A Defense of Ms. Lai?

A Fiat Lux reader and fellow blogger at the BR Footnote, a new blog affiliated with Stanford’s Claw Magazine and the Boston Review, responds to my critique of Ms. Lai’s painting project:

Any public institution is at its best when the people who it governs feel connected to it on a real, human level. Of course they respect it, of course they should hold it in high regard, but there has to be a human connection with it if it is to successfully govern. By taking these presidents’ portraits down off the wall, stepping into them, and then stripping down those famous men until they are as vulnerable as any of us, Ms. Lai has indeed done us a service.

As I made clear in my first post, I would definitely not go so far as to say that “Ms. Lai has indeed done us a service” or that her work is “noble.”

Perhaps my argument rests on a sort of prudishness; I am not fond of the crude portrayal of sex, particularly with men that we traditionally respect.

But, ultimately, I think the Ms. Lai’s work is not triumphant because she overestimates the esteem in which most American presidents are held to begin with. It is not particularly heroic, in my view, to take President John Tyler down a peg or two (or Millard Fillmore or Zachary Taylor.) Heroism implies an extraordinary effort, an exhibition of bravery to overcome great obstacles; by these standards, painting yourself making love to John Tyler is not particularly heroic. Sure, the institution of the presidency is exalted by the stuffy conservative segments of our culture but, as a democracy, we tend to already see our leaders as flawed individuals. Ms. Lai is not fighting against particularly strong forces.

How could Ms. Lai’s project be more heroic? If, for instance, she painted a series of pieces in the Soviet Union in1948 depicting her making love to Joseph Stalin. Crude? Yes. Heroic in the face of forces far stronger than herself? Yes, in a sense. Noble? Certainly.

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