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An Artsy First Family: Can It Help?


by Jerome Weeks 25 Feb 2009

The LA Times Culture Monster blog reports in detail on the cultural activities of the Obamas — from their music and theater interests way back in high school to the First Family’s taking in a performance of the Alvin Ailey dance company at the Kennedy Center three weeks ago (the company is currently pulling a […]

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The LA Times Culture Monster blog reports in detail on the cultural activities of the Obamas — from their music and theater interests way back in high school to the First Family’s taking in a performance of the Alvin Ailey dance company at the Kennedy Center three weeks ago (the company is currently pulling a two-nighter at Bass Hall in Fort Worth).

Will any of these cultural pursuits make a difference? You’d be surprised. When I saw the scrambling throng of people that crowded behind Laura Bush at a single reading at the  National Book Festival in D.C. — political hangers-on, festival organizers, dozens of reporters and cameramen from all the major news networks — I thought I was back in the age when the mere touch of kings was thought to cure scrofula so their appearance always attracted a desperately hopeful crowd.  In D.C., people in the back were actually holding up babies, so the children could get a better look.

The LATimes‘ Mike Boehm and Chris Jones write about the Ailey attendance: “In a capital where every presidential inflection and turn of phrase is parsed for glimmers of meaning, he [Obamas’] front-and-center display of enthusiasm for one of the “high” or “classic” arts boomed like a 21-gun salute. It fed increasing hopes among arts advocates that the Obamas would generate a greater buzz for the arts simply by smiling in theater seats or strolling through museum galleries.”

Although his book, Money for Art, traces our troubled history of government arts funding, Baylor professor  David A. Smith also makes the case that, beyond the nickel and dimes of budgets, presidents have, indeed, exercised a national influence with their personal tastes and habits, an influence far outside the simple one of “endorsement” or shining a little attention on a particular institution or art form.

The Kennedy example is always the one trotted out here — and it’s a sign of how desperately undervalued artists have often felt in America that gratitude still lingers for the first president and the first First Lady who frequently had figures such as Pablo Casals and Igor Stravinsky visit the White House.

The Eisenhower presidency — much like the Bush administration — was not known for its high-culture patronage. In fact, in an incident that Dr.  Smith fails to mention, composer Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was shamefully booted off Eisenhower’s Inaugural Concert because a single congressman had denounced his music as Communist propaganda. Copland was promptly (and — no surprise  — pointlessly) dragged before Senator Joe McCarthy.

Even so, Eisenhower was a devoted amateur painter. He quickly became the most famous painter-hobbyist in the country, if not the world. That alone, Dr. Smith argues, encouraged many Americans to participate in the arts directly, just when many were starting to feel alienated by movements such as abstract expressionism. The sales of art supplies tripled in five years. Eisenhower may ultimately have had a more lasting and doubtful influence by trying to combat the Soviet Union culturally, paying to send the best American artists abroad. Needless to say, it’s a Cold War application of the arts that remains highly controversial. But it’s a mistake, Dr. Smith says, to see the Eisenhower Era as simply some desert of TV-centric, suburban anti-intellectualism.

These days, the absolute relief expressed by many arts leaders at the prospect that the Obamas might actually attend, say, an opera (“a presidential presence at the opera would help show that it’s “for everybody, and not an elitist form”) is an indication of a) the general hunger for change in the political-cultural climate far beyond just arts issues, b) the feeling that the past eight years were, at best, a stalemate for advancing cultural causes (although Laura Bush attended arts events and sponsored the National Book Festival, it was, as Culture Monster notes, “not a couples thing”) and c), I would maintain, the still-pervasive sense that artists and arts organizations are marginal, at best, to America’s public sense of itself.

Photo from Fame Game

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