Daniel Edwards, ‘The Presidential Bust of Hillary Rodham Clinton: The First Woman President of the United States’
She has no nipples. It is the most striking aspect of this sculpture. They seem to have been edited out, as if Hillary was model in an advertisement for high-end semi-transparent lingerie. However, considering this sculpture was unveiled in August 2006 at New York’s Museum of Sex, the nippleless breasts are unlikely to be a result of shame and sexual restraint. Their absence is thus an enigma, suggestive of those androgynous bumps and shallow hollows that characterise a child’s Barbie or Action Man.
The comparison with dolls is apt. The artist, Daniel Edwards, is known for taking celebrity equivalents of Barbie and Ken – such as Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Prince Harry, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie – and depicting them in sexually and politically provocative scenarios. Despite the substantial media attention given to his work it has received almost no recognition in academic literature. This is perhaps indicative of the nature of his art; it is of the ‘now’, as fleeting in its reputation and historic impact as the celebrities he depicts.
However, there may be more to Clinton’s portrait than meets the eye. Edwards produced this work in 2006 as a prospective presidential portrait of Hillary Clinton, in the event of her winning the 2008 presidential campaign. It is unfortunate for Edwards that she didn’t achieve this – if she had, the artist could have claimed to belong to a tradition that spans over a century and a half. As far back as 1841, the sculptor Horatio Greenough scandalised the American public by unveiling his larger-than-life, neoclassical statue of George Washington. Widely ridiculed at the time for displaying the President’s naked upper torso, Greenough’s work suggests a disparity between the respect given to high political status and the embarrassment of a nude body. This same disparity in Hillary’s portrait appears bold and striking. The difference is that, whereas Greenough preferred to adorn his figures with classical drapery, rather than what he perceived to be as the less heroic clothes of his own time, Edwards does not classically idealise Hillary’s physique. Apart from her well-shaped breasts and what Edwards refers to as her “delicate nape”, Hillary’s face is severe and moulded with wrinkles. Rather than aim at depicting a classical ideal of female beauty and power, Edwards’ heroic claim for Hillary is the physicality and sexuality of her middle-aged, female body.
So why no nipples? It is not as if Daniel Edwards is shy of adult content. Quite the contrary, in fact. In his notorious portrait of Britney Spears, completed two months before the Hillary portrait in 2006, Edwards depicts a naked Britney giving birth on a bear-skin rug. Furthermore, his more recent depiction of Angelina Jolie suckling her twins suggests, that functioning mammary glands are present and accounted for. Looking back at the Clinton bust, it is as if Edwards intended to display, in his outrageous style, Hillary’s middle-aged sexuality, but restrained himself at the last minute, veiling the nipples in a thin, lacy gown. Why does he do this when his repertoire of sculpture seems intended to shock?
The answer may lie in the character of the woman Edwards is attempting to portray. Rather than just providing shock factor, his sculptures are a powerful social commentary, and unlike the Jolie and the Spears portraits, the Clinton portrait is a portrait of a woman whose sexuality is directed into political power, rather than in motherhood. Far from putting a restraint on her sexuality, Clinton’s job as a politician actually seems to amplify it. In this portrait, Edwards draws on an iconographic history where political and sexual power merge, and leaders become objects of their subjects’ desire.
The posture of the portrait is a familiar one, with echoes of famous political busts such as that of Louis XIV by Bernini and the iconic image of revolutionary leader Che Guevara. Like these two images Hillary’s political ambitions for herself and her country are coded in the dynamic potential of the body. As with Louis and Guevara, Hillary’s head is turned away from the body, gazing to some distant point, her thoughts firmly fixed on the future, in contrast to her body which remains in the present. Her side-parted hair follows this movement, standing to one side to allow her eyes to see, and her full brow to judge. In Edwards’ portrait of Hillary, we admire the politician for the beauty of her body, and we admire the body for the visionary inspiration that is the politician.
If the nipples are occluded in this iconographic form, it is because they interfere with it. The nipples compete with the eyes on the direction and role of the figure. Whereas the eyes are directed towards the future, the nipples point to the mouth and hands of a child or lover. They invoke a small and safe world, a domestic or romantic world – certainly not a political world. In making the Clinton portrait Edwards claims he was influenced by a quote from Sharon Stone: “The United States is not ready to elect a woman with so much sexual power. If Hillary Clinton still has sexual power she’s a threat, therefore it’s probably too soon for her to be elected.”
Perhaps what Stone intended to say here is not that Hillary must become asexual, but that her female sexuality must become neutralised. In this vein, the lack of nipples is potentially a comment on how the political office neutralises women in the eyes of the public. Her ‘manly’ sexuality, on the other hand, must be amplified with grizzled age. For Clinton to become president, Stone suggests, she must do something similar to what Margaret Thatcher did to herself, and become the most masculine figure in her cabinet. But the problem with such a reading is that the Clinton portrait seems so sexually loaded. Whereas few would have ever desired sexual relations with Thatcher, Edwards, at least, displays Hillary’s sexual allure.
As an alternative interpretation, we might postulate that Edwards is instead trying to celebrate female sexuality in politics Hillary’s breasts thus lose their nipples, but retain their full and powerful presence. The nipples are covered because her breasts are past the sexual function of their youth and their maternal function of motherhood. However, the breasts as a whole are prominently displayed because they are now entering their politico-sexual function of old age. These breasts are not for lovers and children but for press-conferences. Edwards is not just claiming high political position for women in this portrait, but old age as well.
He is claiming it as a time when women should have the equal opportunities of men for high political office and admiration as dignified, wise and experienced members of society. Indelicate, though it may be, Edwards’ portrait ‘bust’ is an artwork that brushes asides the phalluses and Father-figures of political imagery, and claims the sexuality of political power for women.