IN 2008, NEWSWEEK ART CRITIC Peter Plagens asked if the photographer Catherine Opie had become too safe. Opie made her first big splash at the 1995 Whitney Biennial, where she offered "Self-Portrait/Pervert," in which she appeared in a black leather mask and pants against a glowing rococo-patterned cloth, her arms pierced by 46 eighteen-gauge needles, the title "Pervert" carved into her skin over her breasts. "When a real live publisher, studio or museum delivers unto you readers or viewers you didn't have before, your palms get a little sweaty," he wrote. "You feel obligated to give them something a little more accessible, a little more mainstream than the eccentricities that got you noticed in the first place." What LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy had called "Losing My Edge," Plagens was calling stage fright.
Opie's new book, Inauguration — composed of photos shot on and around January 20, 2009, when Barack Obama became the nation's first black president — likely will not change his mind. What could be more accessible, more mainstream than covering, as Deborah Willis puts it in her catalog essay, "a 'day in the life' of one of the most anticipated [events] in U.S. history"?
This book arrives at a time when the culture wars are flaring up again, questions of identity are resurging, and another struggle over the meaning of America awaits in the agonizing electoral season ahead. Disillusionment with Obama is widespread. His unsteady governing has tested the once hopeful. Obama's own "eccentricities" seem to have been sanded away. If Plagens is to be believed, Obama and Opie could be mirrors of one another, the one in politics, the other in the arts.
But it's not quite so simple. The Occupy protesters, whose encampments numbered over 900 at their peak this fall, now embody the desire for change. At Berkeley High — where the first urban slang dictionary was compiled, and whose students joined the militant Occupy Oakland, Occupy Cal, and Occupy Berkeley protestors this past winter — there is a new term of derision: "1%." Working definition: "Someone whose actions or thoughts are socially unacceptable, usually involving deception and/or theft." Usage: "I called shotgun but Isaac took the seat anyway. He's so 1%."
Not long ago, Obama appeared to be the figure who might bridge divides, end the culture wars, and usher in a "post-racial" era. Instead, the polarization has intensified. Despite his best efforts to appear self-effacing when he could have been proud, pliable when he could have been firm, he still became the image of fear, the specter of all the things that "we Americans" are not. Immigrants, college students and youths, and David Wojnarowicz once again became targets.
Opie's Inauguration, like William Eggleston's 1976 Election Eve series, depicts the President and the First Lady only by proxy, as flickering dots on mobile LED video screens. Instead she places her faith in the crowds. Lines gather patiently. People smile. They sell t-shirts and calendars. They mug and hang from the White House fence. They pose beside the building nameplate for the National Council of Negro Women. They greet the anti-war protestors and the people protesting Guantanamo with cameras, not jeers. The tone of Inauguration is one of calm anticipation.
We're still waiting.
Opie and Obama were born in the same year, 1961...