Click on the “discover” feature of Instagram at any moment and you are likely to find it: a portrait of Donald Trump posing casually naked. His mouth seems mid speech, possibly in the act of uttering some wildly racist or untrue statement, as is his wont.
The image, made by self-described “gender-fluid futurist” Illma Gore, has been shared by a social media-obsessed generation that is obviously fed up with Trump’s rhetoric. Gore said that the idea behind the illustration was “to take a man who prides his image and reputation and confront him with it… To evoke a reaction from people, good or bad.”
Except that for a person who identifies with progressive politics, this artist has just used body-shaming as a tactic.
Recently, the image has been removed from countless websites. It has got Gore banned from Facebook, possibly for life. Rather than engaged in any progressive political conversations, Gore has now found themselves in a basic conversation about nudity.
This should be seen as a warning to any artist who wants to engage in political conversation simply through image-making. As an art historian, I know that it just can’t be done.
When I see the image of Trump posing naked, while I agree with Gore’s intention, I see an image of Trump who is proud of his body, no matter what it looks like. Which is to say that it is possible to read the image either way: for Gore’s interpretation, or against it. A conservative who supports Trump, and who had a comfortable idea about the male body, could share it and say, “See, here is someone who is not afraid to say what everyone’s thinking, no matter what they look like!”
The Internet, of course, not content to stop the conversation with this one image, has produced another one. I found it once again in the “discover” section of Instagram: a photo of a very suave President Obama, laughing and pointing to the naked illustration of Trump.
When I saw this image, I thought, oh great, someone has now photoshopped Obama in the act of body-shaming Trump. It has to be fake because the Obama I know would never engage in this conversation. He has been the one to make Biden stop laughing during serious moments.
Not only that, but Obama himself has been the subject for like-minded painters as Gore. They may not agree on literally any issue in politics, but Gore and Jon McNaughton, the painter behind the image of Obama supposedly burning the Constitution, agree on how art should make a political statement.
Except that the painting of Obama is just as dumb as the body-shaming image of Trump. Images like these do not serve political arguments, they merely reinforce the political viewpoints already held by the viewer, no matter what those points are.
Art critic Christopher Knight wrote for the LA Times that the painting of Obama is bad not because of the style, but because “conflicting interpretations can be credibly applied to an image whose only function is to illustrate one idea.” A conservative could see the painting as a reminder that Obama is trampling over the Constitution; while anyone who knows anything about Obama, knows that he was actually studied Constitutional law. If anything, the image shows that Obama, a former constitutional law professor, is simply alerting the viewer to the Constitution’s destruction.
As I suspected, the image of Obama in the act of body-shaming was photoshopped and posted originally on Reddit. Obama has built his career around a respectable discourse, even in the most vulgar form of politics, so it was hard for me to believe that he would be laughing and pointing at the image like that. Even as his term is ending, I know Obama to be consistent in his strategy and respectability.
There are countless artists who use public and community art, socially engaged projects and other mediums to challenge an audience about political ideas. Image-making is not one of them. Images do not challenge the viewer. They simply reinforce previously existing beliefs.
Ryder Ripps has said that memes are the future of political conversation. Pointing to the swarm of memes that purport to show side-by-side comparisons of Bernie Sander’s and Hillary Clinton’s contrasting viewpoints, Ripps claims that only a meme-savvy politician will win the White House in the future. He who controls the meme, controls the country.
But anyone who has made a meme should know that memes are anything but a source of control for their makers. If it stands for anything, a meme actually stands for a total lack of control. When you make a good one, the concept is ripped from underneath you. The image is taken from you and shared without your consent or even attribution. Its message is almost immediately lost.
Sanders was not behind the memes that support him. Rather than reinforce a youthful public’s idea that Sanders should be president, it simply tells me that this generation of meme-hungry voters just thinks that Sanders is lit.
It frustrated me to see both liberal and conservatives using images to make political points, when the conversation should be above all that. But as someone who has studied art history, I know that this isn’t anything new. Titian, a master of portraits, also emphasized the size of his patrons body parts to prove a point about his subjects.
Whoever paid Titian to paint portraits of themselves was of this same idea that images could prove their own power. By emphasizing the size of their body, hands and head, Titian made a good business of bloating the egos of men with a lot of money. But anyone who looks at this image today has no clue who these men are. What they prove is only that Titian was a masterful painter.
Likewise, Michelangelo incorporated images of politicians that he hated into his paintings. If you look at the bottom of the Last Judgment, you will see among the insane faces of devils, that of Biagio da Cesena who called Michelangelo’s work “disgraceful.” Michelangelo’s 16th-century shout out to his haters reminds me that the political temperature during the Renaissance was even worse than it is now. And that even though things can get awful, and make it seem like all of us living are only a day away from the Last Judgment, life will go on.
Trump has used his platform to say a lot of things. His messages don’t convince people to turn violent and racist. They merely call on existing prejudices to act on their worst. Using Trump’s face to criticize his beliefs only serves to remind me that we will have to see his dumb face pretty much every day at least until November.
So please, artists, stop painting it!