My Friend Sarah, My Friend Jones, My Friend Sue and My Friend Scott have all been recent visitors to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., where the two most-talked about pieces are of Barack and Michelle Obama. Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of the 44th president depicts him against a backdrop of flora in which Obama and his ornate wood chair seem to floating. Amy Sherald’s First Lady shows Michelle Obama in a gloriously flowing dress of geometric patterns and curiously gray skin, the signature style of Sherald.
The two works are responsible for drawing unprecedented crowds to the museum. It is an emotional experience, My Friends say. The people viewing the paintings are hushed, reverential. I suspect it is not merely the beauty of the art. No, I’m sure they are looking at these portraits and silently realizing what we have lost. The White House is no longer home to these graceful, intelligent, beautiful, 21st-century people.
They see that the White House is no longer a home to truth and beauty.
The Obama portraits – the subjects are relaxed, unique artistic statements – are also a truth that is not generally seen in the traditional, stiff portraits of the high and mighty: False images that demand respect where none is deserved.
After Aretha Franklin died last week, I was watching video of her at a concert sitting at a piano, which she played well, singing “(You Make Made Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” It was breathtaking. The camera moved up to the audience – it looked like they were in The Kennedy Center – and it paused on Barack Obama. He appeared to be brushing away a tear. His humanity was genuine.
I read a lot of history. But I know that it is often wrong. That’s why history is so often re-written. Fiction, and art, is superior to the non-fiction word. Fiction is a true representation of something, even if it is simply the writer’s vision, what he or she sees. Non-fiction can often be a guess. It is not genuine.
No one gave Rudy Giuliani the power to define what truth is, or the right to declare that “truth is not truth” in his now-infamous defense of Donald Trump. No, truth is truth, just as trees are trees. What Giuliani sees is a truth that is obscured, manipulated, taken out of context.
And at that point, it is properly defined as a lie.
We must rescue the concept of truth – the definition even – from the liars. Because it’s only going to get worse. Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and similar social media handmaids of bullshit are already awash in lies, lies that can generally be exposed through a little research or a minor expenditure of common sense. But new “deepfake” technology will soon allow trolls to create falsehoods far more undetectable from the truth. Videos will purport to show Neil Armstrong confessing that images of the moon landings were actually shot in an abandoned warehouse, or Hillary Clinton admitting that, yes, she and Bill really were running a child sex and human trafficking ring out of a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C.
And these lies will look like the truth. Your choice will be: Do you believe?
You might. Despite indisputable evidence that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, for years Trump and his Birthers continued to circulate the myth that Obama is a native of Kenya. And many people believe that lie to this day.
Policing the truth. Can it be done? Trump has already offered a solution: His administration will determine truth, it will declare what news outlets are to be believed, and which are “Fake News.”
Umm, thanks Donald. You can put your hand down, now. Something about a president who has uttered nearly 4,500 misleading statements or outright lies since taking office, according to a tally being kept by The Washington Post, suggests tasking the government with handing out certificates of truth is not a workable solution.
Trump is not the picture of the public servant who fuels strong democracies. One wonders: Where will Trump’s official portrait hang? As it seems certain his presidency will shake out worse than Watergate, I’m thinking his tangerine image, perhaps one of Jim Carrey’s sketches, might find a home on a cafeteria wall in one of those white-collar, country-club prisons in rural Virginia.
And then, will someone emerge to get us out of this mess? I think that woman or man might be out there.
Senator John McCain died this past weekend, his funeral now a week-long, cross-country event, with 24-hours-a-day tributes on network and cable television. This respect being showered on McCain’s memory must infuriate the small-minded Trump. And these glowing eulogies are a reminder that exceptional leaders can emerge in difficult times. McCain had ideas that didn’t work for a lot of people. Bringing in Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate certainly exacerbated the divide in this country. But in one memorable video clip making the rounds, during his presidential campaign against Obama, we see McCain shutting down the famous Woman in Red who says she’s heard Obama is an Arab. McCain’s comeback wasn’t perfect, as there’s nothing wrong with someone being an Arab, or Muslim, or Jew. But McCain did correct her facts, noting that Obama is a Christian and good family man.
It speaks volumes that Trump was told he is not welcome at McCain’s funeral. And Palin has not been invited. Their inauthentic souls, the fog of untruth that surrounds them, would not be a true picture.
McCain’s insistence on the truth, no matter how convenient the lie might be, is something that’s been lost in the halls of the National Portrait Gallery.
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