Obama and “The Arts”: A Tale of Elitism and Terminology
The LA Times had an encouraging piece a few days ago about the Obama family’s interest in the non-pop arts (thanks to Alex Ross for the link). Apparently the Obamas recently attended an Alvin Ailey performance at the Kennedy Center, and the First Family has a long history of participation in, and patronage of, dance, classical music, museums, etc. The article, however, is chock full of some appaling elitism. Let’s take a look.
The piece starts out well, referring to the “‘high’ or ‘classic’ arts”–the quotation marks make an important distinction between “high” as a description and “high” as a mere label. But it goes downhill from there as the authors adopt the widespread and most unfortunate strategy of using the term “the arts” to refer only to non-popular arts: “It fed increasing hopes among arts advocates that the Obamas would generate a greater buzz for the arts. . .”, for instance. And then David Andrew Snider, president of the League of Washington Theatres, is quoted as saying “There’s a widespread feeling that he ‘gets it.’ He gets the importance of the arts.”
I agree, of course, that the arts are important, but Snider and the authors of the Times piece are implying (whether they mean to or not) that only the non-popular arts are “important.” The only evidence mustered to support the claim that the Obamas are “arts lovers” come from the non-pop world, and George W. Bush is invoked in a way that suggests that he is not an arts lover: “George W. Bush seldom was seen in Washington’s halls of culture. Laura Bush liked to attend performances and museum exhibitions, Washington arts leaders say, but such patronage wasn’t a couples activity.” We can deduce from the context that in the minds of the authors only venues for non-pop art qualify as “halls of culture,” only performances of non-pop music count as “performances” that we should care about, and that Bush’s disinterest in the non-pop arts is a character flaw. I don’t know much about Bush’s taste in art, but we do know that he had an iPod and liked country music, and I think we can safely guess that even if we had evidence that Bush was more involved in some area of popular art than Obama is in non-popular art he would still be treated as a person who doesn’t “get it.” Of course in comparing Bush’s and Obama’s taste our judgment can easily be clouded by other more salient issues, so consider instead an alternate world in which the Obamas are not into non-pop art but do have a history of attending rock concerts seeing movies and reading comic books. Would David Andrew Snider think he “gets it?” Would the LA Times be describing them as “arts lovers”? I suspect not.
And take a closer look at my list of alternate-world Obama family interests: rock music, movies, comic books. According to this list in The Telegraph’s of 50 things you might not know about Obama, his favorite music includes Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, and The Fugees; he took Michelle to see Spike Lee’s movie “Do The Right Thing” on their first date; and he collects Spider-Man and Conan the Barbarian comics. Of course none of those things made it into the LA Times piece, because the LA Times doesn’t think they count as art. It gets better: according to the Telegraph list, the Obamas’ first date was to see “Do The Right Thing,” but according to the LA Times their first date was to the Chicago Art Institute. What gives? The Chicago Sun Times published a piece in October 2007 which clears things up: “On their first date, they went to the Art Institute, strolled down Michigan Avenue and caught Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing.'” Apparently film doesn’t qualify as art, though, so “Do the Right Thing” doesn’t get mentioned even though seeing that film was part of the same date as the Art Institute visit. The only time film gets mentioned in the piece is as a validation of the respectable taste of Obama’s brother in law, who we learn used to be the curator of film and video at an important art museum–the brother in law apparently set up a tour of the museum for the Obamas in 2005.
The most absurd moment in the piece comes near the end when Washington National Opera executive director Mark Weinstein is quoted as saying that “A presidential presence at the opera would help show that it’s ‘for everybody, and not an elitist form.'” What?! I’m all in favor of demonstrating that classical music isn’t elitist, and I’m glad that Weinstein is concerned about the issue, but how does that make sense? When the President of the United State, the leader of the free world, the guy with the nuclear codes, a multimillionaire who wears $1,500 suits and owns a home with four fireplaces, who went to Columbia University and Harvard Law, and who is, let me say it again, the President of the United States, goes to an event, he provides evidence that the event is for everybody and not elitist? I don’t think the concepts of evidence and deductive reasoning work the way you think they work, Mr. Weinstein.
One final, important clarification: I’m not objecting to the idea of writing an article that illustrates the nature of Obama’s connection to the non-popular arts and which ignores his connection to the popular ones. Nor am I objecting to celebrating that connection. At the beginning of this posting I described the article as “encouraging,” and I meant it; but I meant it in a specific and limited way. I’m encouraged because I’m biased–I want the art forms that I value to do well, and the First Family’s support for those forms may be beneficial. Furthermore, presidential interest in the non-popular arts is more interesting and newsworthy than interest in popular arts because it’s a smaller field with a smaller fanbase; because all modern presidents have been fans of popular art but not all have been fans of non-popular art; and because presidential interest in struggling niche markets is likely to have a greater impact than it would in areas of the dominant culture, especially because of the presidential influence art the budget for the NEA. I don’t care much about comic books, but the presidential Spider Man collection is probably good news for the comic book industry, and I’m happy for them, too. The problem is the underlying presumption that the Obama family’s interest in the non-pop arts is treated as an inherently good trait, as evidence of superior taste, as a marker of good character. The use of the term “the arts” to mean only the non-popular arts (the ones formerly known and “high” art or “serious” art) is a deeply offensive delegitimization of other arts sectors and is both symptomatic of elitist “high art” chauvinism and a contributor to the problem.
Of course one of the challenges we face is the fact that we lack satisfactory alternative terminology, so even people with philosophically correct perspectives on the value of different art forms frequently lapse into the traditional chauvinist terminology. I used “non-popular” in this posting only because it was the clearest term I could think of that avoided the chauvinism, but “non-popular” has its own problems too. Given that the only real problem with the LA Times piece is the way the authors use the term “the arts,” it may be that I’ve been too harsh–but because of their choice of words, their piece is elitist and offensive whether they themselves are or meant it to be.