma Thomas, "Watusi (Hard Edge)," 1963, acrylic on canvas. Credit: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.