I.F. Stone once described John F. Kennedy as “simply an optical illusion,” and nowhere is that more evident than in “American Visionary: John F. Kennedy’s Life and Times,” the curated showing of Kennedy photographs now at the Bowers Museum.
Tracing the life of the 35th president of the United States from his privileged birth to his untimely death in Dallas, the exhibition is presented in cooperation with the John F. Kennedy Library foundation, including support from Getty Images and JFK’s nephew Stephen Kennedy Smith, who just published a book on his late uncle. While the photos are a cheerful chunk of nostalgia, there’s nothing revelatory about the show’s existence other than the continued stoking of fires beneath the mythological Camelot.
Coined by Jacqueline Kennedy, inspired by JFK’s favorite musical, the irony is that the Arthurian legends the musical was based on can be distilled down to themes of betrayal, adultery and death, issues that Mrs. Kennedy was more than familiar with. So much so, in fact, one can’t help but wonder whether she was simply winking at those in the know by using the reference. The dynasty’s confident manipulation of the family’s image—something the media aided and abetted, making Kennedy the most photographed politician in the world—continued past his death, exacerbated by Mrs. Kennedy’s willingness to aggrandize him for posterity. That transformation from failed legislator to tragic national hero was the beginning of a sea change in how politics and politicians were viewed.
America loves her symbols, and the grin, the perfect hair, the youthful countenance and happy face the family put out to the public were iconic symbols of hope. While I understand that Kennedy’s enshrinement may have been a comforting, even necessary baby blanket at the time, in the thick of Vietnam, political violence and the Cold War, it ended up becoming a propaganda wall that prevented people from seeing the truth. As JFK’s questionable talents as president have been overlooked and mythologized by an assassin’s bullet, every progressive issue he may have inspired—space travel, advocacy for the arts, a perceived sympathy for the poor and the working class—was undercut by his actual antipathy for the New Deal, lack of action on civil rights, the potential disaster of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the bungled Bay of Pigs.
Is it too much to ask that on the 55th anniversary of his death this November, we lay to rest the continuing martyrdom of Kennedy? That eternal flame doesn’t do America any good anymore. And maybe it never did when televised manipulations of presidential images and First Families led to an actor with Alzheimer’s being elected to our nation’s highest office just 20 years later? Instead of more inventions becoming history, more unnecessary books written and sold or more reality-TV stars elected to the presidency, may I suggest it’s time to open our eyes and put truth to the Grand Lie? Resigning Kennedy’s inchoate tenure to the historical dustbins, just as presidents James A. Garfield and William McKinley before him, would be for the best.
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The bulk of the “Helix²: Sculptures by Eric Johnson” exhibition at the Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion are twisted wood and resin sculptures inspired by painter John Singer Sargent’s controversial portrait Madame X. Sargent’s 1884 oil of an American woman married to a French banker accentuated the curves of her body, the regal stretch of her neck and profile, something uncommon during Victorian times. His accenting of her sensuality—including a dress strap that had slipped off her shoulder and dangled against her upper arm—put a gossipy target on his model’s back by Parisian society, eventually requiring that Sargent censor the work by repainting the strap to sanitize his original take.
A tiny photo of the Sargent is the most effective note offered by co-curators Leland Paxton and Tom Dowling, but it’s enough to tell you what to look for amid the lyrical sleek suggestions of a woman’s body. Inspired by the Finish Fetish movement of the ’60s, the work is more reminiscent of the sheen of wet surfboards or the colorful blending of paint on muscle cars than the soft flesh of a woman’s body, but a brief touch reveals them to feel as sexy as they look. You can trace the abstracted twist of a waist or arch of a spine with your hand, see the lattice bone structure underneath the “skin,” and note that from the right angle, the resin spirals glow with the same funereal paleness as Sargent’s socialite.
“American Visionary: John F. Kennedy’s Life and Times” at the Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 567-3600; www.bowers.org/index.php/exhibitions/upcoming-exhibitions/490-american-visionary-john-f-kennedy-s-life-and-times. Open Tues.-Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Through June 3. $10-$15; children younger than 12, free.
“Helix²: Sculptures by Eric Johnson” at Orange Coast College’s Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion Project Gallery, 2701 Fairview Rd., Costa Mesa, (714) 432-5072; www.orangecoastcollege.edu/academics/divisions/visual_arts/Arts_Pavilion/Pages/Current-Exhibits.aspx. Open Mon.-Wed. & Fri., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; April 7, noon-4 p.m. Through April 7. Free.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.