The Politics of Art

Ever since the New York Times ran a piece last week on the artwork the Obamas borrowed from several Washington museums to decorate their private White House residence and the West and East Wings, there’s been a raging debate in the artosphere about the First Couple’s choices (Times slideshow here).

Wednesday’s edition of the excellent daily digest ArtsJournal provided a representative sample.

First up: Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout’s About Last Night blog, which cast a gimlet eye on the White House artorama.

While it would please me to know that the Obamas genuinely like modern art, long experience has taught me that no public act by a politician, least of all one that bears on artistic matters, can ever be taken at face value. Rarely do successful pols permit their personal tastes (assuming that they have any) to interfere with opportunities to show solidarity with their supporters.

Unfortunately, Teachout notes, others do take the Obamas’ choices at face value. Here’s Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik’s take (at face value):

Then there are [Giorgio] Morandi’s mild-mannered paintings of bottles and jars. Those shouldn’t raise an eyebrow…unless a viewer cares that they were painted by a once-proud fascist who’d sucked up to Benito Mussolini. It’s not far-fetched to see something fiercely reactionary in Morandi’s work. Even the fiercest Blue Dogs might wince.

Terry Teachout also winced:

Anyone seriously interested in learning about Morandi’s involvement with Italian fascism can read all about it in this excellent book. Anyone who believes that it matters in the present context–or who is capable of using the phrases “mild-mannered” and “fiercely reactionary” to describe Morandi’s visionary, intensely concentrated art–is a philistine . . .

The fact that two Morandi still lifes now hang in the White House tells us nothing more about Barack Obama than the fact that Jacob Lawrence’s “The Builders” was added to the White House art collection in 2007 told us about George W. Bush. It is a symbolic gesture pure and simple, one for which a modest amount of gratitude–but no more–is due.

For a purely political take, Wednesday’s ArtsJournal steers us toward the blog Modern Arts Notes, which notes the following:

Instead of congratulating ourselves that the Obamas are art people, we should be demanding that the White House innovate, that it create new, progressive federal arts policies and initiatives. Maybe the White House should make it possible for every museum in America to offer free admission to its permanent collection? Maybe there’s room for the humanities in a new Peace Corps or Americorps program?

Old Conventional Wisdom: All politics is local.

Even Older Conventional Wisdom: All art is political.

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