Thoughts on Barack Obama from the Bayforest of St. John

It feels strange, here, surrounded by bay trees, to be thinking about the presidential election. On the other side of my window’s rusting frame, raindrops are running down the giant philodendron leaves. Tree frogs are chanting. Moths brush the ceiling beams; Suriname hardwood. The books on my desk are beginning to warp, their covers curling in the humidity. This mountain, marked by abandoned charcoal pits, can seem remote even now with its paved road, its incongruous joggers and dog-walking neighbors; hallucinations.

Wires and waves carry the news of national politics from the U.S. mainland to this mountain on which I was raised. Do islands still exist in an age of connectivity, or do we exist everywhere at once beyond any possibility of isolation? The current presidential campaign, Barack Obama vs. Mitt Romney, is accessible here, as it is across the nation, on monitors and television sets – and many of us follow it intently, although here we cannot vote. Here in the U.S. Virgin Islands we remain unincorporated, in limbo, and full of contradictory desires.

Despite the pride of t-shirts emblazoned with the face of the President, despite the absurdity of campaign bumper stickers, we remain outsiders to presidential politics. But who is more preoccupied with what happens “on the inside” than the outsider? We look on from a distance — sometimes filled with bitterness, sometimes filled with relief. We spend a lot of hours with our own discomfort.

Questions of identity can buzz unpleasantly inside the minds of those without clear ethnic or national attachments. But these questions are social not natural; they are a response to a world that demands categorization with one hand and refuses it with the other. It is not always easy to pick and choose our commitments; humanity is filled to the brim with complexities and permutations. Why is this fact so seldom reflected, or even acknowledged, in our institutions and leaders? But Barack Obama, a man who has written books about the complexities of cultural identity, appeared to many as a harbinger of change.

The President’s most vocal opponents speak in small, shrill voices about birth certificates and other symbols of “the intolerant root.” They say he is unknowable — an essentially mysterious person. They say he shifts in and out of affected political stances. This has been most recently argued by Dinesh D’souza’s propagandist documentary, 2016: Obama’s America, which has been breaking box office records in the States. The off-key argument that D’Souza continues to make to whoever will listen — many people it seems — is that Obama is to be feared, above all because he is “anti-colonial.” And D’souza bizarrely tells us that he himself is an authority on anti-colonialism, because he “grew up in India in the decades after that country gained its independence from Britain.” Given the amount of people who share those credentials, and the diversity of opinion bred by that experience, I find the intensity and narrowness of D’Souza’s argument puzzling.

Neurosis over anti-colonialism, too, seems mysterious in the United States, a nation born of anti-colonial revolution. Is this response simply the narcissism of some Caucasians who hear the term “anti-colonial” and interpret it as “anti-white?” Is it as simple as this conflation of anti-colonialism, a broad discourse on power, with the related but superficial sideshow of race?

It is at the most conservative end of the American political spectrum that we mostly find those arguing that Obama is a shadowy outsider. But this position can be messy and unconstrained. It can spill over the indistinct borders that separate ideologies.

In a recent issue of The New Republic, a center-left American political magazine (the center-left American political magazine), Nicholas Lehmann reviews the most recent biography of the President, a book blandly entitled Barack Obama: The Story. Lehmann’s analysis, though more favorable to Obama than D’souza’s obsessive editorials, sometimes falls into the flawed, common thinking in which the President’s complex background is seen as a natural source of anxiety. We are supposed to believe that Obama himself is confused by his own upbringing, which was “all over the cultural, geographic, and political map.” I believe this is misguided; There are a lot of people in the world today with fragmented, international identities: migrants, refugees, colonials and ex-colonials, global creoles of various kinds – people who can’t go home, people who have never been home. The mistake is to believe that their complexity necessarily leads to confusion. There is nothing inevitable about the ways in which people whose experience lies outside of so-called “master-narrratives” (half-Kenyan Hawaiians raised in Indonesia for instance)  are made to feel they should be confused by those who are more rooted in their own ethnic/national traditions. This is nothing but a condemnable turn-of-the-century form of cruelty.

But Lehmann is also sensitive to some things about Obama that aren’t often mentioned in the American media. Obama’s response to the overdetermined racial thinking that is such an ingrained part of American culture – his close identification with the main line of African-American historical narrative that stretches from the Southern plantation to the Civil Rights Movement, a history which he is only ambiguously attached to – may deserve more attention. Some Americans experience no cognitive dissonance on this issue. For instance, Jelani Cobb’s recent piece in the New Yorker tries very hard to place Obama within this narrative, and Cobb’s writing is so good that he almost convinced me, but I could not finally ignore the contradictions. If that is other peoples’ truth, so be it, but mine lies elsewhere. Lehmann, for one, is asking useful questions:

“One can’t gainsay the genuineness of the feeling of homecoming Obama got from finding his way into the heart of the African American experience, most notably through his marriage, from a point completely outside it. But it is also a sign of the weirdness of America’s racial customs—most whites assume that anybody who has dark skin also has a set of identical, deeply ingrained experiences and attitudes that just weren’t part of Obama’s life growing up—that Obama has been able to sell this version of himself so successfully.”

That’s a thoughtful way to put it. Identity is always in formation, and is largely voluntary, but one can’t help but wonder about American racial myopia in relation to the President’s identity. He is, interestingly, descended from American slaves, but only on the “white-ish” side of his family, not the black African side.

And here is where Lehmann’s analysis – opposite but symmetrical to D’souza’s focus on the politics of colonialism – really caught my interest:

“If there is a politically applicable impression that emerges from the great mass of material [in Barack Obama: The Story], it is how much Obama is a child of the postcolonial era. Hawaii, Kenya, and Indonesia were all former colonies or possessions of the West, one of which was absorbed into a larger democratic nation, the other two of which became independent. The careers of Obama’s grandparents, his parents, and his stepfather all can be seen as workings out of the ways in which post-colonialism plays itself out in individual lives. And though the term “post-colonial” reads as “left,” both of Obama’s parents, though they probably would have been comfortable with that equation as applying to them politically, chose to work not as lifelong rebels but in the sorts of establishment roles that the end of colonialism opened up: his mother, in Indonesia, at the Ford Foundation; his father, in Kenya, at Shell Oil and then in a government bureau meant to promote the tourist business.”

This rings true to me, and is far more natural than D’souza’s hysteria over a threatening “anti-colonialism.” Fanon reminds us that colonial society is a Manichean society. Part of rejecting it must be learning, despite the pain, to recognize a more full sense of our societies and ourselves. It is difficult for all involved. But postcoloniality must not become a slogan. It must be a sensibility. A young Obama, writing in a letter to a college girlfriend (a letter which Barack Obama: The Story mines for insights), expresses one of the most characteristic features of the postcolonial condition: a sense of disconnection from the past:

“Caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me….”

For many of us, the path that Obama takes is not as important as the fact that it is different, and somehow reflects this postcolonial understanding of the world — one in which, in the words of a great poet, “everything and its absolute opposite are true.” Those who label this as confusion will soon find that the doors to the future are sealed by singularity.

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Goodbye to Maine: Place, Perception and Andrew Wyeth

From 2009 until 2011, I worked as a custom art framer in Portland, Maine. I never imagined that during this time in New England I would frame so many photos of the Caribbean. During long winters, pictures of the tropics were often dropped off at my workshop, and the idealized images of palm-lined beaches made me homesick for the Virgin Islands, even if their airbrushed vision of the Antilles was far from my own.

Images are powerful. Even something as superficial as tourist art can be relentless when it presents itself as truth. The landscapes found on posters and in glossy photographs felt bludgeoning to me during those years; sometimes they even threatened to become more real than my memories. Everyone has a home. And whether we like it or not, the images of our homes that confront us shape our identity.

For Mainers, it must be the paintings of Andrew Wyeth that seem inescapable. During my time working in Portland, I framed hundreds of his prints. Wyeth, the second generation of a dynasty of American artists, spent his summers in Maine, and his work has become strongly attached to the state. His most famous painting, “Christina’s World”, is a symbol of New England to many people around the globe. Despite being made into an icon, the painting can still seem eerie. Is the subject a young girl daydreaming in the fields of her family farm? No, the woman is Christina Olson, crippled by polio, the isolated heir of a family of puritanical North Atlantic sailors, dragging herself back home after visiting her family cemetery plot. I stood in that same cemetery plot in Cushing, Maine in 2009. There was a fresh burial, a mound of dirt marked by a single yellow daffodil. I knew, although the headstone had not yet been placed, that the grave was Andrew Wyeth’s.

“Christina’s World”, 1948. (Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art)

In the context of contemporary art, Andrew Wyeth can seem like the defender of an unfashionable realism. A painter of solemn rural scenes, Wyeth’s apparent nationalist  streak has made his work sit uncomfortably with those critics who are curious about his ideological judgements. When art historian Robert Rosenblum was asked in 1977 to name the most underrated and overrated artists of the 20th-century, he mentioned only Andrew Wyeth.

What Rosenblum meant by this is that Wyeth is popularly overrated — by the kind of people who trained art historians probably believe don’t “understand” art — and critically underrated, maybe for the same reason. Wyeth’s designation in the United States, “The People’s Painter”, was always an insult in avant-garde circles, meant to categorize Wyeth as a reactionary painter and a defender of mainstream Anglo-American values.

But what exactly are the politics of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings? His aristocratic bearing, his attachment to realism, and his disdain for most of the bohemian art of his era say enough about his cultural conservatism. But I doubt that Wyeth is described accurately as a defender of mainstream Anglo-American values. As far as I can see his values are the values of an outsider.

Wyeth’s vision of a desolate and decrepit America is not the vision of a man at ease. His biographers often emphasize the frail health and isolation of his childhood. Andrew was frequently ill and home-schooled, not allowed much contact with people outside the family compound. His father, the famous (and famously intense) illustrator N.C. Wyeth, was his only teacher. The Wyeths were an old New England family (the first Wyeth to arrive in the United States was Nicholas Wyeth, who settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1645), but more recent immigrants had also influenced Andrew’s branch of the Wyeth clan. His father, in his twenties, wrote about this lineage:

“My grandmother was born in the mountains of Switzerland. When twenty-three years of age she tore herself away from all her people and the quiet romantic little dairy home to follow my grandfather to America. Dropped into the heart of Cambridge, Mass., among strange people, unable even to speak a word of their tongue, she lived for three years. Then it was, in 1867, that my grandfather purchased a lonesome bit of land in the outskirts of Needham and on the Charles River, and here my dear old grandmother almost pined her heart away for her home and people in the Swiss mountains…. [this nostalgia] has always impressed me profoundly, and I in turn have inherited that strange love for things remote, things delicately perfumed with that sadness that is so exquisitely beautiful.”

N.C.’s nostalgia isn’t surprising when taken alongside his work; melancholy currents run deep through his famous “blood and thunder” illustrations.

N.C. Wyeth’s “The Passing of Robin Hood”, 1917. (Courtesy of flickriver.com)

What’s more interesting than his sentimentality is that he finds the source of his own pathos in the inherited dispossession of a “self-exiled” ancestor. Maybe it is partly this dispossession, passed down another generation, that gives his son Andrew, whose best-known portraits are of loners and exiles, his outsider’s edge.

Andrew’s America is an austere, wintry world populated with people whose surnames are not exactly associated with the Anglo-Yankeedom that has sometimes championed his work. The Olsons, Kuerners, and Testorfs who wander Wyeth’s bleak countryside are strangers. “I pick out models who are misfits. And I’m a misfit,” he said.

Farm Road, 1979. (Courtesy of mnartists.com)

Turtleneck, 1984.

Turtleneck, 1984.

Aside from the warmth and identification with which he portrayed a few of his “misfit” models, Wyeth is best known for coldness and alienation. In 1945, Andrew’s father, N.C., was killed when his car stalled at a railroad crossing, an event that was the catalyst for Andrew’s maturation as an artist and his subsequent obsession with death and loss. Every landscape that Wyeth painted after that year was, by his own admission, a portrait of his father – severe, imposing, and possessing the qualities of an eroding memory.

“The Mill”, 1970. (Courtesy of swoyersart.com)

It’s bizarre that Andrew Wyeth, an artist of obvious eccentricity and some might say opacity, became so beloved in the United States as a national painter. To this day, his vision of New England, so clearly his own harrowing psychological landscape, is often read as conventional American realism by those who hang his prints above their fireplaces. Frank Fowler, a dealer of Andrew Wyeth’s work, is on to something when he argues that Wyeth is, despite his ties to the realist tradition, better thought of as an abstractionist since:

“…his trees, birds, and kitchen stoves, which look precisely like trees, birds, and kitchen stoves are likely to be metaphors for loneliness, violence or decay.”

Is there anything more death-haunted and despairing in 20th-century American art than the solitary cresting wave in “Adrift”? Or the long shadows in “Young Bull”?

“Adrift”, 1982. (Courtesy of An American Vision)

“Young Bull”, 1960. (Courtesy of andrewwyeth.org)

If Wyeth’s paintings are deceptively quiet, it is only to make the violence they conceal more unnerving. Karl Keurner, one of the his frequent models, was a former German soldier during World War I, and a neighbor of the Wyeths in Pennsylvania. Andrew spent years painting the Keurner farm, which he once noted in an interview did not interest him in any picturesque way. Instead, he was impressed by the place abstractly and emotionally, noting its utilitarian, nearly militaristic nature. He once said of Karl Keurner that “[his eyes] have looked down a machine-gun barrel, squinted great distances… those are my father’s lips – cruel.”  Rarely does Keurner appear in Wyeth’s world without also the suggestion of violence, as in the painting entitled “Karl” with its meat hooks and cracking ceiling.

“Karl”, 1948. (Courtesy of Paper Images)

Even the serenity of  “Groundhog Day”, otherwise be a tranquil rendering of Karl’s kitchen, is interrupted by the menace of jagged saw cuts in the logs outside Keurner’s window.

“Groundhog Day”, 1959. (Courtesy of antiquesandthearts.com)

As for Maine, Wyeth was not a native of that state, but in many ways it has adopted him, and his choice of a final resting place suggests that he found this fitting. His paintings have become a part of Maine’s mythology.

“Christina Olson”, 1947. (Courtesy of all-art.com)

An insular state that depends heavily on tourism for its revenue, Maine is another place where images threaten to become more real than reality. I sometimes wonder if it’s right that the state’s most familiar aesthetic was born in the tortured, anti-modern imagination of Andrew Wyeth. I wonder, at least, how native Mainers experience this. What is their truth?

Wyeth described Maine as “spidery, light in color, windy perhaps, sometimes foggy, giving the impression sometimes of crackling skeletons rattling in the attic.” It’s a romantic description, and with the same Gothic sentimentality found in his father’s illustrations. But maybe every place deserves its romance as long as it doesn’t thrash the inner-landscapes of those who live there. I admit that, years from now, when I think of my time in Maine, I will partly think of Andrew Wyeth and his battered vision of New England: a place forceful enough to be bruising, yet brittle enough to appear fragile.

“Wind from the Sea”, 1947. (Courtesy of NY Times)

“Sea Boots”, 1976. (Courtesy of andrewyeth.org)