A master of pop culture had little to do with the ‘high’ arts

President Barack Obama looks at Edward Hopper paintings displayed in the Oval Office in February 2014. CREDIT: White House photo by Chuck Kennedy

In February 2014, the White House released a photograph of President Barack Obama standing alone in the Oval Office, contemplating two paintings by Edward Hopper recently borrowed from the Whitney Museum of American Art. Obama’s back was turned to the viewer, and the pose recalled a trope of presidential iconography: the lonely leader, taking a pensive moment to contemplate the eternal verities, indulging a brief caesura in the whirl of politics, power and strife that defines the job. Perhaps the most famous example is a similar 1961 image, by photographer George Tames, showing President John F. Kennedy alone in the Oval Office, framed in silhouette by a window.

The Obama image turned out to be misleading. All evidence points to the president being indeed thoughtful, even perhaps too thoughtful, if one believes critics who say he intellectualizes problems that demand more visceral responses. But there is little indication that Obama regularly indulges the particular relationship to art that this photograph implied: solitary contemplation of the inherited canon of paintings, sculpture, music, dance or theater. He is interested in culture, to be sure, but it is the living culture of our time, often the celebrity culture of popular music and commercial theater, but rarely the stuff people used to call “high” culture. Or that, at least, is the image his handlers have crafted.

So Obama didn’t visit the National Gallery of Art during his presidency (at least so far), and first lady Michelle Obama has been only once, and that late in the last term. The Kennedy Center reports that the first family hasn’t taken much advantage of the presidential box, and the president’s visits have been mostly limited to the annual Kennedy Center Honors. The president has also begged off attending an annual gala at Ford’s Theatre that has been a standard for his predecessors. If one adds to this the long periods that he left the chairmanships of both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities empty, his desultory picks for other important cultural positions, his choice of a librarian of Congress who doesn’t come from the tradition of the belles-lettres or serious scholarship, his record on culture is dispiriting at best.

That has caused some significant cognitive dissonance among people in the arts world who are otherwise full-throated champions of the president. Indeed, the arts offer some of the friendliest territory for the current administration, full of mainly left-wing coastal types who cherish values they believe the president embodies: intelligence, education, tolerance, cosmopolitanism, and a welcome embrace of ambiguity and complexity when parsing political and social problems. The dinner party consensus is thus: He is one of us, so why hasn’t he done more for the arts?

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Where, for example, is the kind of rhetoric one heard from John F. Kennedy, the insistent connection between American creativity and American moral strength? Where, given the cosmopolitanism with which the president is credited, is the vigorous government support for the arts one finds in European countries, or just across the border in Canada, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has emerged as a kind of wish-fulfillment figure for American progressives disappointed in Obama? Is there anything in his cultural and arts legacy to compare with the huge strides made by Lyndon B. Johnson more than a half-century ago?

The president’s supporters point to policies, initiatives and lots of small-ball improvements in the general state of the arts. In 2007, a raft of artists and arts supporters signed on to then-Sen. Obama’s call for advice on an arts policy platform for his campaign, and it is all worthy stuff, though not the sort of things that make your heart sing: health care for artists; a better policy on visas for foreign artists visiting the United States; more money for the NEA; a call to “expand public/private partnerships between schools and arts organizations.”

Robert L. Lynch, president and chief executive of Americans for the Arts and a participant in the 2007 Arts Policy Initiative, says, “If you look at what he said he was going to do, he actually delivered on a number of them.” Lynch says that the administration didn’t necessarily partner with the traditional arts advocacy groups or service organizations, and that some of the president’s arts advocacy wasn’t highlighted in public. “I saw him show up at White House events that had to do with kids and the arts, and when he would speak in that moment, he was very positive about the transformative power of the arts,” Lynch says.

Some of what was promised came to pass, though not always as a specifically arts-related victory. Artists, argues Lynch, are well served by the Affordable Care Act, even if it wasn’t aimed at them in particular. Other goals fell victim to emerging realities, especially the promise to ease visa restrictions; and much of it, including raising the budget of the NEA, was simply beyond the president’s control given the political divisions in Washington.

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But none of those efforts ring the clarion call of Kennedy’s 1963 speech at Amherst College: “I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.”

It’s not that Obama is incapable of speaking this way; he speaks this way all the time. He just doesn’t speak this way about the arts. And while he may have supported initiatives for arts education, there is little sense that he believes the arts are fundamental to solving the world’s larger problems.

It’s too easy to say that Obama is simply interested in different arts, that he was plenty arts-friendly if you consider his ability to sing, his easy rapport with popular musicians, his engagement with contemporary cultural figures such as Lin-Manuel Miranda and his celebration of the performance traditions derived from African-American culture. All of that is true. But the arts are not just the current moment, but the past as well; often it seemed that Obama was primarily engaged with entertainment as a strategic means to connect with people and humanize himself in the public eye.

His critics have always found him a bit narcissistic, and perhaps in this regard he was: Look at me, look at me sing, look at me negotiate late-night television, crack jokes like an expert comedian and otherwise demonstrate an astonishing fluency in the cool stuff of pop culture. The president was a performer, and so perhaps he had no need to manifest a personal relationship to art; rather, we had a personal relationship to him as the embodiment of the virtuoso public figure.

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No, that’s too harsh. But in the arts world there is profound disappointment in Obama, a disappointment that may be unfair and misguided, but is not entirely without basis. The president never really modeled the life that he seemed to embody in that 2014 photograph; he never evinced a personal passion for the arts; never seemed intent on using the arts as a fundamental tool of policy; never lived a life that was fully engaged with the enormous cultural inheritance that is today too often caricatured as reservoir of patriarchy, oppression and elitism.

He made other choices, and that was his prerogative. He liked other kinds of music, and preferred other ways to spend his downtime. And that, too, was his choice to make. But the disappointment is real, and perhaps it stems from this: The arts, too, are suffering from all the same forces of disintegration and decline that the president, in other arenas, fought to hold at bay. The arts, like so many other things in the realm of taste, style and decorum – things such as comity and dialogue and not being “a jackass” like Kanye West – are in danger of becoming degraded and diminished. The arts, in short, wanted some love, some sense that they matter.

We project our values on our presidents, and we hope to see those values reflected back. When it comes to one rather old-fashioned but still meaningful definition of culture, that didn’t happen.