The artist who painted former President Barack Obama’s recently unveiled portrait reportedly has a habit of outsourcing some of his work to Chinese painters.
As noted Monday by the Conservative Tribune, Obama specifically chose artist Kehinde Wiley to paint his official presidential portrait for the Smithsonian Museum’s National Portrait Gallery, which features portraits of every president going back to George Washington.
Following the Obama portrait’s grand unveiling Monday, old reports regarding Wiley’s sketchy past began to surface, including one about his penchant for repainting other people’s works with decapitated white people.
One report by the Los Angeles Times published seven years ago noted that at the time Wiley maintained studios in three cities: New York, Beijing and Dakar, Senegal.
A year after the Times ran this report, New York magazine published a particularly jarring one in which it noted that whenever Wiley worked from Beijing, he relied on outsourced labor to reduce costs.
“Producing work in China cuts costs, but not as much as it used to, Wiley says. These days in Beijing he employs anywhere from four to ten workers, depending on the urgency, plus a studio manager, the American artist Ain Cocke,” the report read.
While I can understand the idea of an artist hiring people to assist him with the more rudimentary tasks — refilling paint, washing brushes, filling in the least demanding parts of the canvas — the magazine’s report made it clear Wiley allowed his employees to actually paint for him, and likely to a substantial degree.
Check out the following snippet to see what I mean: “When I first arrived at his Beijing studio, the assistants had left, and he made me delete the iPhone snapshots I’d taken of the empty space. It’s not that he wants people to believe every brushstroke is his, he says. That they aren’t is public knowledge. It’s just a question of boundaries.” (emphasis added)
This means “every brushstroke” was obviously not his — and he’s cagey about the actual process. “I don’t want you to know every aspect of where my hand starts and ends,” he told the magazine.
As noted by Christopher Lord, the arts contributor for Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper, the question of whether the “the value of art (is) affected according to who physically creates it” is “a continuing debate,” meaning there’s no right or wrong answer.
What’s more interesting to ponder is Obama’s decision to choose Wiley to paint his portrait. What does it say about him and his administration, if anything?
The liberals who criticized Obama for his poor record on outsourcing might argue it reflects his refusal to do anything substantive to stop American jobs from flowing to other countries.
“Obama’s critics, primarily on the political left, say he has repeatedly failed … to protect American jobs from being moved overseas. They point to a range of actions they say he should have taken: confronting China, reining in unfettered trade and reworking a U.S. visa program that critics say ends up sending high-tech jobs abroad,” The Washington Post reported during the 2012 presidential election.
Conversely, those on the right might argue that Obama’s choice reflects his own lack of authenticity, honesty and transparency.
He is, after all, the man who repeatedly lied to the American public, saying, “If you like your plan you can keep your plan.”
Either way you cut it, Obama’s choice comes out badly — almost as badly as his portrait did.
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