Sex! Denial! Confirmation Bias! Media Obama Protection! Betrayal! Assholes! Hannity! It’s “Spermgate,” The Ethics Controversy That Has Everything!

Is this a stupid story? It is worthy of Ethics Alarms’ time and attention? That’s a legitimate question well down the list of issues raised by “Spermgate”—my name for it, and I hope nobody else’s, because it is intentionally silly—regarding whether President Obama’s official portrait contains an intentional representation of a sperm cell, a trademark of the artist, Kehinde Wiley.

But to prematurely answer that question, yes, story is worthy of Ethics Alarms’ time and attention, because the related issues it cracks open for examination are more important than the specific story itself.

I was going to title this story “Stop making me defend Sean Hannity.” Hannity, whom I regard as a blight on multiple landscapes, including national ethics standards, was among the first to assert that the portrait of Obama included a sperm on his face. I heard about this third hand, and immediately concluded that this was just one more anti-Obama Hannity fantasy. And there we have it: bias, one of the themes of this whole episode. I don’t trust Sean Hannity, I don’t respect him, and I question his integrity and motives. As with all bias, the Cognitive Dissonance Scale immediately took over. Here it is again…

Hannity is down around  -10. For me, if he declared that chocolate wonderful, and chocolate was at +7 on my scale, his endorse ment would yank it down into negative territory. So I didn’t even bother to check out Hannity’s claims—after all, he’ll claim anything to embarrass Democrats.

Then I stumbled across a mocking piece in the Daily Kos, full of mockery regarding Hannity’s crazy claim and launching the (pretty funny) gag, “Oh the #spermhannity.” The article began with the assumption that Hannity’s claim was res ipsa loquitur ridiculous, and signature significance for an right wing idiot. I accepted this analysis, even though I have about tyhe same level of bias reagrding the Daily Kos that I do regarding Hannity. It seemed as if Hannity himself had doubts, because after the barrage of abuse and ridicule, he deleted his tweet and the article on his website about the  “inappropriate sexual innuendo” and the hidden image of sperm in the portrait. I was prepared to leave it at that, but decided to follow up this link on the Kos post:

“If you’re hoping for more explanation than that, you will not find it in the article, which is still available to read via cache. It moves on from there to note that the artist once sardonically used the phrase “kill whitey” in New York magazine profile, which at least has the virtue of being true, unlike the claim that he put sperm in his painting of Barack Obama, which is objectively not true.”

Through that link, I eventually found the close-up section of the portrait pictured above. Here is the portion of it at issue:

Anyone who says that it is objectively untrue that the section doesn’t include what might have been an intentional representation of a sperm is either lying or is in the throes of crippling confirmation bias and denial.  Of course that could be a sperm. Here are sperms…

Here’s that vein in Obama’s head again…

Now, I have a vein on my head something like that, but I don’t have that bulbous section at the end. Does Obama? I don’t know: someone should check. If he does, it means that a lucky portrait artist who has frequently, in the words of Wikipedia, ” used a sperm motif as symbolic of masculinity and gender” just happened to have as his most famous subject a man who already had a sperm-shaped vein in his face. Okay…it’s possible. But don’t tell me that couldn’t credibly be a sperm representation, or the an artist renowned for hiding sperms in his paintings didn’t notice it and take advantage of the opportunity.

Of course, that’s what “non-partisan neutral fact-checker” Snopes does tell us:

But although both sources were correct in pointing out that some of Wiley’s previous works featured tiny images of sperm cells meant to mock “the highly charged masculinity” (as one art critic put it) that so often characterizes classical Western portraiture, they leapt a bit too eagerly to the conclusion that a faithfully-reproduced vein popping out of Obama’s forehead is in fact a giant sperm cell.

Clearly, it is nothing of the kind:

And there I expected a close-up of the painting showing that the crypto-sperm was photoshopped in, or something. Nope, just a photo credit with no photograph. There is no “clearly” there, or anywhere else. There are “clearly” photographs of Obama that appear to show a vein, like this one…

…but it does not show us in sufficient detail that the ex-President has a perfect sperm-like bulge at the end of it. Maybe he does. I hope he does.

Here are my observations and conclusions so far, not just about whether Obama has a sperm on his face, but what this episode tells us or might tell us about our current culture and the people and institutions involved in this episode:

1. The current news media and blogosphere is incapable of objective analysis. Assuming that the close-up of the portrait wasn’t tampered with, and I have seen no evidence of that, the entire episode has been driven by confirmation bias. Obama’s supporters and defenders don’t want there to be a sperm on his face, so they deny it is there, claim that it is obviously not there, and probably really don’t see any possibility that it is. Wow. This is a great demonstration of the power of denial. Critics of Obama, including some racist groups whose immediate embrace of the sperm theory was probably what got Hannity to chicken out and delete his post, want the sperm to be there, so there is no doubt in their minds that it is there, and was placed there intentionally by the artist.

2. Spermgate exemplifies how Americans no longer can rely on being informed by an objective news media.  This is a lot more important than whether Barack Obama has a quasi-sperm on his face.

3. Commentators like Hannity are so embedded at extreme ends of the Cognitive Dissonance Scale, and so driven by their own biases, that they are useless for the task of revealing the truth, even when they are right.

4. So are sources like the Daily Kos, Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post and others that immediately told the public that the plausible sperm was a conservative hoax, and probably a racist one.

5. There is no way, short of a confession by the artist, that we will ever know for certain what he intended, or whether the pseudo-sperm was intentional. Thus the portrait is now firmly in “Da Vinci Code” territory, like the controversy over whether that’s really Mary Magdalene next to Jesus in “The Last Supper.” We do know, or should, that anyone who says that it is “objectively ” false that there is a representation of a sperm is biased, dishonest, and untrustworthy, at least where Barack Obama is involved. THAT is res ipsa loquitor.

6. IF Wiley intentionally—cleverly, skillfully, with plausible deniability—placed his trademark symbolic sperm in the portrait, he is an asshole. Hey, but what are the chances that an artist who said “kill whitey” is an asshole? Come on.

7. If Wiley did this without the President’s permission, he is a huge asshole, a gutsy one, and an arrogant egomaniac who betrayed the trust of a former President of the United States. But who ever heard of an artist being an arrogant egomaniac? Come on.

8. If Barack Obama approved of his face-sperm, he’s an asshole too. Don’t dismiss the possibility: he deliberately chose an artist famous for hiding sperm in his paintings. If Obama didn’t say, “By the way, this is for history: no sperm!”, then the artist could reasonable take that as pro-sperm consent.

9. Signature gimmicks like the sperm are not unheard of in the art world. The famous Broadway caricaturist Albert Hirschfeld famously hid the name of his daughter Nina in all of his portraits. Finding the NINA became a game with his fans. Can you find it in this one?

I’m sure Snopes says that clearly, there is nothing of the kind.

10. What do I think?

  • I think it is an incredible coincidence that an artist known for placing sperm images in his portraits to celebrate black masculinity just accurately painted a feature of the President’s face that resembles a sperm and never made a deliberate effort to use it to complete his trademark in the most famous portrait he was ever likely to paint. (Don’t you?)
  • I think incredible coincidences do happen, however, and this may be one.
  • I think Hannity’s anti-Obama bias may have led him to raise a legitimate question that other journalists should have raised, but didn’t because they knew it would place them in the crosshairs of social media hate.
  • I think Hannity  was a coward for caving to partisan criticism and not posting the equivalent of this Ethics Alarms post.
  • I think Snopes is a disgrace, but you already know that.
  • I think the news sources that have stated unequivocally that there is no sperm imagery have engaged in incompetent journalism and public deception.
  • I think the fact that so few mainstream media sources have even reported the controversy, probably out of ick, cowardice, or bias, show their lack of journalism standards, competence, and integrity.
  • I think it is obviously newsworthy when an official portrait of a President of the United States might have the image of a sperm intentionally painted on it.

And I think the episode, whatever the truth is,  has troubling implications for America’s values and culture that go far beyond a painting.



75 thoughts on “Sex! Denial! Confirmation Bias! Media Obama Protection! Betrayal! Assholes! Hannity! It’s “Spermgate,” The Ethics Controversy That Has Everything!

  1. I bet the Gray Lady is thankful Sperm-Gate will be hogging headlines & bandwidth.

    The Whiskey Tango Foxtrot needle is getting buried so deeply it may never reoccupy its original position.

    In a staggering about-face, the Paper of Record hired AND fired Editorial Board member Quinn Norton in ~ 6hours.

    To put things in perspective, that’s less time than it takes me to crank out my fabled Crock Pot Krauty Beans-n-Weens,

    ”NY Times Abruptly Fires Its New Nazi-Befriending Editorial Board Hire”

    What was to be her gig? One would be hard-pressed to find a more stunning level of epic irony:

    lead opinion writer on the power, culture and CONSEQUENCES OF TECHNOLOGY” (bolds/caps mine)

    Quinn Norton has tweeted that she’s friends with neo-Nazis, and has used (Racist/homophobic) slurs on a regular basis. … 06751f8fbe

    “All The News That’s Fit To Print” would ordinarily be a whirling dervish of spin, but may bank on its lock-steppin’ glassy-eyein’ unquestionin’ target audience will believe this nothing more than a consequence of Trump, Racism, Income Inequality, Global Warming, and Sperm-Gate…and (if you’ll forgive me) swallow it whole.

    To their peril, Lefties (most, not all) too often forget the difference between LOVE & SEND.

    SEND is forever!

    We live in interesting times!

    • I suggest reading the whole HuffPost link you sent here. It’s enlightening, as usual, to read the whole story, and not just give in to flaming.
      The NYT did the right thing, though not for entirely the right reasons, IMHO.

      • ”I suggest reading the whole HuffPost link you sent here.”

        CG, please! I did read it…twice. Heck, I even checked with Sulzberger’s Folly itself thinking it had the rather redolent quality of FAKE NEWS swirling about it.

        ”It’s enlightening, as usual, to read the whole story, and not just give in to flaming.”

        Answered above.

        ”The NYT did the right thing, though not for entirely the right reasons”

        Agree completely, but to have its incredibly inept due diligence done by Twitter Twits (in no time flat!) should be monumentally embarrassing to a publication that presents itself the way the NYT does.

        Honestly, I’m a bit miffed you didn’t ask for my recipe. Don’t bother now, I’m feeling a tad snitty…

        • Paul, I do hope you’ll share that Crock Pot Krauty Beans-n-Weens recipe. I need to cook something that’ll clear everyone else out of my house so I can just savor and eat my fixins all alone, for a change. What would you recommend for a vegetable side? I’m partial to highly whipped and heavily buttered and black-peppered Yukon Golds topped with grated cheese. But I’ll settle for a pile of spinach leaves with diced hard-boiled eggs and a mustard vinaigrette…

  2. “I think the episode, whatever the truth is, has troubling implications for America’s values and culture that go far beyond a painting.”

    I started off with the intent of saying “No, it does not.”

    Then I reconsidered: a bit.

    On reflection, I think it’s merely a bit misleading. The part I agree with is Sean Hannity’s knee-jerk instinct to pick up on material apparently from 4Chan, a ridiculous source, and then pollute the nation’s airwaves with his cognitive dissonance. In fairness to him, he did withdraw the comment. Though as I glance now at newsfeeds, it looks like he’s now blaming “unauthorized staff.” You could of course write another ethics post about that kind of response.

    But I do not see the fair equivalence on the other side. If this artist indeed embeds Hirschfield-like signatures, I mean, SO WHAT?

    If sources have said “unequivocally” that there is no sperm, that would indeed be a mistake, and one that does indeed indicate confirmation bias. But – it’s a confirmation bias against Hannity, who by your own notes has proven again and again his total untrustworthiness.

    I think the “troubling implications for America’s values and culture” is very much one-sided here. On one side you have a personality with outsized influence on national TV and in one particular Oval Office, mouthing off with a racially-coded bit of nonsense derived from the slums of the blogosphere.

    On the other side, I’m reminded of Aunt Sally’s response after Huck Finn’s protestation that she slapped him mistakenly for an offense he hadn’t commit: “Well, I reckon you didn’t get a lick a’miss.”

    When someone cries “wolf” as often as Hannity, I don’t think you can put a knee-jerk reaction against him on the same footing as his wolf cry in the ifrst place.

    There are far more troubling events afoot than this one.

    • Who are you gonna believe, your cognitive dissonance or your own damn eyes? If media is reporting something factually untrue; “There is unequivocally no sperm on Obama’s face” (a sentence I didn’t think I’d ever have the pleasure of typing*, because they hate Sean Hannity so much they can’t look at the GD painting (because if they did, theyy couldn’t possibly make that argument) then there’s a problem.

    • OOOH, you really want to default to “It’s not the worst thing,” Charles?

      I’ll entertain the idea that an artist using a sperm signature on the face of a President is fine and dandy, but you can’t seriously suggest that’s an obvious or the only justifiable conclusion…or are you?

    • It does not matter at this point if the artist put it in or didn’t: he has used it, and it has a semiotic purpose (semeniotic?). It will now and forever mark this portrait. Who must accept that responsibility? The ones who chose the artist.

      The inclusion of those spermatozoa in the artist’s work means very specific things and those things had been established in the canon of the man’s work. There are statements about it all over the Internet.

      The whole episode is ‘multivalent’, devilishly so, and because it deals in something so elemental and so very basic, its inclusion brings things down to the most basic level. And it is embarrassing to look at, think about, write about.

      But too one must couple it with the other ‘portrait’ and the other artist to really get the full effect here. Depicting Black heroes with decapitated heads of Whites? To have selected an artist whose work is defined through these images and meaning? For a portrait of the First Lady of the US?

      The whole thing really cannot be seen to play very well: Gay Black artist with strange and perverse need to include bizarre semiotics. A Black activist woman artist who uses the beheading of whites in her work. What a wonderful and meanignful coincidence! The message, you see, is clearly there.

      This is surreal. It is outside of the scope of the considerable. ‘You can’t make this stuff up’ comes to mind.

      The next thing, the thing that ‘follows’ from all this, is easy to spot: there must now be portraits painted of Michelle Obama beheading Mrs Trump. Like some kind of savage ‘return’ motif. The Obamas ‘take back the White House’

      • This is a perfect example of how the obsession with symbolism has infected both left and right.
        Get Over It.
        Not everything means something.
        Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and a signature is just a signature. Stop inflaming every discussion with Foucault and semiotics, and let’s talk about issues of ethical import.

        • I rather think this is a very good time to deeply consider semiotics. It of course only means ‘signs’ and their use but in this case, I say this honestly (and I have never had reason to make any sort of comment about Obama who, in many ways, if only because he is polite and civil and obviously smart) I have had no reason to criticize (Jacks criticisms opened my eyes to some degree though, that is, of policy), I say honestly that this one, for me at least, goes so far beyond what seems normal and acceptable that it must be brought out in the open.

          I certainly understand that in modern art generally it is infused with sexual meaning and erotic power. But this is a presidential portrait. And it is also a presidential portrait in a very strange and difficult time. You cannot and should not give this sort of material to your enemies. I mean those that you consider enemies: 4chan and so many other sites out there. Only an irresponsible nut would —- quite literally —- throw flames on such a fire.

          It is only realistic and responsible for concerned people to notice that the country is dangerously divided on questions that stem out of the question of ‘values’. I don’t know how wide you read, but I read everything, from the extreme Left all the way over the the Catholic conservative (SSPV). A Gay Black (Black Gay?) controversial artist-activist includes sperm images in a depiction of the President? A woman artist who celebrates beheading of white people in her art chosen to paint the First Lady?

          Charles! Tell me you are not in some sort of deep denial!

        • Right! It’s not the worst thing. Trump being president and Fox News existing are much, much worse. We need to talk about that sort of thing. It’s time to move on! So there’s spuzz on the face of a U.S. President in his official portrait. That’s a good thing. It’s a teachable moment. I’ll go over it with my second grade grandson later this afternoon. I can explain cum shots in porno movies to him at the same time. He’ll be woke in no time!

      • Alizia,

        I don’t mean to quibble, but Kehinde Wiley painted Pres. Obama’s portrait, and he is known for reimagining classical heroic paintings using black men and women as his subjects. For instance, his paintings reimagined “Judith beheading Holofernes”, where he painted Judith as a black women holding the severed head of a white person. Even Snopes agrees:

        Mrs. Obama’s portrait was painted by Amy Sherald.


  3. Why is this even important?

    The only important message in this post is when confronted with childish claims only children believe them.

    I am waiting for those who make a living creating these controversies start chanting ” I’m like rubber you’re like glue . . ., you all know the rest.

    • What? I don’t understand this comment at all. What is the childish claim? That there appears to be a representation of a sperm on the President’s face? Are you really taking the Snopes line here, a Jumbo? What’s there is there, and it is credibly a sperm cell—the only question is intent.

      Or are you taking Charles’ dubious dodge, that if an official portrait of the President of the United States has a sperm hidden on his face, nobody should care? Really? At no previous point in our history would this not be considered news. I bet there have been times when an artist doing this might be prosecuted. Of course it matters. It’s a sexual innuendo where it doesn’t belong, and potentially embarrassing to the subject.

      Please clarify.

      • This is the right wing equivalent of the Left’s obsession with micro-aggressions.

        If this guy has a habit of signing his paintings with a hidden sperm, a la Hirschfeld, SO THE HELL WHAT?

        Sexual innuendo? Go protest Picasso if you want.

        Prosecuted in the past? In what country?


        In today’s news alone we have the President’s lawyer paying off a porn star, the White House tying itself in knots to pretend they didn’t ignore national security procedures.

        And yet in an Ethics blog we’re instead talking about hidden signatures in a presidential portrait?

        I just don’t know what to say. Chris is right – this is a micro-nothingburger.

        • If it’s so small and inconsequential, why lie about it?

          You know, I could almost agree with you, at the end of the day, the president having egg on his face really doesn’t play much outside the 24 hour news cycle, I find it amusing, but in the long term, I wouldn’t care…. But the spin on this is educational.

          It’s at the very least obvious that something that could be reasonably contextualized into being a sperm cell is on the president’s face. If that’s so inconsequential, then what’s the motivation for lying? Jack is 100% right, the story isn’t the painting, the story is in the reaction, and how far our respective rabbit holes we’ve fallen.

        • Honestly, I don’t understand that reaction at all, and am mystified where it comes from. What would be an inappropriate signature, Charles? A turd? A swastika? How about a watermelon? Do you think a subject should be able to object? “No, I don’t want my official portrait to have a turd on it?”

          It’s so obviously an ethics breach that it shouldn’t require explaining.

          • If it’s nothing, then let’s have the mainstream media and Obama come right out and announce it: Yup, there’s sperm on the President’s face in his portrait, he approved it, and he thinks its fine. Then let’s see how many Americans find that unseemly and an insult to the nation and the office.

            Oddly, the choice is to pretend it doesn’t exist and didn’t happen, pretty much like all Obama-related fiascos.

        • It’s not equivalent to a “microaggression,” because the right-wing sites reporting on it aren’t offended so much as bemused.

          It’s perfectly acceptable as a news story; not all news stories are of great consequence. Some things are newsworthy because they meet at the intersection of weird (an artist sneaking sperm-shapes into portraits) and relevant (an American president’s official White House portrait.) It’s not big-time news, but it’s worth a blurb. It’s also very Obama-like to completely screw up something so simple as getting a portrait done by hiring a race-war-mongering extremist with a fondness for hidden sperm.

      • Jack,

        I should have been clearer. Why should anyone care other than Barak Obama?

        We are being constantly barraged by the right and left on what I consider insignificant issues. I stopped watching certain bloviators who tried to find some idiotic issue to degrade or impune the integrity of the opposition.

        Ever since the portrait of the former president and first lady were unveiled all I have seen is criticism for a variety of reasons. Most have little to do with quality of technique or image accuracy. Those that found his presidency objectionable have ridiculed the portraits. Those who loved them have fawned over the images. The only thing that is important is whether or not the persons in question felt the artists accurately portrayed them as they wanted to be portrayed. I am sure they did because they had to approve of them before the unveiling.

        I will criticise on policy issues not on things of subjective merit.

        I am just tired of the focus on bashing the past president or the current one for things that have limited consequence for the American people. We have more important issues before us.

        I do agree with your assessment that any integration of some artistically created message without Obama’s express approval or knowledge is unethical. However, commissioning a portrait without investigating the artist’s previous work is a recipe for a less than desireable outcome.

        I just feel like much of the media and politicians have never grown past the behaviors we exhibited in 7th grade.

    • if it is, its a hell of a job.

      I’m gobsmacked that anyone would seriously say “So what?” An actress having three legs on a magazine cover is a news item, but an artist sneaking a sperm cell onto the face of a President in his official portrait is a nothingburger?

      Would it still be a nothingburger if the artist who did that was white, or would it be regarded as a racist insult?

      • Jack, Jack, Jack. Come on. Lighten up. Don’t you know the Left get’s to decide what’s objectionable and what’s not? Particularly when it comes to sexual matters? Come on. Clinton fooling around is just fine. It’s private business. Trump: impeach him! Jack, you’re not a lefty. You don’t know what the Europeans would think of this. You need to sit in the back of the bus and keep your mouth shut. Let the experts decide what’s acceptable and what’s not. Sheesh. Get a life, man.

        • Did you ever think you’d see the day when progressives would be uptight and prudish about sex, to the point that they’re demanding that consent contracts be a part of college dating?

  4. What a great way to start off Valentines!

    Kehinde Wiley has a large piece I’ve seen in the local major museum here. Personally his work isn’t my taste but having read about his art, especially the infamous decapitated white ladies, I don’t find his work objectionable. What is objectionable is a former President picking an artist whose work is fairly pedestrian save for the chronic sperm depictions. Seriously, how would the Obamas NOT be aware of Wiley’s wiley work?

    Picking this artist to paint a Whitehouse portrait calls into question the Obamas’common sense and legacy. It will be permanently tarnished (not that it wasn’t already) by a juvenile choice to pick a juvenile artist.

    This is about more than sperm, art, and patriotism. This is about making a moral choice for our country in a time of severe deception and division. This is about a former world leader being a leader and not being enmeshed with political statement artists when it counts. And as history and museums show us, portraits do count.

      • Yes. I think them picking this guy was a real poke in the eye of the taxpayers and citizens who pay for, and will own, the painting. A nice, enduring fare the well. Although I could have used a phrase other than fare thee well.

    • Mrs. Q.

      I wish I had your literary talent to pierce through to the heart of the matter. Your writing is wonderfully crisp, tight, and eloquent.

      You wrote this: ” What is objectionable is a former President picking an artist whose work is fairly pedestrian save for the chronic sperm depictions.” I have been trying to phrase my thoughts and your comment perfectly states what I have been trying to put into words since I saw the portraits.

      I wrote this on my Facebook page yesterday, trying to discuss the quality of the images, in response to an article in The Boston Globe:

      “Let me say that I am not a huge fan of President Obama’s policies, but I respect him as the President. I also respect Michelle Obama as the First Lady, though I disagreed on the federally mandated lunches.

      “I am confused by these portraits, though. I read the article and the author goes to great lengths to explain the portraits, perhaps working a bit too hard to do so. I have no issue with the subjects’ casual poses. I have no issue with the suits or the chosen dress (the rendering of Ms. Obama’s dress, though, is something else – it is pyramid-shaped, pointing upward to a disembodied head resting on a strangely configured hand). I have issues with their representations, though. Yes, I understand that art is open to interpretation. Yes, I understand that artists have liberties to interpret and render their inspirations. And, no, I am not confined but some antiquated definition of what art is or should be, so don’t go there. I don’t ‘get’a lot of art but I can appreciate style, inspiration, or technique.

      “At the outset, I am not sure if these would be the definitive portraits one might see of past presidents and first ladies, or if they were commissioned for something else, say a retrospective to be included in Pres. Obama’s Presidential Library. Assuming they are the official/definitive portraits, it seems to me that the artists missed their marks in big ways. For instance, Pres. Obama’s portrait does not capture his charisma, and the foliage behind him lacks any kind of context to give the flowers meaning or insight (and I get that they represent parts of his history). But the foliage looks like it is attacking him but for the defensive nature of the chair, which he is sitting on the escape the foliage’s homicidal onslaught, and they are immune to our herbical batterings. It kind of reminds of Genesis’s ‘Return of the Giant Hogweed’. Heracleum Mantegazzianium indeed.

      “Ms. Obama’s portrait is less-than-inspiring. It looks amateurish (perhaps cynical is a better word), two-dimensional, opaque, and flat, something she is absolutely not. Say what you will about her politics, she carries herself with style, grace, dignity, and strength of character. This portrait lacks all of those elements. She looks washed out and faded. The artist says she would engage with young African-American girls at a gallery talk, and say ‘I painted this for you so that when you go to a museum you will see someone who looks like you on the wall.’ I am not sure that will make the intended impact, though.”

      I linked to the article:

      Pedestrian, juvenile, and (my word) cynical. I also threw in amateurish for good measure.


  5. Yahoo had a headline that Hannity claimed Obama’s portrait is “sexually explicit”! Someone needs to tell that headline writer the meaning of “innuendo.”

    While it won’t redeem them, Snopes did a bit better pouring cold water on the theory that Sessions’ mention of the “Anglo-American heritage” of the office of sheriff was a racist dog whistle:

    And I get “unfriended” for pointing out when a vegan propaganda video gets its nurtrition facts wrong.

    • “Anglo-American” is the new “beautiful creature.” Liberal arts students with blogs getting offended solely because they don’t understand the world (or the English language) as much as the smart people they hate.

  6. 9. I don’t see “NINA” in that Hirschfeld cartoon. Well, maybe I do, in the trouser legs – I tend to let my imagination run, but then, quickly quash it like a repentant former ufologist or former climate-change denier…but, I do see what looks like a dog’s face, plus a couple of sperm cells, in those trees…

  7. I just wish Georgia O’Keefe was still alive — perhaps she could have painted Mrs. Obama’s portrait. Whether or not something looks like a vein or a sperm or a flower or a vagina is in the eye of the beholder. I personally don’t care.

    For the record, I think this is a crappy painting. The chair is too small, Obama ‘s angle is off, and symbolism aside, I hate that he is sitting in a hedge. I love the design of Mrs. Obama’s painting, but the face looks nothing like her. Double fail.

    • Your comment is closest to exactly my thoughts on those portraits. If I was either Barack or Michelle, I would be disappointed.

    • A friend finally hit on what is unsettling about Obama’s portrait- it’s densely populated with objects, but nothing seems to cast a shadow (the rear layers of foliage are dim, but no foreground objects shadow each other in spite of how they all intertwine and overlap).

      The face of Mrs. Obama’s portrait looks both labored and over-simple, like the work of a good high-school artist who has to sink huge effort into getting a face right. Far better than I’ll ever be, but still slightly mask-like and impersonal.

    • I agree, though it is worth noting that Georgia O’Keefe (an artist I deeply admire too) painted hundreds of what many considered to be thinly-disguised vaginas. Far more in your face than this one. And who the hell cares? They’re beautiful paintings, whether of flowers or otherwise.

      I’d add to your comment that not only does what something look like exist in the eye of the beholder, so does offense. We all have a choice whether to be offended or not; far too many people are choosing to find offense everywhere these days. IMHO

      • Charles writes: “And who the hell cares? They’re beautiful paintings, whether of flowers or otherwise.

        “I’d add to your comment that not only does what something look like exist in the eye of the beholder, so does offense. We all have a choice whether to be offended or not; far too many people are choosing to find offense everywhere these days. IMHO.”

        I personally like Obama’s portrait and I like many things about the other painting by the same artist: repeating floral patterns I always have liked. I have little issue with its somewhat extreme modernist style. I reviewed the paintings of Mrs Obama’s artist and they certainly have redeeming qualities. Very flat, and some of her subjects have a greyish skintone as Mrs Obama, but they are not bad or offensive by any means.

        It is true that on one level my own reactions do not matter. But I think you are missing the larger, contextual point: such things as overt references to such images and processes really does strike a nerve, not in you of course, but in many people. I regard this, and I know that others regard this, as high-perversion. As one more insertion of perversion into the cultural landscape.

        It is not comparable nor even fair to present O’Keffe paintings, or even the really weird work of someone like Mapplethorpe, as an example of where an artist might go. This is the presidency of the US. This is for the Smithsonian. It requires a larger tact. This was irresponsible by any measure.

        You and Spartan and perhaps some others say you ‘don’t care’. Because you do not care, you say, others too should not care about it. But this points to one of the main points I notice here: it revolves around a question of fundamental values. I am sure there are many many things you simple do not care about and I am sure that you have gone to some extremes as to what you do not care about. But that is precisely where the meta-issue is!

        Right now, in the US history, there are emerging lines of opposition which have to do with radical differences about values and valuation. It matters to people I know and those I read that a Black radical homosexual is including in his work images of extreme violence against whites (in a masked form, I admit) and who also is bringing forward sheer and absolutely perverse *hidden* images, and that he is aligned with Obama and the power-establishment!

        I guess if you are simultaneously unconcerned how other people will read this then you have nothing to worry about. But this is not going to play well ‘in Peoria’ as I think the saying goes …

        (And as you might guess I have more radical and vanguardist opinions about ‘all of this’ and in a larger context).

        • Point of clarification — I deeply care that they are bad paintings. I really do love the design of Mrs. Obama’s portrait, but as mentioned elsewhere in this thread, it really does look like a high school student painted the face. If the painting does not look like the subject, it cannot be the official portrait.

      • Ugh. And if Jackie Kennedy commissioned O’Keefe to do her portrait for the National Gallery, I would assume that a vagina would not be plastered to Jackie’s face.

        Good Lord. Remember respect, Charles? Dignity? Decorum? Tradition? Class? Manners?

    • “Whether or not something looks like a vein or a sperm or a flower or a vagina is in the eye of the beholder.”

      Hah. That’s a good one, Sparty. Millenial moral relativity virtue signalling. The equivalent of the ever popular “whatever.” Brilliant.

      • I don’t think I am doing anything of the kind. As I said, I think both paintings are bad — embarrassingly so — but I have professional artists in my family and my husband’s family so I might be more sensitive to these things.

        My Georgia O’Keefe reference in on point — are they vaginas or not? My mom only sees flowers (and she is a conservative Christian). But I think a lot of people see vaginas. O’Keefe claimed that they were NOT vaginas, but maybe they were. (I think they were.) But if that was her intent, does it matter if some people see flowers and some people do not?

        • Gypsy logic.

          O’Keeffe feminised everything she painted. And flowers are indubitably and obviously sexual. They are the sexuality of plants!

          Wiley regularly includes obvious images of sperm in his paintings (a Google search will reveal) and has described it as such. Here is one art-commentator:

          “Let’s be frank. These men are gay! Their poses are feminine. They have arched eye brows and shinny lips. These are “homothugs”, a term used to describe males, usually minorities, who adopt hip hop culture, style of dress, music etc. as a more idealized form of masculinity, to counter other stereotypes on gay culture.”

          “To the naked eye this [painting is] simply a re-imaging of David’s image with a black man. The main difference is the main character and the decorative wall paper background. What isn’t as obvious are the dozens of little sperm cells that float around the canvas helping to make up the decorative almost Rococo-esque background.”

          “Now am I reading too much into this? Nope! That guy is gay, that’s sperm, and those are definitely dicks! I mean but hey! Who doesn’t like the occasional dick thrown into their fine art?”

          “So why write a blog to point out these things? Well, because no one else did. The art world looks at these images as extremely strong statements of race and identity. The thing is they choose to look with limited vision. Kehinde Wiley not only creates monumental paintings of black men in power, but he also creates monumental paintings of gay men in power, and they are fabulous!”

          It is simply silly to attempt a comparison to O’keeffe’s work.

          • Sparty, I think the O’Keefe comparison is inapt. Her flowers are incredibly erotic. Nature can be fecund and fertile and reproductive. Flowers are reproductive organs. They generate the next generation of plants. They are essential to life and not just pretty. They are ORGANIC. Her’s is a wonderful take on vitality and nature. And beauty.

            Artists I know what they’re trying to say. I write literary fiction and I know what I’m trying to say when I write a piece. If people don’t get it, maybe I’ve failed as a writer or else the reader has failed as a reader. Same with graphic art. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the meaning of art is not.

            • I think they are vaginas too. But O’Keefe denied it to her dying day.

              My mom and I had this fight a few years ago because my mom LOVES O’Keefe’s work. My mom is the biggest prude on the planet (and is a proud anti-feminist), and she loves those paintings because she thinks they are of beautiful flowers.

              Again, intent aside, who cares?

              If I were the President, I probably would take great care on picking the right person for the job — artists are a tricky bunch though and typically live outside of many social norms. Of course, my painting would be criticized because my guess is that I would look quite a bit younger and thinner in my (hypothetical) official portrait.

              • You’re funny, Sparty. Thanks. Self-deprecation is a worthwhile trait. Good for you.

                Don’t you think O’Keefe was being coy by denying any overt organic/sexual overtones in her work? Many, many big-league artists clam up when they’re asked to “explain” their art, or they outright mislead.

              • You would look better than all of the Presidents and all but a couple of the First ladies ( Mrs. Cleveland is tough to top) if it were photo-accurate. I’ve seen you. Don’t give me that false modesty stuff…

  8. Part of me does not care about this issue. I don’t like the painting in general. I don’t care for Obama in general. If that is the artist’s trademark, Obama should have expected it, as you said, and SHOULD HAVE either gotten an assurance that the trademark was not in there, or found a different artist. If he did not mind the trademark in there, his choice of artists is lacking; do whatever you want with your own portrait; the official portrait should reflect the dignity of the office.
    All in all, do I think it is a sperm? From what people have said, there’s a good chance. But, just in case it is not, Obama really needs to get that checked out, because he might have a serious medical condition on his hands.

  9. Somewhat peripheral I know, but I am SO over everyone labeling things as XYZGate. I mean, I could probably live with this one being called Zygate, but how about we update the go to for any scandal by a generation. In this case it would be particularly applicable; Spermghazi anyone?

  10. The United States is populated by Spartan’s mom’s moderately prudish fellow Americans whose biology teachers probably couldn’t say the S word without a making a moue of distaste. A sperm, in and of itself, has no sex; neither does the ovary, for that matter. That said, the sperm on the face is a piece of vandalism perpetrated by the artist himself. … The first I noticed of it, I thought it was an aesthetic rendition of one of those head-mikes. I have reconsidered having my portrait painted.

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