Explaining the card’s illustration, Los Angeles artist Mark Matuszak, 47, told The Times that the White House asked him for “something home related,” so he came up with a conventional, Norman Rockwell-style image of a hearth. Photoshop to the rescue: A digitally inserted Bo is stretched out in the warmth of a roaring fire, beneath Georgia O’Keeffe’s serene 1930 landscape painting, “Mountain at Bear Lake–Taos,” which hangs over a mantelpiece decorated with greens. A nearby table is loaded with wrapped Christmas presents beneath a huge red poinsettia.
Palin ignored the gifts, holiday plant and national family hearth. She also neglected the rugged American landscape by O’Keeffe, the quintessential “modern western pioneer woman,” whose carefully crafted media-persona is the model for the Alaskan’s own. Instead, she told Fox News radio that she found it “odd” that the card emphasizes the dog instead of traditions like “family, faith and freedom.”
Oops. Forget all the signs she ignored. Lots of popular art books compile histories of dog imagery in art, from the cult-mysticism of ancient Egypt to the contemporary Conceptual comedy of William Wegman. Dogs, perhaps the first domesticated animals in human history, are most often an artistic symbol for fidelity within families. (Fido, anyone?) The classic is Jan van Eyck’s so-called “Arnolfini Wedding Portrait” (1434), in which the bourgeois couple, solemn representatives of Renaissance Flanders’ prosperous one-percent, is accompanied by a loyal dog.
Of course, depending on the context, dogs also sometimes artfully symbolize lust. Jean-Honore Fragonard’s infamous bedroom romp, in which a luscious young woman plays with her fluffy white pet amid rumpled white sheets, functioned as an 18th century equivalent to Playboy’s racy pictorial spreads. But there’s nothing like that going on in the Obamas’ benign holiday greeting card. Like virtually every White House Christmas card since Franklin D. Roosevelt began the tradition in the depths of the last Great Depression, this one shows the White House decorated for the season. It’s straight out of the Hallmark playbook.
Palin, not content to leave well-enough alone, went on to say, “Even stranger than that was his first year in office when the Christmas ornaments included Chairman Mao. People had to ask that it be removed because it was offensive.”
It was? And they did?
Actually, the ornament in question, sent in by an unidentified American citizen for a White House community tree, included a decoupage reproduction of an Andy Warhol painting that lampoons Mao as a vapid celebrity; it shows him in rouged-and-lipsticked drag, vamping like a Communist Marilyn Monroe in a Three Gorges remake of “Niagara.” But bigotry always emphasizes the “otherness” of the hated subject, and what is more “other” than white Republicans implying that the Democratic, African American president of the United States is a Communist?
That, speaking of dogs, also is called a dog whistle — coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has a different, more specific meaning for a target audience. The so-called “War on Christmas,” which is a ludicrous but perennial fabrication of Palin’s employer, Fox News, is a dog-whistle for right-wing fundamentalists who want the United States to officially become a Christian nation. On Thursday Palin followed up her greeting card dog whistle with a Facebook Christmas message that’s all about her fantasy of “a ramped up ‘war on Christmas.’ ” (The only thing missing is the dog in the manger.) Communists being godless, of course Obama would put a dog at the center of the holiday greeting card!
Obama was in fact doing Hallmark, but Palin is doing John Birch Society. Whether that will boost her likability numbers above 29% remains to be seen.
— Christopher Knight
Photos: 2011 White House Christmas card; detail, Georgia O’Keeffe, “Mountain at Bear Lake — Taos,” 1930, oil on canvas; Credit: Mark Matuszak