It was a cheap artistic ploy to begin with, but painter Michael D’Antuono made it even cheaper by not following through: In an effort to get attention for himself, D’Antuono painted a picture of Barack Obama that made Obama look similar to Jesus. It’s a tactic that’s worked for decades. When an artist doesn’t have much to say, but wants publicity, the artist does something with Jesus. Jesus in urine, Jesus painted out of blood, Jesus coming out of the behind of a dog, etc., etc., etc.
D’Antuono’s justification for his banal painting is that it would get people talking:
“”It was supposed to provoke political dialogue. I wanted to start a discussion. Is Obama being crucified by the right? Do people think he’s the next savior?”
If that was D’Antuono’s actual goal, it worked. The American people appear to be banal enough to be provoked by a banal painting. Only, the political discussion he provoked wasn’t actually about Obama. That’s not a surprise, because the idea of Obama as Messiah has already been worked over extremely well by the Religious Right. It’s not fresh, and doesn’t add anything new to our ideas about Obama.
Yet, the painting did provoke a political debate – just not the one that D’Antuono anticipated. The discussion that began because of the painting centered around the relationship between politics and religion in artistic expression. D’Antuono got a huge number of messages from Christians who were outraged that he would paint Barack Obama as Jesus. The question presented by these messages was, Should people be allowed to compare secular political leaders with religious prophets?
Shamefully, Michael D’Antuono’s artistic imagination was not prepared to accept this question. He canceled the planned public showing of the painting, explaining,
“I canceled the showing out of respect for religion. It was not meant to offend so many people… I don’t think it would be helpful to the cause of unity to show it.”
What was D’Antuono thinking? He wanted his painting to promote dialogue, but then he censored it because the dialogue was detrimental to unity?
If that’s really what motivated D’Antuono, he’s an idiot who doesn’t understand the words coming out of his own mouth. Dialogue is not about unity. Di is an old word for two, suggesting that dialogue is about the expression of difference and division. The point of a dialogue is for people to disagree, not to come together and find common ground so that their disputes can end in unity.
Does D’Antuono really want unity? Well, then, what does D’Antuono propose to do to promote a political dialogue helpful to unity? Why doesn’t he paint a picture of a puppy, so that people can have a dialogue about whether they like puppies? Then, everyone can say, “Yes”, and unity will be achieved, and we can move on to the next artistic endeavor, a painting of a kitten playing with a ball of yarn.
How insipid that would be, and how cowardly Michael D’Antuono’s ultimate artistic statement was. When a dialogue began, he pulled out, making only one final political statement: In the debate over the relationship between religion and politics, D’Antuono’s retreat declared that political speech should be subject to religious censorship. He declared that political speech that does not show “respect for religion” is invalid, and that artists ought to destroy their works if it offends people’s religious beliefs.
D’Antuono’s philosophy of art is the same as the philosophy of the Taliban.
Watching D’Antuono’s explanations for his creation of the painting and for its subsequent withdrawal, it occurs to me that the artist didn’t actually stop to think very long about the significance his own painting. That is the most profound form of artistic failure.