Michael D’Antuono has removed his exhibit of The Truth, a painting depicting President Obama in a Christ-like pose complete with spread arms and a crown of thorns. The outstretched arms appear to be holding back two sides of a dark curtain. Behind him is the presidential seal. D’Antuono removed the work from exhibit, according to his website, “out of respect to the thousands of people who wrote [to him] that they were offended on a religious level.”
As originally intended the cruciform president was part of a larger installation featuring a voting booth and waiting voters. It is inside the booth that one was confronted with The Truth. A link on the website invited viewers to “Tell Us Your Truth.” An invitation that should be contextualized by the artist’s statement, “The truth, like beauty, is often in the eyes of the beholder . . . and this piece is merely a mirror reflecting the personal and political emotions and opinions of the individual.”
Earlier this year another Christ-like depiction of President Obama made the news, only this time it was a performance portraying the “triumphal entry” of the president, titled A Simulacrum of Hope: Simulation of the Triumphal Entry of the Christ. A statue of the president, created by artist Matthew J. Clark, sat upon a donkey walking down the street, surrounded by black SUVs decorated with small American flags. A woman walked alongside the processional handing palm branches to bystanders. The allusion to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is hardly subtle.
In a country that remains staunchly tied to Christian rhetoric and imagery, any artist knows the best way to draw the public’s attention is to create what is, or appears to be, a subversive use of biblical narrative. In both of these cases, each artist has drawn the attention of the media and the subsequent applause and outcries are predictable. Christians are put on edge as their beliefs are once again treated like the last standing target in secularism’s war against “mythologies.” And secularists applaud the clever use of archaic imagery to create an ironic critique of contemporary religio-socio-political sentiments.
Beyond the obvious allusions and predictable responses, however, are two very different conversations. The messianic mimicry in these pieces comes with very different intentions—intentions that should play a role in how each of these works is interpreted by the broader culture, Christian and non-Christian. For starters, D’Antuono’s painting suggests the artist is making an assertion. Originally, the website for the artwork boldly asked “Can You Handle The Truth?”—the painting displaying what the viewer is being asked if she can “handle.” At the same time, said the artist, each individual subjectively determines “the truth,” like beauty. Put together, one interpretation of the painting is that while we each individually step into the voting booth where we get to select “the truth,” we are nonetheless confronted with the artist’s assertion that “the truth” comes as the messianic figure of a thorny-crowned leader”a leader whom, again, we selected. The implied assertion that “the truth” is somewhere displayed in the painting is contradicted by the suggestion that the truth we encounter in the booth is little more than the artist’s own interpretation of what is true. If truth is purely subjective, why do we need to be confronted by someone else’s (i.e., the artist’s) truth? What is there to “handle”? There is no doubt D’Antuono’s piece is provocative. The question is whether or not it works. This may be a fine example of conceptual art executed without a good, fully thought out concept. Any attention drawn to the work in the name of controversy is simply more of the same religious-political banality that fuels the antagonism of secularists toward religion.
Clark’s piece affords an altogether different approach. Though his Christ-like imagery is potent, the sculpture and performance pose a series of questions rather than any assertions. To begin with, Clark has entitled this piece A Simulacrum of Hope: Simulation of the Triumphal Entry of Christ. Now before jumping to the subtitle, let us first attend to the word simulacrum. The term can mean either an image, representation, or an insubstantial form or semblance of something. Already one can see a difference in the interpretative moves necessary for understanding this piece as a suggestion or exploration, rather than assertion. In his statement about the work, Clark explains, “The sculpture poses a question that relates to religious icons, social conventions, metaphysics, and the collective response of society in reaction to fearful and uncertain times. For me, it has much more to do with us members of the general public-as followers-than any leader granted power.” The artwork, therefore, is intended to provoke viewers to reflect on the messianic roles we thrust on our leaders-in this case, our current president. To describe the piece as a “simulacrum of hope” is to play on the popular insistence that upon this figure we may place our hope. But it is merely a simulation. The implicit suggestion is that, regardless of the leader, we continue to be a people looking for a messiah who will deliver the fulfillment of our hopes and dreams. Clark questions whether this is a good thing—for us, or for the Christ figure. Those who know the biblical narrative will recall the “triumphal entry” marks the beginning of Jesus’ journey to the cross.
What difference does it make for an artist to make an assertion rather than a suggestion, or ask a question? Assertions are different than questions. Assertions eventually require assent or rejection. Questions require reflection. Both will determine the form of discourse that ensues.
When Christians encounter artworks that employ biblical imagery, they should resist any reactionary or defensive interpretation, however deserved. It might be the case, as in the case of Clark’s work, that the imagery is prompting a deeper theological reflection. Clark is in fact questioning our society’s need to impose messianic hopes upon President Obama. Clark is not himself claiming such a move would be “truthful,” in contrast to the ambiguous assertion implicit in D’Antuono’s piece.
Contrasting these two works provides a helpful lesson in visual literacy. More specifically, this comparison provides an opportunity for Christians to become both more theological and visually literate—two crucial skills necessary to engage artists who might be making theological claims. Equally, artists compelled to draw upon the Christian narrative, or any religious narrative, should be open to theological interpretations and dialogue. But this is likely to happen only when Christians can display a level of proficiency when speaking about art, as opposed to offering knee-jerk reactions. The bottom line is that hospitality is required from both sides.
When viewers, devout or secular, encounter a piece of art and suppose they “get it” simply by detecting a form of subversion, they usually miss an opportunity for sharpening their visual literacy—a skill that comes from taking the time to consider a multitude of factors that contribute to the “background” and “foreground” of what the artwork is saying.
The nature of art means there is room for multiple interpretations. A religiously devout viewer will respond to a piece of messianic mimicry differently than a nonreligious viewer. Mere reaction, though, will not suffice if something larger is at stake. They may not agree on what is at stake, but both will agree there is something at stake when we put messianic expectations on our politicians. What these works of art provide is an opportunity to critique our Christian and secularist tendencies to over-value the potential of politics.
We do well to remember, and remembering is the effect of mimicry, that the leader who did ride into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey and don a crown of thorns was killed-not by those who believed he was the messiah, but by those who feared the very possibility that their messianic hopes might be fulfilled through someone like him”someone who, unlike our current president, was of no stature and no wealth. The picture of leadership displayed in Jesus of Nazareth was one so antithetical to their-and our-hope that hope itself was re-formed in light of his refusal to be who we desired him to be. Through this interpretive lens we are able to see the meaning behind and within the mimicry.
Carole L. Baker is an associate in research at Duke Divinity School.