The Mona Lisa Presidency

In response to an administration that has cheapened the value of words, images are becoming a form of public art—and in some quarters, a form of resistance.

Leonardo da Vinci / Wikimedia Commons / gillmar / Shutterstock / Jim Lo Scalzo / Getty / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Earlier this month, just after President Trump delivered a speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations that 1) threatened to annihilate North Korea and 2) referred to the leader of that nation as an Elton John lyric, images of the speech began circulating on Twitter—not of Trump delivering his oration, but of John Kelly, the president’s current chief of staff, reacting to it. One of the photos, shot by the Associated Press’s Mary Altaffer, featured Kelly covering his face with his hand. Another found him cradling his chin, staring intently at the ground. Another depicted him from a side angle, leaning into his closed fist. “John Kelly apparently went through some sort of existential crisis during Trump’s UN speech,” one tweet summed it up, and the diagnosis went viral. The selection of still images became a Twitter Moment, publicized with the wry observation that “John Kelly’s face was not the most reassuring during Trump’s #UNGA speech.”

The series is, in theme, a follow-up to earlier images of the chief of staff that went viral after the president, from the lobby of Trump Tower, repeated his “many sides” assessment of the violence at Charlottesville: images in which Kelly seemed to effect slow-simmering despair—arms crossed, eyes cast ground-ward—as he listened to the speech from the sidelines. (The Twitter Moment summation in that case: “John Kelly’s face at Trump’s presser spoke volumes 😟 .”)

And those images, in turn, are similar in theme to the video of the president that went viral this week: a clip picturing Trump, discussing the political protests of the NFL, sweeping an extended middle finger across his forehead. Which was similar, in theme (Wait, was that—? Did he just—?), to the clip that went viral in May, shot at the G7 summit in Italy, showing the president engaged in an insouciantly middle-fingered forehead-swipe as the Italian prime minister spoke. Which was similar, in theme, to the GIF of Melania Trump, smile-frowning during her husband’s inauguration, and to the GIFs of the president swatting his wife away, and to the GIFs of her doing the same back to him, and to the many other images, moving and still—the hands awkwardly shaken, the hands awkwardly rejected, the couch-kneels, the hurricane heels, the cap, the orb—that insinuate as much as they illustrate. Wait, was that—? Did he just—? What is happening?

“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled,” the art critic John Berger famously noted, and while that has always been true, it is perhaps truer now, at this moment, during this presidency, as the world moves in the orbit of a leader who regularly blurs the line between fact and fiction. The invented phone calls. The invented celebrations. The crowd size. The wire taps. The birth certificate. In June, The New York Times published a feature titled “Trump’s Lies”; produced in exceptionally small font, and condensed to run the width of a webpage, one must nonetheless scroll for a long while to reach the end of the list. As of September 8, according to The Washington Post’s tracker, Trump had made 1,145 “false and misleading claims” in his 232 days in office alone—claims that proceed to infiltrate the American psyche.

Whether the lies are the result of a strategic mind or a careless one, the general effect is the same: epistemic exhaustion, among Trump’s fans and detractors alike. Systemic uncertainty. Widespread mistrust. Citizens who feel empowered to dismiss not only the president’s words, but also each other’s, with sneers of “fake news.” The presidency will always revolve around the particularities of the person who holds it; the office’s current occupant, however, is particularly volatile in mind and mood. (“Ahead of his departure for Paris,” CNN reported in July, “Trump spent much of his time watching television and huddled with top advisers. … And his mood ranged from furious to frustrated, but also defiant.”) While any White House will issue words that aim to spin and deflect, the words of this one—“1,145 false and misleading claims”—are particularly unreliable as reflections of the decisions the president will make on behalf of the country.

In that environment, images can be understood to reveal something that presidential words, chastened and abused, cannot. John Kelly, photographed at the UN, can be transformed into John Kelly, presidential Pietà. The pictures move from the realm of mere documentation to become something more transcendent and provocative: public art. Art that is viewed and discussed, in large part, on the internet. Trump Eating Fried Chicken With Fork; President Deplaning With Scotch Tape on Tie; Son, Perched Upon Woodland Stump—those images aren’t merely passed around on social media, with commentary created by citizens; they are also analyzed and contemplated and assumed to reveal something profound about The Way We Live Now. Even the silliest of the images—especially the silliest of them—function in that sense as light weapons of resistance. They close-caption the presidency. “25th Amendment, you say?” read one assessment of Kelly’s body language during August’s Trump Tower presser. “I find your ideas intriguing & would like to subscribe to your newsletter.”

The images spread as they do because, taken together, they can seem to reveal hidden truths about a president who remains, for all his spotlighting and swaggering, a cipher. This is an era, after all, in which the American public, primed with Making a Murderer and American Crime Story and NCIS, embraces forensic analysis as a form of entertainment. In that context, each new image of the president, and each image of the people and things surrounding him, takes on not only the quality of art—provocative, illustrative, asking to be analyzed—but also the quality of a mystery. Each is a new episode of CSI: White House. Each image treats the Trump presidency as a kind of Mona Lisa in live action, faintly grinning at one moment and faintly grimacing at the next—an aesthetic embodiment of the hazy ambiguity Italians call sfumato. “Donald Trump, Hiding in Plain Sight” was the headline of The New Yorker’s evaluation of 2017’s Scotch Tape on Tie.

It’s an aesthetic approach encouraged by the president himself—a man who, on top of everything else, seems to be exceptionally oriented toward the visual. Trump delights in providing his own art to be analyzed: that GIF of him driving his golf ball into Hillary’s turned back. The one of him wrestling “CNN” to complacency. The one of “the Trump train,” running over a cartoonish person onto whose head was photoshopped the logo of, yep, CNN. They are on the one hand very good distractions from the actual workings and non-workings of the administration—smoke and mirrors with an Adult Swim twist. But the president’s GIF-happiness achieves a broader end, as well: It frames him, the reality star, in precisely the way he seems to prefer to be known—as an aesthetic figure more even than a political one. It figures Trump himself as a work of art. One of the narratives that has emerged about the president in the months since he took office is that he enjoys the trappings of the job but not the work of it. Here is yet more evidence of that, via a GIF that suggests what might happen were Thomas the Tank Engine to go murder-y: Trump, it seems, wants to be looked at more than he wants to be looked to.

In his 1998 book The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word, the NYU professor Mitchell Stephens argued that, in the digital age, images—moving images, in particular—would come to supplant words as the primary mode of human communication. We are far, still, from such a wholesale shift, but the Trump presidency nonetheless hints at the change: This is a moment in which even the most casual of images can take on an air of revelation, and in which the images surrounding the president can be seen as more trustworthy than the words coming from the president himself. Images have a certain magic to them, Stephens noted; part of the magic derives from their ability to present the world in its multiple dimensions. Words can lie in ways that pictures cannot.

According to that logic, then, an image of Trump dramatically swiping his middle finger across his brow as he talks of the NFL’s peaceful protests may be more honest than his insistence that “the issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race.” An image of Trump in the Oval Office, surrounded by white men, may be more honest than the statement, “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” An image of two dozen men gathered around a conference table, debating whether maternity care and mammograms should be considered “essential” treatments under an attempted Obamacare repeal plan, may be more honest than anything the White House might say about the proceedings. An image of the White House chief of staff with his head in his hands as he listens to cavalier tauntings of “Rocket Man” may be more honest than Trump’s tweeted assurance that “this Administration continues to … get things done at a record clip.”

If the images double as art, however, they will also obscure as much they reveal. They will suggest not just one meaning—not just one truth—but whatever meaning may be entertained in the eye of the beholder. To some Trump is giving the finger to the players of the NFL; to others he is scratching an itch. To some Melania’s Inauguration Day grimace came from her imprisonment in an alabaster castle; to others it came because the new First Lady “was simply weighing the importance of her new role.” To some John Kelly is a visual metaphor for despair; to others he is merely listening, actively, to his boss’s speech. Sometimes Mona Lisa smiles. Sometimes Mona Lisa frowns. Wait, was that—? Did he just—? What is happening? The magic, but also the menace, is that art means never having to say for sure.