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.

10 Responses to “Obama and “The Arts”: A Tale of Elitism and Terminology”
  1. Richard Mitnick says:

    I have been sitting here, trying to think of something to say about L.a., without being too Eastern elitist. I used to think Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” was a nasty jab by a displaced Bostonian, even if he is Mr. Everyman. NOw, I just think it is accurate news reporting of Los Angeles.

    The guy who wrote that article is, unfortunately, typical.

    Now, somebody, kick me for being elitist.

  2. jamescombs says:

    I don’t know. Perhaps you’re making too much of this. It sort of sounds like a semantic problem. I would agree that Bush wasn’t into the “arts.” C-W maybe… Maybe we could argue for sheer entertainment’s sake if that is, indeed, art. I just hope more funding is set aside for the arts, i.e., colleges, composers, painters, poets, etc.

  3. Travis says:

    I read the LA Times article and it didn’t strike me as elitist. It seems like the goal of the piece wasn’t to deride other art forms, but rather to emphasize the Obama’s interest in this particular area of art. As you mention, this is seems noteworthy given the genre in question A) isn’t something that everyone in the country invests time and energy to appreciate and B) is often supported by the government in one way or another. Great news for many organizations to have such a high profile advocate. Overall quite a positive message with no dressing down of any other art form or suggesting that people who don’t like this particular genre are somehow inferior. And why shouldn’t an interest in “fine” art (or whatever you want to call it) be seen as an inherently good trait? It isn’t any more elitist to recognize him for understanding and appreciating western classical music than it is to say he is a scholar of constitutional law. While statistically more rare a quality, this doesn’t somehow devalue someone else’s knowledge of traffic law.

    As for the use of “the arts” in the context of the article: it is a pretty common practice to use this as shorthand for “the fine arts” or “the performing arts.” Too broad to be 100% accurate? Sure. A “deeply offensive delegitimization” of other genres? I don’t see it. Check wikipedia for ‘The Arts’ and scroll down if you need a fairly neutral consensus. Your criticism of this usage as “elitist” seems like lots of worry over innocent semantics. Admittedly, genre titles are necessarily problematic. The broader the badder, it’s the nature of the beast. Give me a genre title and I’ll show you someone who hates it (usually someone super-intimate with the genre it is meant to describe). For example: you seem to propose “non-popular” as an alternative. I must say that find this idea pretty dreadful. It makes a wonderfully rich set of traditions sound like alienated and misunderstood outcasts of the field.

  4. Steven Loy says:

    I agree with Travis above – being offended at pretty much standard terminology kind of misses the point. The simple truth here is that the ‘popular’ arts, by definition, are comfortably able to financially support their existence, while the ‘non-popular’ arts are not – hence the need to point out in a newspaper article that we have a president who actually likes stuff that isn’t popular. As I read it, no one is making value judgements here, and the sin of omission isn’t really important here. Surely we can agree that drawing popular attention and exposure to (relatively) unpopular art forms is a good thing…

  5. Chris Becker says:

    I agree with…uh…everyone.

    Galen did you watch the Stevie Wonder tribute concert on PBS this past week? It was pretty cool and puts your post into a different context. The man is surrounded by musicians…

    But I was hoping Obama would have used that concert to announce an “Arts Czar” (Quincy Jones?) but that didn’t happen…we’ll see what happens in the next couple years I guess.

  6. Much as I would love to see an Arts Czar, I think right now might be an inopportune time to announce one. Still, I wish that portion of the stimulus proposal had been kept.

  7. Rusty Banks says:

    If I thought rock and pop and jazz were in danger of perishing, I guess I could get my dander up over this. But they aren’t in danger at all.

    Government funding of arts should focus on providing ample access to types of art where access is limited. It needn’t be said that pop music is important. It’s a bajillion dollar industry, and that speaks to it’s importance brilliantly.

    For a while, in the 80s/90s government funding was crucial to preserving Bluegrass/Roots music. So, sure, if pop music needs funding, let’s do it, at least until the Cohen Brothers release a film that revitalizes it.

    My read of the article is basically “The new Prez digs the arts that the last few prezes have largely ignored.”

    Sooooo, awesome.

  8. Patrick says:

    I think you’re getting a little picky over nothing here. Interest in some form of ‘popular art’ (we all know what is meant by this, no matter how bad a title it may or may not be) is pretty much a default, implied interest in your average American.

    To have a president again who is seen going to a dance performance or enjoys galleries and ‘classical’ concerts is not something people (especially that read websites like this) should be complaining about based on what may be a mislabeled genre. There are other places for that sort of thing. I would say decidedly elitist places where hair-splitting over genre names is seen as important.

  9. david says:

    panties in a wad.

  10. david says:

    (oops…sorry for divided post) i think the great thing that can be taken away from this article is that it’s OK to be interested in and knowledgeable about a wide array of art traditions. even if bush knew the history and mechanics of country music backwards and forwards (which i highly doubt), i think that would be less valuable a trait for an American president to have. People view themselves in the president– or at least they view him as a representation of the country. (before anyone goes crazy about GWB, ask yourself if the hardest quandary in your mind during those eight years wasn’t “how could people vote for him??” translation: “is that what our country is really like?”) If the president is perceived to be curious about and supportive of lots of different genres “popular” and otherwise, i think that’s a net positive for the country.

    additionally, since the government has a role (admittedly, ridiculously miniscule as it may be) in supporting valuable art forms in danger of extinction due to their lack of “popularity”, it’s a good thing for the arts community at large to know that the most powerful person in the country thinks all arts have value, not just his personal favorites.

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