The way Time magazine's Oct. 7 cover has been ballyhooed doesn't fit the picture. Captions like "Donald Trump paints himself into a corner," posted by the Huffington Post and other newsgroups, describe something you don't see. If the title reflects the president's self-incriminating phone call to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, the Time cover misses the point.

Painting with a wide brush

The Time cover, by award-winning illustrator Edel Rodriguez, doesn't illustrate Trump painting himself into a corner.

For one thing, the president is holding a microphone, not a paintbrush. And for another, while there's evidence of a floor (white) painted over with a coat of pink that stops abruptly where he's standing, you see the same array of white and pink in the surroundings. And the white in the background gives the impression of flashes of light - like paparazzi flashbulbs going off, or else a visual metaphor for a noisy crowd.

If only Rodriguez left the president on the unfinished floor without repeating the floor pattern behind him, his picture-making and the words "Donald Trump paints himself into a corner" would be in sync.

Words vs pictures

Captioning art has a long history of pitfalls. I'm thinking of Art Spiegelman's 1995 New Yorker magazine cover of a rabbit with outstretched arms as if crucified titled “Theology of the Tax Cut Cut.” The rabbit was dressed in a business suit with pulled out empty pockets and set against a background of Form 1040A.

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Donald Trump

If the picture title didn't include the word "theology," William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religion, might not have found the drawing "particularly outrageous during the week of Easter Sunday," as he told the L.A. Times. After all, crucifixions weren't the sole province of the Christian church. The Romans used them to punish their slaves. What's more, Spiegelman omitted the crown of thorns and Christ-like wounds on the rabbit.

It was the picture title that nailed it "particularly outrageous."

When captions skew what you see

Another instance of a caption spoiling the picture: Andre Serrano's photograph Piss Christ. If he hadn't specified that the golden fluid that lent the cross its golden glow was his urine, it might have been viewed as ethereal incandescence. Serrano, a devout Catholic, said he had a reason for dipping a cross in human waste: contemporary culture cheapens the Christian icon.

"We treat it almost like a fashion accessory," he told The Guardian. But his picture is too beautiful to make that point and his picture title is too ugly to matter.

Discouraging discussion

Titling art not only limits interpretation, but it also reduces art to an illustration of the title.

Consider a Picasso picture title Still Life with a Bull. Although famous for saying, “Paintings are not done to decorate apartments, but are instruments for war for attack and defense against the enemy,” he refused to acknowledge that this 1938 painting was political. Never mind that his countrymen were getting bullied under fascism and might have taken comfort from seeing a bull's brutality symbolize their suffering.

Picture titles are plainly self-limiting and leave viewers with little to do but stare mindlessly.

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