I’ve lately been envisioning the project of writing this column for NJ Globe “on the intersection of art and politics” slightly differently than I initially thought I would. Namely, my approach is turning into: pretend the images generated by NJ politicians are a kind of outsider art and discuss them as such. Following this logic, these images deserve to be looked at and talked about within the realm of art history. This has been a challenge. Most of the images produced in service of promoting someone’s political career are flatly uninteresting, and they pass by us without notice because they adhere to certain rigid rules. For instance, here is the pairing of avatar picture and banner photo from the very nice and polished Twitter account of Donald Payne:
In case it’s not clear, Twitter users are prompted to enter both a profile picture (which shows up next to all of your tweets and on your personal page in a circle), and a horizontal banner image you see when you visit their personal page. The format used by the majority of politicians (and bureaucrat-types in various fields) is straightforward:
avatar = professional head shot, usually in business attire;
banner = pic of (person “in action” at their job) or (beautiful photo of their
hometown/district) or (person’s family and/or pet) or (American flag or otherwise
This is the formula, the kind of image that passes by your eyes and your brain scarcely notices. Occasionally you pass by the kind of avatar/banner pairing that has been set up incorrectly or as part of an oversight, and it’s a little jarring.
But then, there is this:
Although strictly adhering to the rules stated above (one assumes he is photographed in his office, so I guess it’s an action shot? and there is that flag) the Lance
Twitter page really challenges the medium, If the male subject of Edward Hopper’s “Office at Night” (1940) moved to New Jersey, ran for Congress, and had a Twitter page, this is what it would look like. I adore that painting, but I adore it for all the bleakness and alienation it projects. These may not be the attributes Lance intends.
What’s most notable to me in the pairing of these images is that we are forced to reconcile the image of two Leonard Lances. Now technically, Payne’s page presents us with two Donald Paynes (as does any avatar/banner combination that contains images of the person in both), but the banner image is so filled with people and happy smiles, it looks significantly different from his avatar shot. In Lance’s Twitter page, we are confronted with one image of the Congressman to the left, and then a second distinct but similar image of him to the right. The second image is somehow more Leonard Lance than the first: head tilted as if considering a question, mouth slightly open as if to speak, and with the whole banner cast in pastel, ice cream shop colors, it feels weirdly vulnerable and human. I never actually thought of Leonard Lance as an actual living, breathing person until I saw this picture. Hopper is the first artist I think of, but Thiebaud’s cakes soon come to mind – somewhat awkwardly propped up, strangely delicate, and oh, that lovely palette.
Some of art historian Arthur Danto’s best known writing reflects upon the work of Andy Warhol, an artist who frequently used repeating images (Marilyn Monroes, Brillo Boxes,
etc), as a way of considering the importance and weight we put on originality in art. Danto reminds us of Nabokov discussing Robert Frost, and the way in which the second
“And miles to go before I sleep” is somehow, magically, different than the first. Likewise, the two Leonard Lances we are confronted with – while not identical – strike
up a strange rhythm that adds finality to the second and a sense of hesitation to the first. Are two Leonard Lances better than one? Maybe.
Considering all of this for way longer than I ever should have, I started to wonder if it was possible for a politician to post a photo of themselves and somehow not be present in
it. Meaning, if Payne is present once, and Lance is present twice, is it possible for there to be an image created of a politician that somehow represents them but does it in such a
way as to destroy all traces of the person as an individual, one with flesh and blood and thoughts and feelings and so forth? If portraits almost necessarily bring out the humanity
of their subject, is it possible to create one that strips all remains of human-ness?
Sure, it sounds like one of those academic questions like if a tree falls in a forest or whatever. But it winds up, there is.
If these were images hanging in an art gallery, we’d discuss them as an example of seamless blending of artist and subject, to the point where it’s just confusing to the viewer as to
who is taking this picture and who the picture is actually of. It’s not a picture of the politician; it’s a picture of the politician-as-celebrity, or as object-to-be-photographed. Here is not just a photograph of Christie or Booker, it is a photo of people liking Christie/Booker while standing next to him – a sentiment (“people really like me”)
that would be hard to capture otherwise without looking arrogant – and he is shown liking them back, in the most vacuous way possible.
And as ubiquitous as iPhone selfies have become, these photos adhere to a tightly-formed cliché. We’ve all been there, holding our phone out, hoping for the best photo – politicians, they’re just like us! But also, through the use of that cliché, the photos imply a wholesome narrative: Christie, out for a summer stroll on the boardwalk, runs into two
gushing girl-fans who just have to take a pic and so he kindly obliges. If it was just a photo of Christie with two young women (one carrying a Little Mermaid bag, no less), it
might look a little strange. But the presence of the iPhone dissipates anything that might be uncomfortable.
What are these photos of, specifically, if the politician isn’t actually present in them? Oh nothing – they’re just pictures. They’re somehow not carefully staged and curated images
of incredibly powerful men appearing next to a demographic of voter they hope to reach. They’re “just pictures” – and they operate as a kind of Trojan horse. They beg not to be
taken seriously, while sneakily inserting the image of the politician into our consciousness.
I find all this fascinating, but nobody disappears into a headshot quite like Bill Pascrell. At first glance, his Twitter page appears to be a standard professional presentation:
But click on the avatar. Just, go on. Do it. (Well, you can’t here. But if you were on Twitter, this is what you’d get.)
I’m confused. Are we looking at a Sims/Second Life version of Pascrell, or did some overzealous intern so over-Photoshop his portrait that it just stopped being a photograph
of an actual human being? Why is his skin so ruddy and smooth, why is his suit made out of plastic, and what on earth is happening to those papers he’s carrying? (Notice that the
papers have very, very dark text, sort of Vantablack, and yet the text is blurred just enough that you can’t read it.) Meanwhile, the hypnotic orange/maroon combo on his tie
is the real star here; that, along with the statue behind him with the word GREATER etched on it are the only things that give you any semblance of visual satisfaction or at
even just the sense that what you’re looking at might be a real thing that actually exists in the world.
This is not a portrait of Bill Pascrell; this is not even a picture of Bill-Pascrell-as-object. It’s what would happen if you made a clone of a clone of a clone of the man, and then
made an action figure based on that and took its picture. It is the Beast Jesus version of Pascrell, in which we are forced to confront a cheaper, crappier, and more much
horrifying version of a thing than the thing ever was to begin with. He looks fine in real life. Why on earth would someone do this to him?
Beast Jesus Pascrell may well represent the worst impulse in political portraiture – that is, to cover up the human being so thoroughly as to make them wear a mask. Instead, keep it simple and genuine and show us who you really are – or at least what you look like. That’s all most voters expect from a picture of their elected official.