Michelle Obama as political art

Is this Spanish news magazine cover of Michelle Obama art or porn? Is it racist and sexist? Or is it a political fantasy of the noble savage, an incisive commentary on the centrality of Mrs. Obama's sexuality in the presidential election campaign? Is it Granada I see or only Asbury Park in this profile of the First Lady? The cover ignited a firestorm of controversy and prompted accusations of racism in the "black blogosphere", the Huffington Post reported. But behind the fun over the racy cover lay an article that exemplified a secular worldview -- a philosophical construct about the meaning and purpose of life that sees the acquisition of power as the chief aim of life and where God is absent (or far off on the margins.)

But before I become too airy fairy let's start with the fun. On 9 Aug 2012 Fuera de Serie, a weekly magazine insert of the Madrid business daily Expansión published a profile of Michelle Obama. The article "Michelle se como a Obama" was illustrated by a cover painting of the First Lady draped in an American flag and posed in the style of a famous 19th century painting -- Portrait d'une Négresse on exhibition at the Louvre by French artist Marie-Guillemine Benoist (1800).

On 29 August the magazine published the full text of the story and some background to the cover in an online piece entitled "La polémica desnudez de Michelle Obama".

The initial controversy was missed by the American press, but animated African-American publications and blogs.  The Huffington Post put the story into play within the mainstream press, shortly followed by Le Monde and other American and European publications. But their coverage focused on the cover, not the content of the article.

The Huffington Post was not pleased. It quoted one blogger as saying:

“By choosing to use such a jarring image to tell the story of how America’s first lady “seduced the people of the United States” and “stole the heart of Barack Obama,” as Fuera de Serie describes her,” writes Brande Victorian of Madame Noire, “it’s clear the magazine agrees with that mentality and wants to spread the message loud and clear: todavía estamos esclavos. We are still slaves.”

It cited other black interest publications who voiced similar objections, and likened the furore to the 2008  New Yorker cover that portrayed Michelle and Barack Obama as afro-centric terrorists.

Some European observers saw this negative reaction as an example of America's lubricious Puritanism -- a sentiment best summarized by Pascal Bruckner in last year's Dominique Strauss-Kuhn affair.

It’s not enough though to describe [America] as puritanical because what governs [America] is a twisted puritanism which, after the sexual revolution, talks the language of free love and coexists with a flourishing porn industry.

Le Monde was less censorious than the Huffington Post and suggested the cover might not be so bad. It said the Portrait d'une Négresse was a celebration of the abolition of slavery and a symbol of liberation, of modernity, of freedom.  It also gave the artist, Karine Percheron Daniels, space to deny charges of racism.

In my eyes, the image I created is of a beautiful woman with a beautiful message. For the first time in history the First Lady of the United States is a black woman who proudly displays her femininity (nudity), her roots (the slave) and her power (first lady of the United States embraced by the American flag). ... I'm not racist. I'm trying with my art to show the beauty not the dirt.

So what is going on here? And where is the GetReligion ghost in all of this? Let's go inside the story and see.

Like the cover painting, "Michelle se como a Obama" and "La polémica desnudez de Michelle Obama" are artistic interpretations of the meaning of Michelle Obama. Facts are present, but the meaning of these facts are a construct of the author who frames the article from the very beginning as a hagiography. Michelle Obama is a secular left-liberal saint, whose:

popularity ratings exceed those of her husband, President Barack Obama. Experts even suggest that she will be the key to the reelection of Democrat in November elections. But how the first lady has managed to [steal the hearts] of the American people?

The article answers this question by contrasting Saint Michelle with the Wicked Witch of the West: Sarah Palin. While "attractive" and "quintessentially America" the former Alaska governor was also "vulgar, predictable, uneducated and arrogant."

Mrs. Obama in contrast is "sleek, friendly, outgoing, direct, sometimes irreverent, and mother of two daughters."  A woman whom nine out of ten voters believe "shares their values and understands their problems," Fuera de Serie said. The article continues along these lines before moving to the heart of the story -- the "why" of Michelle Obama.

Michelle is the daughter of Fraser Robinson, a worker who earned her living scrubbing floors in a water treatment plant in the city of Chicago, at the rate of $ 479 per month.

And it was this solidarity with the workers that drove the young Michelle to go on to Princeton and Harvard Law School and with Barack champion the cause of the poor and oppressed and right the "injustices" of the Bush Administration.

From the humble streets of their city [Chicago] emerged a community spirit, the spark that drove her husband to pursue his presidential dream ...  even though politics was "a waste of time" that would detract from [Barack Obama's] responsibilities as a father and husband.

And like any good story from the "Lives of the Saints", the article recounts tales of the miraculous and promises of divine intervention through the invocation of the saint's name. For you see Michelle Obama is a better campaigner than her husband, one expert voice told Fuera de Serie, and her "passion and drive have triggered fantasies" that if her husband loses to Mitt Romney in the Fall, Michelle can carry forward the banner of change.

Let me step back a moment and say I am not denigrating or advocating the re-election campaign of President Barack Obama, nor am I slighting the First Lady. My target is this dreadful news profile of Mrs. Obama that is so over the top, so ludicrous, so one-sided that it is more likely to lead to ridicule than to admiration of its subject.

And absent from this entire story is any sense of what lay behind the family values and ethics of the parents that reared the young Michelle Robinson on Chicago's South Side. Belief in God? Belief in history? We have snippets and slogans that hint at solidarity with the masses, but nothing else. The Michelle Obama in this article is identical to the artists portrait on the cover -- a stylized fantasy that represents a cause, but is not representative of a person.

So GetReligion readers, tell me, is this racist, sexist, or vulgar? Is it beautiful, ennobling, a celebration of hope and change for a better world? Or am I taking a shovel to a souffle -- seeing shadows and specters where none exist? What say you?

Please respect our Commenting Policy