The presidents sit smiling with stubs for arms, placed on white pedestals and looking vacant for whoever decides to walk down the red carpet dividing them. In “American Idols,” an exhibition of John Moran’s presidential busts at the Pittsburgh Glass Center, all 43 of the United States presidents are sculpted from glass and adorned with gleaned clothing coated with resin. The result is a somewhat uncanny, doll-like, and baby faced version of each of these United States leaders.
At the end of the runway a droopy-eyed Barack Obama is hanging out with his pal Bill Clinton. They look down at you from underneath a sign from the American popular reality TV show, American Idol. The presidents all sport casual wear; plaid shirts, sweatshirts, or t-shirts, and look at you with open, glazed, blank stares. FDR’s pink face peers up, his sweatshirt reads “keep it in the family.”
Although the presidents here are labeled as ‘idols,’ the viewer walks looking down at most of them. This exhibition makes these unattainable TV figures into accessible, everyday folk. Moran labeled each president with a charming pet name that alludes to an event or personality trait of the man so as to hint at his identity. Instead of being arranged in chronologically or alphabetically, Moran categorized these men into groups such as those that were KKK members, those that are featured on US currency, and those who did not have to be elected into office.
With all of these presidential figures in one room one becomes uncomfortably aware of how very male and how very white (or in this case, more rosy cheeked and pink) this group of leaders has been. Moran acknowledges this in his grouping of ‘black presidents,’ which consists of Barak Obama and Bill Clinton, who drew a lot of support from the black community in his election. Toni Morrison is quoted as saying that he was the ‘first black president,’ as he ‘displays almost every trope of blackness.’
At the entrance of the exhibition is a ‘vote for your favorite president’ box, in which visitors can slip in a piece of paper with the name of their favorite man into the crude voting tool. Looking around at the busts, a feeling of some hopelessness, but also a sense of confusion and disconcertedness becomes overwhelming. These figures, with thick eyelids and glazed eyes, are United States figureheads. By placing at shoulder height, one feels slightly nervous about the commanders in chief being so childlike and bleary-eyed.
What is at first a satirical and comical show speaks to issues of representation in the media and public perception of events. In a culture in which the presidential debates are shown in the same style as reality television shows such as American Idol, the importance and graspable reality of the presidential elections is dubious. To the American TV viewer there is little difference between watching girls compete to be the next top model and two men fight for the next presidency.