Janesville: The Promise of America

Janesville, Wisconsin was well known throughout the upper midwest as a blue collar town that manufactured automobiles since early in the 20th century. It’s known for other things since the Janesville GM Assembly Plant closed down in December 2008, taking 1,200 United Auto Worker jobs with it.

"But through hard times and good, great challenge and great change, the promise of Janesville has been the promise of America,” then Senator Barack Obama said in town on February, 2008, nine months before he was to be elected president and 10 months before the plant closed. 

The irony of those words were lost on no one. 

Amy Goldstein, a reporter with the Washington Post, spent years reporting on the impacts of the plant closure, which became her well regarded book, Janesville: An American Story

I grew up between Janesville and Madison, the state’s capital and home to the large and well regarded University of Wisconsin. Living so close, I know very little about Janesville. Searching for entertainment when we were younger, I doubt we’d even considered going out to Janesville above doing something in Madison.  

I moved out of the state many years ago, so you could also say I don’t know much about Wisconsin — especially in the way the people and politics have changed since the Great Recession. 

But I found enough truth in Goldstein’s book because it was obvious she dug deep into the community and tried to tell the story through its people. She didn’t want to write a political polemic, she told a group at the Janesville Library, but she wanted to show people what it feels like when you lose a job. Or, when many people lose jobs around you. 

In that, she was very successful. 

Here’s a few things I learned from the book:  

  • Janesville started building autos in 1923 — and the city had seen hard times before. People didn’t think the 2008 shutdown would become permanent.  This was partly because GM kept the plant in limbo instead of formally closing it by putting it in standby status. (One other plant came off of standby status for a short time.) This forced at least some people to believe that maybe the jobs would come back and perhaps made the psychological situation even worse.

  • Not just people working at GM lost their jobs. The factories of the Assembly Plant’s suppliers’ lost their core business and laid many others off. In a survey the author completed with researchers five years after the plant closed, some 35 percent of respondents said that someone in their house had lost a job. 

  • Job training laid off workers is much more difficult than it sounds. The trainees first must be motivated and then prepared academically to go to school, which is sometimes the biggest problem. Jobs also need to be available for the students in their new fields. If not, cynicism or anxiety creeps in and students can drop out without completing their programs, which could make them very vulnerable: no degree to earn higher wages, but still owing student loans.

  • Goldstein found more than a few people who went back to school after the plant closed  were not doing as well as those who didn’t go back to school. That’s not to say everyone who went back to school was doing worse off. Yet it happens. 

  • Regardless of what work former plant workers found, nearly no one made the same amount of wages as they did when at GM. 

  • One reason Janesville’s economy became so impacted after GM left was that many people elected to stay in town rather than picking up and searching for work elsewhere, like Texas or Arizona. This is in line with a general trend that fewer people move regions for work as opposed to the larger immigrations during the 1970s and 1980s.

  • Yet, more than a few Janesville GM employees became “gypsies” and took jobs at GM plants in Fort Wayne Indiana or Kansas City or Arlington, Texas. Sometimes they would leave their families in Janesville while working these jobs.   

  • Speaker of the House Paul Ryan grew up in Janesville and will represent the district until his retirement in January 2019. The story partly mirrors his ascent in the House. As the company decided to close the plant, Ryan was a rising star in the Republican party and had spent a bit of time keeping up with GM leadership. The GM closure greatly affected Ryan personally and politically, and he later argued that cities like Janesville afflicted by the great recession should not count on government to lift them up. Rather, they should count on the resources marshaled by the community, which could be better directed with less structural and financial overhead.

  • The social workers and those running the food pantries or job training sites in the book argued that the cuts in state and federal aid that corresponded with politicians adopting Ryan’s thinking meant fewer funds for charities, forcing them to only help a minority of those in need. 

  • Children were greatly impacted by the Assembly Plant’s closure, especially older teens who bore some psychological and economic responsibility as their parents struggled slipping out of the middle class. Some children became homeless as parents left Janesville searching for work but did not have the funds to take their older children with them.

What I learned about higher education (after reading two books)

Titles Covered:

Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace for Higher Education by Jon McGee

College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students by Jeffrey J. Selingo 


The transactional degree

Since, maybe, the turn of the century, families around the world have looked upon the university degree as a gateway to the middle class. Many of those people who attend university end up believing that the degree is the most important aspect of going to college.

It’s what Jon McGee calls the transactional degree in his book Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace for Higher Education. To me, it’s one of the more interesting aspects I’ve learned about college — after reading two books on the issues facing higher education. Going to college  used to be a transformative experience. Today, it’s the time you spend between high school and a career.

And that’s partly where the modern university is going wrong.

The transactional product means that people view higher education as a mere commodity. People are looking to be treated like paying customers who must be satisfied, which places the college in difficult position. One, students who only think about college only as a ladder to a career may question taking courses in other disciplines, a hallmark of the liberal arts degree. They may question taking part in activities outside of classes on campus, a hallmark of the traditional American university.

Of course, students should see themselves as customers. Universities have an obligation to make the paths easier that students take through their institution. However, universities have been moving too far outside of its traditional calling. 

College was never meant to be place late adolescents went to mature and learn to be adults. In fact, argues Jeffrey J. Selingo in College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, much of the tuition increases at universities during the last decade and a half stem from new services universities started to meet the needs of maturing young adults.

Bells and whistles

New buildings were built and new services created, like increased career and job placement offices, health centers and psychological services, intramural sports and leisure centers like (the infamous) campus climbing walls and floating rivers. All of these services add high costs that must be made up through tuition hikes. The only aspect of college that didn’t get bigger and grander, Selingo argues, is that students were not exposed to rigorous classes.

Don’t be fooled by these bells and whistles of shiny buildings, Selingo writes. The top schools don’t generally operate this way. Call it keeping up with the Joneses. What may also be a good way for second-tier schools to attract students can also be a race to the bottom in pushing up tuition while not adding to the academic bottom line. 

This is an important point from both of these books: They are not talking about the top-tier, strikingly selective universities. Their anecdotes mostly concern state schools and less selective private schools, the sometimes quite good and sometimes quite uneven universities that educate the vast majority of students in the United States. (The places where I went to school.) Because these schools are responsible for educating a large number of students, their decision making impacts a lot of lives. 

Is college worth it?

Is a college degree necessary? It’s one of the questions underpinning many debates on higher education. Economically it would seem so. In 2002, a person with a bachelors would make 75 percent more in lifetime wages than a person who graduated from high school. In 2013, that number rose to 84 percent. During the great recession, I remember, the unemployment rate for high school graduates at one point was 14 percent, much higher than college educated, especially those with more than a bachelor’s degree.

But that doesn’t say everything about the efficacy of the undergraduate degree. Selingo spent time following people who were either not academically prepared or not intellectually mature enough to go to college. They fell into a worse hole of paying off high student debt but not having the degree to show for it.

McGee takes a more measured approach you’d expect to find in an admissions officer like him, arguing that the student/university relationship is just that, a relationship. Students bring certain aspects to this relationship, such as aptitude, motivation and aspirations. Universities bring to the table a purpose (their mission and values), the product (courses and other experiences) and the processes, the way they deliver the product. 

The relationship is successful when both sides are pulling the same way, McGee seems to say. 

Selingo, a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, takes a more big picture focus. What the US needs, he argues, is to create viable education alternatives between the high school diploma and the college degree. Programs that should be geared towards specific jobs, but with the idea that today’s students will most likely secure five to ten different professional jobs in their future. Tomorrow’s programs need to have enough practical applicability to make students immediately marketable but also include enough background where students could teach themselves to learn for the future. Community colleges and other state institutions do a lot of this work already, but many of them remain financially strapped that a degree from these places may not be so financially beneficial. 

A lot of students we met were turned off by various aspects of a liberal education. They felt that the process of choosing a college is too opaque to make educated decisions. Many students felt that no matter their individual needs they were led down the same paths tread by everyone else. 

Higher education's biggest challenge is how to handle the growing chasm between education needs and current reality. Universities will be forced to develop new course delivery methods with an increasingly mobile (and busy) student body. Their programs must better be suited to students who now transfer schools at a much higher rate than even a generation before. They will also have to do a better job of aligning their needs with that of industry, creating degrees not from the whims of 19 year olds but from actual market needs. 

So lists most of my knowledge of higher education (in the United States) after reading two books. 

Why must libraries focus their work in a changing environment

“I consider a [person’s] brain originally like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.” — Sherlock Holmes

We decide what and how we spend our time focusing on, Sherlock Holmes seems to say. But there is only so much space in the brain to enter that information. Information overload is fresh on peoples’ minds—the idea that we can’t process too much information (statistics, facts, opinions, etc.) because the deluge makes the function of decision making more difficult.

Holmes foresaw this problem and created a very utilitarian response: he purposely, famously, ignored learning about certain subjects. Very few of us would choose to live like Sherlock Holmes.

I used to work in knowledge management, though, and I think some organizations could learn a little from the great detective: Ignore everything but the essential.

The problem is libraries have always had a lot of arenas that compete for our focus. Like many organizations, libraries are not master of our own domains: a lot of spheres can apply leverage on our work. Take for example the changing environment of higher education.

The role of the university has been under turmoil since at least the turn of the century. On one hand, more people agree that obtaining a degree is a necessity to a better job. And, most years, more people are willing to travel – sometimes quite far – to attend a university to earn a degree.

However, in the United Arab Emirates, the market for higher education is very competitive (pdf). People have choices where they can attend colleges. This buyers’ market means many universities need the individual student more than he or she needs them.

Secondly, the change facing academic publishing greatly impacts libraries. New competitors to traditional academic publishers have risen since the rise of the internet. Google Scholar is one example, as is the rise of pre-print services like Arxiv and SSRN. For-profit, social, research disseminators Academia.edu and Research Gate are included in this list, along with pirate sites like Sci Hub, which could affect their traditional business model.

At the same time, the marketplace for academic publishing is becoming increasingly concentrated: A larger amount of scholarly material is being published by fewer publishers. That means the top four publishers increasingly control the majority of published work in the major disciplines, like Humanities, Social Sciences and hard sciences.

Impact

How does this impact libraries? Students in the UAE look at three major factors (pdf) when choosing a university: quality of education, university of reputation and the recognition of the degree. Libraries play a foundational role in university reputation and learning culture. Universities employ librarians as marketers to potential students and parents. Once students enroll, libraries are often called to develop new services and programs for these new discerning users.

The push for augmenting university reputation may also lead organizations to change focus or add a set of new skills. We see that in the push for increasing research output and helping solve specific problems facing the country, a longstanding reason higher education is so abundant in UAE. From a library standpoint, this institutional decision changes our emphasis from supporting undergraduate teaching and learning to supporting research and researchers.

The changes in scholarly communication marketplace is even more apparent in our work. We’ve dealt with assessing the multitude of new access models, from demand driven acquisitions to evidence based acquisitions, experimental new models like article rentals and the number of issues surrounding open access.

Academic publishers have also moved into new markets, such as the research ecosystem. They have acquired scholarly analytics tools, collaboration software sites and research workflow platforms. We are fielding sales calls for these new services, either as one-off purchases or bundling them with other services. This has compelled our office to wade into areas we generally left alone: research budgets and faculty promotion.  

Finally, fewer publishers controlling more journals and publications had greatly impacted our ability to negotiate access and attempting to control price. With few competitors, publishers are allowed to bundle items (whether we want them or not). One set of academics argue the concentration of the academic publishing market coincided with the sharp increases in resource prices.

How to keep up

The change in higher education and academic publishing economics is only two areas impacting academic libraries. There are many more. The question is: how do you keep focus as an organization? Do we act like Sherlock Holmes – pushing immaterial issues from your attic? Do we try to understand everything these changes imply and to adjust our service models accordingly?

These are especially complicated questions for smaller libraries. The lack of available staff time is an obvious reason. Small libraries are also generally attuned to meeting the needs of its institution. Abrupt changes to the university’s mission may make it difficult for the library to change tack.  Not just for librarians and staff, but also for counterparts (professors and heads of departments) used to having our full attention.

As our work becomes more complicated, though, something is going to have to give.

Vice Media and the art of the deal

Reeves Wiedeman in New York Magazine on the Trojan horse that is Vice Media. Completely worth it for the salacious details.

Missing from the scene was Shane Smith, Vice’s co-founder, who shocked his employees and the media world in March by announcing that he was stepping aside as the company’s longtime CEO. Smith’s beard and Canadian drawl had become an avatar of the company, both on-camera, in Vice documentaries about drug gangs and warlords, and in front of corporate audiences, where he persistently declared the inevitability of his company’s global domination and landed deals with an aggressive sales pitch: Pay Vice to join its youth revolution or get left behind.

The pitch had worked to the point that Vice had grown from a free magazine to a company with 3,000 employees spread across a cable network, more than a dozen websites, two shows on HBO, an ad agency, a film studio, a record label, and a bar in London. Vice had become the tenth-highest-valued private company in America, according to CB Insights, at a valuation of $5.7 billion, and as recently as 2016, Smith had told The Wall Street Journal that by the end of the decade, Vice could be worth $50 billion.

The years since, however, have tested Smith’s long run of predicting extraordinary success and then realizing it. This past December, the New York Times published an investigation into sexual misconduct across the company, and two months later, the Journal reported that Vice had missed its annual revenue target by $100 million. With traffic to its sites growing modestly, and Viceland, its two-year-old cable channel, still struggling to deliver on Smith’s promise to bring millennials back to television, it was not unreasonable to wonder whether Vice truly did have a better hold on the attention of young people than any other company — and, if not, how it could possibly be worth so much money. Smith, who had expected to sell the company in 2016, entered this year with no obvious buyers in sight, and future investment rounds more difficult to come by; even some of its advocates were unwilling to bet Vice was worth what it had been just a year prior. “How do you scale the essence of a punk-rock magazine into a multibillion-dollar media company? There is no real answer,” a former Vice executive who remains fond of the brand told me. “At some point, what got you there isn’t what you are.”

Keith Haring on his hometown

Though he ultimately left Pennsylvania’s flat farmlands and stone houses for the hip and noisy environs of New York’s West Village, Haring wrote in his posthumously published diaries, Keith Haring: Journals (2010), that “Kutztown has its good points. Excessive amounts of love and sanity. Precise order. Fresh air. A different background noise … still a hum but a softer, more natural buzz. Time to contemplate, time to reflect and dream.”
If you had conformed to your parents’ expectations, what would you have been like?
We were in a little, conservative town. You grew up there, went to high school there, stayed there, married someone from there, had kids there, and your kids stayed, too. I had been a good little kid. My parents had taken us to church and things like that, but I became this little Jesus freak, and my parents were appalled. I had fallen into the movement out of a lack of any other thing to believe in and out of wanting to be part of something. Part of deciding I wanted to try drugs was realizing that it was time to start thinking for myself instead of blindly following just to be part of a group.

On writing, on deserts

When writing the desert, my recipe is this: Write the heat and caliche and pigweed. The radio static and the country bar. The yipping of coyotes on a cold night. Write neon sunsets over wide streets and the smell of creosote, plucked from the stem and made into salve. Write cactus fruit spilling out their seed, and a monsoon circling the city like a dog. Make poetry from sand and lizard bones. Old bedsprings abandoned in the arroyo. A child on a ladder, measuring a dying agave in the evening light.

The writers in this issue know the desert as nuanced and extreme—both muse and deathtrap, shapeshifter and tomb, a walking meditation and a political bargaining chip. The people you will find in the desert are just as complicated. Some are already home, anchored by a long root sunk below the brush and dirt. Others come and go, trading the desert for places with fog and maple trees and snow. Still others are forced—by climate, or war, or men in air-conditioned rooms making laws—to traverse the desert in a cruel migratory roulette.

Bring Karl Marx back into the big house

Happy birthday to Karl Marx, who was born 200 years ago on May 5. He was the most astute and influential critic of capitalism in history — and also the most misunderstood.

It is long since time that Marx re-joined the community of ordinary intellectuals, considered as neither the terrifying harbinger of social upheaval, nor a secular pope with the eternally correct description of all human society. He was a genius, but in the end, only another human scholar with a brilliant but incomplete perspective.

To the media: John McCain will not die for your sins

D.R. Tucker in the Washington Monthly on the media's John McCain death watch. 

Ten years ago this month, when Kennedy was diagnosed with cancer, I recall a rather distasteful tone to the coverage of his illness, almost a sense that the Fourth Estate couldn’t wait for Kennedy to pass away due to the likely bonanza in ratings and newspaper sales his passing would generate. It’s hard to read the coverage of McCain today without the same morbid sense that the press wants to hasten his death in order to cash in.

Whatever you think of John McCain, he deserves better than to have his impending passing be turned into a media circus, no? The McCain Death Watch is nothing short of sour; it’s as though the controversies surrounding the media exploitation of the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr., and the lessons learned from those controversies, have been forgotten–or deliberately ignored. 

Madelaine Lucas on Sam Shepard and Paris, Texas

My own love affair with Shepard’s work began with Paris, Texas, which I watched for the first time at 19, reeling from romantic rejection. It is a slow-burning film starring Harry Dean Stanton—another cowboy gentleman who died last year at the age of 91—in his first role as a leading man. It’s difficult to imagine the film without the gravity and grace he brought to the character of Travis or the profound and ethereal presence of Nastassja Kinski when she appears as his estranged wife Jane, in what may be the most iconic sweater on film. If Paris, Texas is a love letter, it is one that positions heartbreak as an existential condition, reflected by the burned-out landscape of the Southwest—a desolate but dreamlike purgatory of highways, diners, motels, payphones and railroads always on the brink of being swallowed whole by the desert.

Shepard once stated that it was not these places themselves that interested him, but their connection to the past, and at the heart of the film is the cruel joke Travis’s father used to make about his mother—introducing her to people as “the woman he met in Paris … Texas” as a way of shaming her for failing to be the worldly, glamorous woman he wanted her to be. For Travis, the road offers a route of return and the hope that we might come to understand who we are through where we’ve come from.

Are millennials the canary in the coal mine for the broken economy?

Michael Hobbes on how millennials—those born between 1982 and 2004—have become the canary in the coal mine for the languishing economy in the United States. 

But generalizations about millennials, like those about any other arbitrarily defined group of 75 million people, fall apart under the slightest scrutiny. Contrary to the cliché, the vast majority of millennials did not go to college, do not work as baristas and cannot lean on their parents for help. Every stereotype of our generation applies only to the tiniest, richest, whitest sliver of young people. And the circumstances we live in are more dire than most people realize.

A few statistics: 

  • We've taken on at least 300% more student debt than our parents
  • We are about half as likely to own a home as young adults were in 1975
  • 1 in five of us is living in poverty
  • Based on current trends, many of us won't be able to retire until we're 75
  • "My father’s first house cost him 20 months of his salary. My first house will cost more than 10 years of mine."

Lot's to chew on here. Not be be an old here, but it's best to read this on a larger screen. 

Why portrait painting is important (now)

Dushko Petrovich on why portrait painting is gaining in reputation, even before the unveiling of Barack and Michelle Obama's official portraits. 

So why is portraiture returning now? For one, there is an institutional urgency to speak to a more diverse audience with painting that depicts the black community, the Asian-American experience, the Latino face, to attract the various people who had been excluded from the museum by remaking the history of figurative painting, this time with color. Not that the trend toward realist portraits is exclusive to artists of color. It is evident in the rococo renderings of Sam McKinniss, who paints pop culture figures — Prince, Lorde, Flipper — like hallowed aristocrats. It was clear in a series of self-portraits by Justin Vivian Bond — who is best known for experimental cabaret performances — that were displayed at the New Museum last fall, and seemed to casually but definitively announce Bond’s identity as a trans artist.

And there is another reason for figurative paintings’ resurgence as well: We live in a time in which reality is almost daily warped in ways that were unimaginable even 18 months ago. We have swiftly entered an era where the very notion of truth, or facts, is considered fungible. As we reassess the various power structures that landed us here, it is stabilizing and reassuring to look at the work of an artist who is clearly in control of her craft, who is able to depict a reality that is material and grounded in recognition — of seeing, in the Facebook age, a painting that looks like who it is meant to.

Tribalism, politics and you

I’ve always enjoyed former lawyer and current baseball analyst Craig Calcaterra’s Twitter-length take on how tribalism is responsible for most of our opinions: 

The world is less aggravating when you accept that 75-90% of all opinions on everything are informed by base tribalism. Including your own.

Recently, David Brooks had his own Op-Ed-length take on tribalism and political beliefs through the lens of the gun debate in the US: 

We don’t really have policy debates anymore. We have one big tribal conflict, and policy fights are just proxy battles as each side tries to establish moral superiority. But just as the tribal mentality has been turned on, it can be turned off. Then and only then can we go back to normal politics and take reasonable measures to keep our children safe.

Looking back to the darkest days of the 20th century, you'll see we can't just turn tribalism off. George Orwell called it by a different name — Nationalism — but in the hyper-tribal World War II era, it looked largely like it does today (although with very different consequences). 

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles. Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war. Their own antisemitism has caused this vast crime to bounce off their consciousness. In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind.


Perhaps we may not be able to completely move away from tribalism — Orwell's nationalism — is because it's coded in our DNA. If you want to place blame for tribal identity, look to evolution, argues Jonathan Haidt of the Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion

...As Darwin said long ago, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of selfish individualists. Darwin’s ideas about group selection fell out of favor in the 1960s, but recent discoveries are putting his ideas back into play, and the implications are profound. We’re not always selfish hypocrites. We also have the ability, under special circumstances, to shut down our petty selves and become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives, although our hivishness can blind us to other moral concerns. Our bee-like nature facilitates altruism, heroism, war, and genocide.

Once you see our righteous minds as primate minds with a hivish overlay, you get a whole new perspective on morality, politics, and religion. I’ll show that our “higher nature” allows us to be profoundly altruistic, but that altruism is mostly aimed at members of our groups. I’ll show that religion is (probably) an evolutionary adaptation for binding groups together and helping them to create communities with a shared morality. It is not a virus or parasite, as some scientists (the “new atheists”) have argued in recent years. And I’ll use this perspective to explain why some people are conservative, others are liberal (or progressive), and still others become libertarians. People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds.

'I love that question'

In Mousse Magazine, the artists Julia Phillips and Aaron Gilbert converse about each others' art, some of their inspiration...and this section on evil and love. As with many conversations captured for print, the questions are as interesting as the answers. 

Aaron Gilbert…These pieces could be described as artifacts that have a sole purpose of committing evil acts. Do you believe in evil? Which is a certain inverse of saying: Do you believe in the sacred?

JP: I do believe in evil acts. And I am interested in what drives us humans to commit them. Forceful transgressions of boundaries being one example. Self-serving manipulation being another. And both are based on the idea that—not necessarily sacred—but ethical acts are led by the understanding that the human body, as well as the psyche, shall be maintained in their wellness. I like to think of evil as one end of the spectrum of the human psyche’s capacity. I believe that we have it within us and have ideas for it. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a market for horror movies and thrillers. A fascination...

Julia Phillips: Are you consciously depicting alternative, counter images for pop-cultural depictions of love? Our youth culture obsession conversation comes to mind. And the question of the need for love, and the kind of love as something that matures with us as we go through different ages in our lives. The images easily accessible and brought to us through media in an overflow are the ones of youth culture. Is your work a reaction to a drought?

AG: I love that question. I think love fills this profound need at all stages of our lives, and the nature of how we need it shifts as a newborn, as a young child, as someone elderly. I’m weary of the way youth culture is placed front and center in the art world...In the end, it’s a question of where we place value. Of all the pop songs in the past twenty years, how many of them place the voice or the needs of a young child or an elderly person at the center? I’m sure I’m missing a few outliers, but it feels like we have to go back to Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder with this one (“They Don’t Care About Us” and “Earth Song” at least felt age-neutral). I think we often are too narrow in who we give voice to in our narratives. There’s room for a fuller breadth of human experience, and I pose this mostly to myself as a question of what work I should be making in the present.

'More artistic than most typical official portraits'

Slate speaks to Richard J. Powell, a professor of art and art history at Duke University and an expert in the history of black portraiture, about the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, which were unveiled recently

Rachelle Hampton: So what did you think of the portraits and of the Obamas’ choice of artists? 

Richard Powell: I was surprised by the portraits and what I mean by that is, I found them to be more artistic than most typical official portraits are. If you go to the National Portrait Gallery and look at portraits of famous people, they tend to be real vanity pictures and often by artists who are able to do a likeness but they’re not able to really make what I would consider a profound artistic statement. There are lots of great portraits out there, but these are really strong works of art as well as portraits. 

As to the choice of the artists, I thought it was special. Amy Sherald has been in the pipeline for a little while, but not as long as Kehinde Wiley, and so choosing to place someone I would still call up and coming alongside someone I would certainly call a veteran was inspired. 

What statements do you think the artists are trying to make here? What do you think they’re trying to communicate? 

Well, I want to separate them out. I want to start with the Michelle Obama portrait: It’s very much in Sherald’s style, which are these figures that are often placed on very flat backgrounds. She experiments with chroma so that the figures are not necessarily representing things in a realistic way, but they provide an interesting relationship of one color to another to another. What I was struck by in the Michelle Obama portrait was the graphic quality of it, and when I say graphic I mean that the dress is this dramatic abstract statement—the patterns in it, the bold shapes, the limited color palette—and that has an interesting way of interacting with Mrs. Obama’s figure, her famous arms are there, and they frame her head. Amy Sherald really is attuned to the interrelationship between the body and a pose and the accoutrements that surround that pose, in this case a very bold dress