ART via MUSIC

Grounders | Kehinde Wiley

Song: "Vyvanse" - Grounders (2015)

Art: "Portrait of President Barack Obama" - Kehinde Wiley (2018)



Once upon a time, America's founding fathers faced the question of what to call the leader of the country. There was no obvious answer. Actual proposals included: Your Most Benign Highness, His Highness, His Majesty the President, and His Elective Highness. They went back and forth for weeks on this issue, there was passionate disagreement on the topic. These guys really, really cared about the word that would be used to address this person. The founders understood the significance of a name. It's more than a word, it is a title that carries with it very powerful presuppositions and expectations.  Chiefly, the framers wanted to avoid the mistakes of the tyrannical institutions before them and they were willing to go to great lengths to subdue the power of their newborn nation's leader. So with this in mind, they settled on "president." At the time the word carried with it none of the prestige it holds today. It was somewhat obscure and was derived from "presider" or "one who presides." This seemed to reduce the president to the shockingly minor role of an administrator or moderator - and this is exactly what they wanted.  The president was merely at the head of one of three theoretically equally powerful branches of government. Over time though, presidents seized more and more power, each nibbling off a bit more than his predecessor. Today, the President of the United States is widely considered to be the most powerful person in the world. The word has evolved in meaning alongside the office to which it has become intrinsically tied. Today, companies, sports organizations, and clubs of all kinds have presidents - and they're the boss. Everyone knows this, it doesn't need to be explained. President = Power.  The constitution was cleverly devised however, and so many of the framers initial handcuffs on the president hold up; he is far from a tyrant. What the president lacks in real power though, he makes up for in perceived power. His word and demeanor hold massive influence over the people of the world. So many look to him not just for concrete policy proposals but for emotional guidance. Like the British monarchs who for some time have had no "real" political power over the Commonwealth, the president wields his enormous emotional sway over the public to advance his agenda.  The "vibe" of the president - the quality of energy that they project onto the world - is hugely consequential. Barack Obama is undoubtedly amongst the "coolest" presidents in our county's history. It is in character that he would commission Kehinde Wiley, a young and stylish black painter, for his official portrait. Wiley's painting is beautiful. It is vibrant, healthy, optimistic, and calming. It captures Obama's "vibe" - the energy he projects on the people. If those experiments that show faster and healthier growth in plants that are exposed to happy things (pleasant classical music, hearts, the word "LOVE") than those exposed to conduits of darkness (metal music, skulls, the word "HATE") are to be believed - they may serve as a good metaphor for our nation. We are the plants and our president is the music. Wiley depicts Obama's music as bountifully healthy, lushly encouraging. We can't fully understand the efficacy or impact of a President without asking - How do they make us feel?

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