I guess Bobo’s had all he can take of being outside the Acela corridor, and the conventions may have taken all the ginger out of him, poor thing. Today he’s decided to tell us all about “How Artists Change the World.” He ‘splains that Frederick Douglass used photography to alter perceptions of African-Americans. As usual, what “gemli” from Boston had to say will follow. Mr. Cohen, in “Obama’s American Idea,” says there is no real America to take back, as Trump insists, because America’s many-hued reality is a ceaseless becoming. However, he can’t resist taking a swipe at Obama. Here’s Bobo:
As usual, there were a ton of artists and musicians at the political conventions this year. And that raises some questions. How much should artists get involved in politics? How can artists best promote social change?
One person who serves as a model here was not an artist but understood how to use a new art form. Frederick Douglass made himself the most photographed American of the 19th century, which is kind of amazing. He sat for 160 separate photographs (George Custer sat for 155 and Abraham Lincoln for 126). He also wrote four lectures on photography.
Douglass used his portraits to change the way viewers saw black people. Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard points out that one of Douglass’s favorite rhetorical tropes was the chiasmus: the use of two clauses in a sentence in reversed order to create an inverse parallel.
For example, Douglass wrote, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”
And that’s what Douglass did with his portraits. He took contemporary stereotypes of African-Americans — that they are inferior, unlettered, comic and dependent — and turned them upside down.
Douglass posed for his portraits very carefully and in ways that evolved over the years. You can see the progression of Douglass portraits in a new book called “Picturing Frederick Douglass,” curated by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd and Celeste-Marie Bernier, and you can read a version of Gates’s essay in the new special issue of Aperture magazine, guest edited by Sarah Lewis.
In almost all the photographs, Douglass is formally dressed, in black coat, vest, stiff formal collar and bow tie. He is a dignified and highly cultured member of respectable society.
But within that bourgeois frame there is immense personal force. Douglass once wrote, “A man without force is without the essential dignity of humanity.” Douglass’s strong features project relentless determination and lionlike pride. In some early portraits, starting when he was around age 23, his fists are clenched.
In some of the pre-Civil War photos he stares directly into the camera lens, unusual for the time. And then there was his majestic wrath. In 1847 he told a British audience that when he was a slave he had “been punished and beaten more for [my] looks than for anything else — for looking dissatisfied because [I] felt dissatisfied.”
Douglass brought that look of radical dissatisfaction to the studio. When he was a young man, his stares were at once piercing, suspicious and solemn. As he got older, his face took on a deeper wisdom and sadness while losing none of his mountainous solemnity. He was combining moral depth and great learning.
Douglass was combating a set of generalized stereotypes by showing the specific humanity of one black man. (The early cameras produced photographs with great depth of field revealing each pore, hair and blemish.)
Most of all, he was using art to reteach people how to see.
We are often under the illusion that seeing is a very simple thing. You see something, which is taking information in, and then you evaluate, which is the hard part.
But in fact perception and evaluation are the same thing. We carry around unconscious mental maps, built by nature and experience, that organize how we scan the world and how we instantly interpret and order what we see.
With these portraits, Douglass was redrawing people’s unconscious mental maps. He was erasing old associations about blackness and replacing them with new ones. As Gates writes, he was taking an institution like slavery, which had seemed to many so inevitable, and leading people to perceive it as arbitrary. He was creating a new ideal of a just society and a fully alive black citizen, and therefore making current reality look different in the light of that ideal.
“Poets, prophets and reformers are all picture makers — and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements,” Douglass wrote. This is where artists make their mark, by implanting pictures in the underwater processing that is upstream from conscious cognition. Those pictures assign weights and values to what the eyes take in.
I never understand why artists want to get involved in partisanship and legislation. The real power lies in the ability to recode the mental maps people project into the world.
A photograph is powerful, even in the age of video, because of its ability to ingrain a single truth. The special “Vision and Justice” issue of Aperture shows that the process of retraining the imagination is ongoing. There are so many images that startlingly put African-American models in places where our culture assumes whiteness — in the Garden of Eden, in Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”
These images don’t change your mind; they smash through some of the warped lenses through which we’ve been taught to see.
And here’s what “gemli” had to say about that:
“The one thing that comes through all of the photographs of Frederick Douglass I’ve ever seen is dignity. It seems to be part of his character that is so powerful it leaves a trace on the photographic plate. It may be all the more striking because you rarely see it these days, particularly in the political arena.
It’s not because the technology has moved on. Modern cameras are just as receptive to strength and dignity as were the ones in Douglass’ time, but they’re often not focused on it. On the occasions when it does happen, it can be jarring.
One recent example occurred at the Democratic National Convention. After several rousing but ordinary convention speeches, Khizr Khan and his wife took the podium. They did something that no one has been able to during this entire election season.
With quiet dignity and few words, there were able to pierce the armor of ignorance, deceit and disdain that has protected Donald Trump from criticism.
Trump responded to Mr. Khan’s story of pain and the sacrifice of his son with a claim that money and business success entailed sacrifice as well. Although Mrs. Khan’s silence spoke volumes, Trump criticized her for saying nothing.
Our would-be emperor was revealed to have no clothes. The dignity gap created by the wrath of Khan was a chasm that swallowed Donald Trump and his entire sham of a campaign.”
Now here’s Mr. Cohen:
There is a line from a conversation 20 years ago between Barack Obama and the photographer Mariana Cook that offers an important insight into the president: “All my life,” he said, “I have been stitching together a family, through stories or memories or friends or ideas.”
There was much to stitch: his lost Kenyan father, his Indonesian stepfather Lolo Soetoro, his unusual journey through various names and identities, his black paternal side and his white maternal side, his youth in Asia, his adolescence in Hawaii, his student years in California and New York, and his coming-of-age in Chicago.
What Barack Obama ended up “stitching together” in his path to selfhood — the unifying idea that became his core reference — was the United States of America. As he said in his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, “In no other country on earth is my story even possible.”
This was the moment Obama emerged onto the national stage: “There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.” I can still feel the frisson his words stirred in Boston.
In the dozen years since, his message has not changed. It was evident again in Philadelphia last week as he endorsed Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. He spoke of the American values that led his Kansan grandparents and his wife Michelle’s family to see the children of immigrants as “just as American as their own, whether they wore a cowboy hat or a yarmulke; a baseball cap or a hijab.”
Obama was at his most uplifting. Because he discovered America, pieced it together after his years overseas, saw it as a newcomer might, understood from experience the space it affords for personal reinvention, he brings a singular intellectual passion to the American idea: a nation of immigrants equal before the law dedicated to the proposition that among their inalienable rights are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
He admonished Donald Trump, the would-be savior: “We don’t look to be ruled.” No, Americans are engaged in “self-government.” He was reminding Americans, at a critical moment, of the first words of the Constitution: “We the People.” Of every color, creed, sexuality, race, ethnicity are the people composed: That, for Obama, is America’s strength; it’s what gave him his.
In no other nation is tomorrow so vivid, yesterday so pale. Where you came from yields to American rebirth. There is no real America to take back, as Trump insists, because America’s many-hued reality is a ceaseless becoming. It is a mosaic in which a Barry Soetoro, his boyhood name in Indonesia, can become a Barry Obama and at last a proud Barack Hussein Obama — the country where, as Obama said in 2004, a “skinny kid with a funny name” finds his place.
Yet this America, whose fault lines Obama the hybrid stepped across 12 years ago, is perhaps more divided than ever as his presidency winds down. There was something about Obama’s blackness, his intellectualism, his cool distillation of problems that was intolerable to a wide swath of the white working class angered by lost jobs, lost wars, lost security and lost pride. These Americans have felt left behind. They have perceived not outreach from Obama’s White House but condescension.
More than 2.5 million members of the American armed forces have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq over the past 15 years. For a significant number of those 2.5 million families, Obama has failed to honor their sacrifice because, in his prudent realism (a “surge” in Afghanistan with a date certain to end), there is little place for the heroic American narrative.
I think a lot of this fracture was inevitable given the global economic context, and domestic political and cultural realities, within which Obama worked. Still, he could not bridge the divide; perhaps he sharpened it.
Michelle also participated in Obama’s 1996 conversation with Cook, part of which appeared in The New Yorker in 2009, and worried that her husband was “too much of a good guy for the kind of brutality” of politics. Obama talked about how Michelle was at once “completely familiar” and “a complete mystery to me in some ways” and how the tension between those two feelings “makes for something strong, because, even as you build a life of trust and comfort and mutual support, you retain some sense of surprise or wonder about the other person.”
America has been governed, for almost eight years now, by a happy, grounded man who knows how to love a woman. That has not been the least of Obama’s gifts to the nation he stitched together in his personal quest.
We were reminded of that gift last week in Philadelphia by Obama and Michelle — and are reminded every day of Trump’s threat to America’s “E pluribus unum — Out of many, one.” Trump, whose American journey has led him only to denigration of Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Muslim parents of a fallen American soldier, and to this arid conviction: Hatred brings a headline.