The Great Communicator is a paint-by-number kit that includes paint containers, brushes, and a booklet of canvases prepared with patterns of Ronald Reagan. The containers are labeled 1-8 and correspond to numbered areas on the canvases, although no paint is provided. Scenes depicted on the canvases cast Reagan in the roles of president, actor, athlete, and cowboy, each using paint-by-numbers idiom to literally and figuratively outline a nostalgic archetype of American male identity. A warning appears on the back: “Contains allusions to a mythic past. Paint with caution and disregard.”
When the Palmer Paint Company introduced Craft Master brand paint-by-number kits in 1951 (boxtops promising would-be hobbyists “Everything you need to re-create a masterpiece!”) they received harsh criticism from the art community for merely simulating creativity. Paint-by-number soon become a metaphor for mechanized behavior and cultural erosion. Despite this criticism, the Master Craft kits proved wildly popular. The foolproof paint-by-number system tapped in to middle-class desires for participation in activities previously reserved for trained elite, while still allowing artistic amateurs to color outside the lines. Indeed, anyone could be a Rembrandt.
The Great Communicator draws upon paint-by-number political satire emerged in the 1960s, notably the July 1967 cover of Esquire magazine. Esquire art director, Samuel N. Antupit, commissioned former Master Craft artist Richard Hess for an illustration lampooning president Lyndon Johnson’s indecisiveness in selecting an artist for his official presidential portrait. Time magazine paid homage to Antupit and Hess for their January 2004 and December 2010 covers, featuring Howard Dean and Sarah Palin respectively. For the 2010 cover, illustrator Tim O’Brien describes Sarah Palin as “a low-brow kind of portrait, unfinished and in doubt.”
While acknowledging this satirical tradition, The Great Communicator is also a commentary on the rhetoric of notable political speeches containing biblical references. Reagan’s 1989 “Farewell to the Nation Speech”, transcribed on the opening pages of the kit, serves as a particularly salient example, alluding to Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5:1-7:29) and directly referencing John Winthrop’s “A Moddall of Christian Charity” — a sermon given to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, and a foundational text of American Exceptionalism.
The speech places Reagan amongst a Pantheon on American political figures who have evoked the “Sermon on the Mount” in their orations, including John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech, and Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential debate with Joe Biden. Rhetorically, the sermon operates as metaphor (America is a “shining city upon a hill”), an analogy (Reagan-era economic policies created “a city with free ports that [hum] with commerce and creativity”), and an allusion (to Winthrop, Puritain values, and American Exceptionalism). Within the context rhetorical strategy as well as Reagan’s memory lapses and impending onset of Alzheimer’s disease, the use of allusion recalls two information management techniques: mnemonic epithets rooted in the oral tradition, and object-oriented programming paradigm of our digital age.
Mnemonic, or Homeric, epithets are allusions used throughout Greek lyric poetry as a metronome for maintaining the dactylic hexameter, and an economical device for activating parallel or simultaneous narratives without expending additional time or memory. When “rosy fingered dawn” appears upon the horizon, she illuminates not only the earth and sea, but also a complex network of association that invoke the entire mythology of Eos (dawn), Helios (sun), Selene (moon) and the Anemoi (winds).
Scholars have traditionally approached this quality of Greek lyric poetry through aesthetic analysis, but have more recently turned to meme theory to explain the persistence of certain Homeric epithets long after the invention of written systems. As a memetic phenomenon, the repetition of epithets reinforces their connection to tradition rather than a particular grammatical style, and once established as “tradition”, they are more likely to be re-transmitted from media to media. They become absorbed into a “collective memory” — a collective consciousness of the past that trends towards the nostalgic.
The object-oriented programming paradigm, a philosophy and set of practices within computer science, offers an information management system built upon economical memory allocation similar to allusion. Within object-oriented programming, many “objects” can be built from few “classes” — constructs or blueprints upon which individual objects are pattered. Media theorist Lev Manovich contrasts the privileging of simultaneity in object-oriented programming with the privileging of sequence found Ford’s model of industrial production in developing a language for digital cinema.8 Beyond Manovich’s cinema, the high-level programming languages developed from the object-oriented paradigm are responsible for the character of new media technologies we experience on a daily basis, which increasingly embody a spatial rather than temporal dimension.
1 Bird, William. Paint by Number (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, 2001), 97.