A Warhol Christmas at the White House


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When it comes to art, the right-wing anti-Obama crowd hasn’t had a very good year. Repeated efforts to gin up outrage in a manufactured culture war have either fallen flat or proved downright embarrassing. (You can see some of them here, here and here.)

The latest fiasco is the Great Christmas Ornament Scandal.

On Tuesday, Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government blog got its knickers in a twist over one of the Obama White House’s myriad Christmas trees. (Big Government is a sibling to Breitbart’s Big Hollywood blog, which cranked up a paranoid fantasy about the National Endowment for the Arts a few months back.) The blaring ‘EXCLUSIVE’ led with a blurry photo of a decoupage Christmas ornament adorned with the face of Chinese Communist dictator, Mao Zedong.


‘Of course, Mao has his place in the White House,’ Big Government wailed about the GCOS, taking the Obama-as-socialist meme out for a yuletide spin.

Except, it wasn’t exactly Mao. It was Andy Warhol’s ‘Mao.’

The image is one of a very large series of silkscreen paintings and prints the late Pop artist made of Mao. Warhol’s parody transformed the leader of the world’s most populous nation into a vapid superstar -- the most famous of the famous. The portrait photo from Mao’s Little Red Book is tarted up with lipstick, eye-shadow and other Marilyn Monroe-style flourishes.

Where did the Christmas decoration come from?

‘We took about 800 ornaments left over from previous administrations,’ First Lady Michelle Obama explained in an earlier press release about getting the White House ready for the holidays, ‘we sent them to 60 local community groups throughout the country, and asked them to decorate them to pay tribute to a favorite local landmark and then send them back to us for display here at the White House.’

The precise source of the Warhol ornament is not known. But Warhol’s Maos are in art museum collections from coast to coast, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago (whose painting most resembles the ornament image) and both the County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum has several.

Oh, and at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, the National Gallery of Art has 21 different versions of Warhol’s ‘Mao.’ Twenty-one. Wait until Big Government bloggers find out about the Communist takeover of the National Gallery.

In a political era when the lunatic fringe has relentlessly caricatured the president of the United States as a pinko, an ornament-maker somewhere in America apparently thought a satirical painting of a socialist was an ideal ‘favorite local landmark.’ I can’t say as I blame him or her.


But still another layer of unwitting comedy percolates beneath the Great Christmas Ornament Scandal, which was immediately picked up by a host of hyperventilating right-wing Internet sites and blogs and then dutifully flogged into total incoherence by fair-and-balanced Fox News.

Warhol began the series in 1972 in the wake of an epochal visit to Beijing by conservative hero Richard M. Nixon. (The Watergate burglary was four months off.) President Nixon had squeaked into office on the electoral success of the Southern Strategy -- Republican efforts to use race as a wedge issue to appeal to white Southern voters. Finding a Nixon-era Mao in a White House now occupied by our first African American president seems to have shoved some folks over the edge.

Who is the intrepid reporter responsible for the GCOS pseudo-scoop? The post is signed by ‘Capitol Confidential,’ a tabloid moniker Warhol himself would have adored. Capitol Confidential is identified as ‘anonymous sources in the halls of power at the federal, state, and local levels. Big Government double-checks their stories and provides them the cloak they need to reveal the truth.’

No, that’s not a parody. That’s investigative reporting in the age of Drudge. Next thing you know Capitol Confidential will breathlessly uncover the exclusive! shocking! truth! that the Obamas’ Christmas tree is also decorated with acorns.

Happy holidays.

-- Christopher Knight


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