Thursday, October 23, 2008

Let Me Paint You a Picture...

Those of you who don't have the dubious pleasure of living in the "National Capital Region" (what we sometimes call Washington, DC, and its environs) probably either never see or don't care about some of the news stories that become major issues here. The most recent such story deals with portraits.

It began, as near as I can tell, with this important story in The Washington Post: Official Portraits Draw Skeptical Gaze. The story described one of the key preparations in some government agencies for the coming change of administration - "As the Bush presidency draws to a close, portrait artists can expect a surge in business from Cabinet secretaries and other elite political appointees who want to preserve their legacies -- and their images -- for posterity." CNN later picked up the story as a commentary by Campbell Brown, and I'm sure it made the late-night talk show monologues as well, not to mention page-twelve-below-the-fold of many other newspapers.

The point of the articles was not that we shouldn't honor outgoing officials (at least some of them), but that formal portraits are an unnecessary expense at a time of economic travail. According to the original Post story, a formal portrait can cost anywhere from $7500 to $50,000 or more. A Commerce Department official quoted in the story said that the $35,000 cost of the portrait of outgoing Commerce Secretary Carlos Guiterrez is actually a bargain, given that most artists charge "anywhere from $50,000 to $75,000."

And that probably doesn't include the cost of the obligatory garish, gilt-encrusted rococo frame.

Another issue is that of who rates a portrait. The President and the Cabinet Secretaries? Probably. But how far down the organizational chart does it go? Does the First Principal Deputy Assistant Under Secretary of State for Putting Up with the French deserve a portrait? How about the Environmental Protection Agency's Assistant Director for Disposal of Reeking Solid Waste?

I don't know for sure, but I'll bet there's some obscure law somewhere that actually spells it out.

So...if we cut back on portraits, how do we honor outgoing officials? The traditional gold watch and Certificate of Appreciation don't seem appropriate to honor someone whose government service can, say, contribute to worldwide economic collapse or the tanking of America's image.

Some have suggested that we can reduce the cost simply by resorting to high-quality, high-definition color photographs. The problem there, of course, is that even high-quality color photographs will fade in a few years without special care, while portraits painted in the 1500s are still with us. We could cut down on expenses by hiring the right artist...Capt Picard's story of having his portrait painted demonstrates one approach. Sculpture is pretty expensive, too, and statuary tends to be fairly large and heavy (can you imagine the weight of a bust of Dolly Parton?).

So what's the answer? What level of government official deserves to be memorialized, and what's the best way to do it? One of my co-workers suggested a contest in which the government distributes paint-by-numbers pictures of worthy officials to grade-school children, then selects the best for display. We could also establish a sliding scale of memorialization:

President - oil painting.
Vice President - watercolor painting.
Cabinet Secretary - pencil sketch.
All Others - appropriate caricature selected from doodles done at boring meetings.

What do you think? I'm looking forward to your ideas.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

15 comments:

Amanda said...

I really don't see why you need to remember what the outgoing politicians look like. But, I do like your suggestions for how the paintings should be commissioned.

Just curious, are photos of the president displayed in businesses and offices in the US. In Malaysia, many offices, shops and even restaurants will display photos of the prime minister, the king and queen and also the politician for the state. I'm not sure why that is though.....

The Mistress of the Dark said...

I'm thinking the Pres and the VP and no one else, as no one is going to remember them anyway.

Suebs said...

No, no, no, you have it backwards... Dubya and Cheney both need a nice caricature. All others should be drawn by crayon at a local kindergarten.

I'm kidding! I thought these were customary anyway for the highest officials, I didn't realize others got their's done too.

Gilahi said...

OK, since nobody else is willing to say it, I will:

I have often imagined the weight of a bust of Dolly Parton.

Bilbo said...

Amanda - photos of the president are usually displayed in all government offices, but seldom in other places, except as images on dart boards and such.

Andrea - yep, probably right there.

Suebs - I hadn't thought about crayon on butcher paper, but it's a tempting idea...

Gilahi - I figured Mike would be the one to bite on that (so to speak), but you beat him to it. Us gnarly men all seem to think alike, anyhow.

GreenCanary said...

They should take the hi-res digital photos and then have art students paint cheap portrait based on those. Though I love the paint by number idea... Brilliant.

fiona said...

http://www.paintinghorse.com/
There's your answer!

bandit said...

Lately, I have seen likenesses of ALL the candidates as Halloween masks. I think that is the answer!!!

Mike said...

With my tag asssigned by Rima, Dolly is just one (well two) of those I'm thinking about.

Bilbo said...

Canary - I've passed your comment on to my co-worker whose idea it was. He's suitably thankful.

Fiona - can we have a horse painting horse's a... uh ... never mind.

Bandit - not a bad idea...

Mike - I'm REALLY waiting for this post...

lacegem said...

Frankly, watercolor is a harder medium to paint with compared to oil. As an artist I can tell you that for a fact! With oils, if you make a mistake it's very forgiving because you can always cover it up with more color or simply take it out. Watercolors on the other hand requires more skill & precision, since it dries quicker & it's harder to fix once you make a mistake. Maybe you want to rethink who gets what.

Melissa B. said...

I think we should dress them all up in Valentino & de la Renta & adios them, ASAP! BTW, you mean Campbell Brown, correctamundo?

Bilbo said...

Lacegem - sigh...just my luck to have a genuine artist on my case. How about if we change "watercolor" to "oil painting using motor oil"?

Melissa - oops! You are correct, and I fixed the mistake. That's what I get for writing these posts between 4:30 and 5:30 in the morning...

fiona said...

We can and indeed will have horses painting horses a@#es and all for a bucket of oats...oh was that slick willy??
What will "baby bush" charge? A bushel of hay?

Blog Stalker said...

I'm okay with Pres, VP and Cabinet. Everyone else can have one, but THEY get to pay for it if they want it.

Fair enough?

Have a great day!