There’s no doubt about it: In her long flowing orange silk organza dress, Michelle Obama was absolutely stupendous for the White House state dinner with Chinese president Hu Jintao. Humbly I will leave the fashion critique to others. But for more strictly aesthetic reasons, I’m wondering whether there aren’t some formal parallels to be drawn (and perhaps some allegorical ones as well) between the photographs of this event and the famous “tableau” by the Canadian artist Jeff Wall, showing a modern-day “Vampires’ Picnic” en plein air. What meaning would such an unusual comparison have for Art History? And what does it tell us on the allegorical level, for the honor and dignity of nations and peoples?
Let’s start with the most obvious part: the magnificent portrait of Hillary Clinton, current Secretary of State and no doubt future President, raising a toast to the former Commander-in-Chief, her loyal and lovable Billy:
Now, connoisseurs, just feast your eyes on the almost statuesque pose of the former First Lady. Is there not an undeniable resemblance to the seated figure dressed in white at the center of the grande machine of the Canadian artist? Can’t we intuit something mysteriously blood-curdling in Hillary’s frozen smile, as though in disguised but surely desired allusion to the suburban vampires of the immortal work by Jeff Wall? And how about the razor-sharp teeth of the anonymous figure on the right of the photo: Don’t they bring to the clear light of day, with a master’s touch, the obscure vocation of all those glitzy dinner guests?
But there is more, for whoever wishes to plunge deeper, not only into the annals of art history, but also those of world history. Consider if you will the standing portrait of former Secretary of State and elder statesman if ever there was, Henry Kissinger, flanked by his wife, the tender and gentle Nancy. For this is the image that offers us the most sublime emotions:
Judging the quality and indeed, the excellence of a work of art is the highest task of Criticism. You expect no less of me, dear reader. In the face of this simple press photo the immense prestige of Jeff Wall, celebrated the world over, just falls to pieces. What’s the worth of some miserable pop-art vampires out in the Canadian suburbs, by contrast to this incandescent (and frankly indecent) chef d’oeuvre by a journalist at the New York Times?
Decorum and above all gravity have their rights. This man, a modern hero of diplomacy, today so elegant and frail, gliding delicately across the polished White House tiles with the help of a cane, was only yesterday the assassin of the Vietnamese people, unleashing floodtides of harbor mines and downpours of cluster bombs, all in accord with his doctrine of “realism” in the treatment of sovereign relations, still applied in Washington to this day. Who better than he to represent the ancient aristocratic elite of the vampires?
Returning to the work by Jeff Wall, now we see how exaggerated and even pathetic the central figure appears, laying naked on the ground with his borrowed airs of a Roman emperor. This is just shoddy romanticism compared to the cinéma vérité of the White House dinner. Indeed, vampiric realism reigns supreme, in aesthetics as in life. Yet we have still said nothing of the noble Nancy. Her presence, her moral and physical elevation, grant her eternal entry to the galeria dentata of High Politics. Indeed, at this point one can finally proclaim, with the certainty of Criticism and the authority of Art History, that the state dinner of the White House, photographed by some unknown genius moonlighting for the New York Times, is a peerless interpretation of that classic theme: the Vampires’ Picnic.
[to catch Michelle's dress and all the rest, click here]