Art and Presidential Debates, Never the Twain Shall Meet

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Every four years, during the presidential debates, I have a dream. Just imagine if one of the questions asked of the candidates had something to do with art and culture. What if they were asked: What role has art played in shaping your outlook on life and politics? Which book or movie has had a particular influence on you? When was the last time you visited the theater or a museum? And maybe even, who is your favorite artist?


President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney during the first presidential debate, October 3 2012
Photo by Jason Reed/Reuters


Probably you would be as surprised as I was to find out -- during my recent trip to Bordeaux -- that in his youth Mitt Romney spent two years in France, doing his best to persuade the wine and coffee loving French to give up these pleasures and become Mormons. So, living in the beautiful old city of Bordeaux, did he develop a love for French cuisine? Or French art?


Mitt Romney (L) in 1968 during his time as a missionary in France


Has he ever gone to the famous Grand Théâtre? I was lucky enough to spend three days in Bordeaux and absolutely fell in love with this beautifully preserved, 18th century building and its sumptuous architecture. Unfortunately, I was there before the fall season started so no performances were scheduled. But Mitt Romney lived there for a few months. Was he curious enough to go to this theater at least once?


Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux
Photos by Edward Goldman


And what about President Obama? We know that he is not a stranger to the world of art. For his first date with Michelle, he invited her to the Art Institute of Chicago, and Michelle — tough and brilliant cookie that she is — was impressed with his knowledge of art. But ever since he took office, I don't remember a mention of him bringing his wife and daughters to any of the museums within walking distance of the White House. How about the National Gallery? Yes, I have read about some fundraisers he attended at art museums in Portland and Boston, but what about going to a museum just for the art's sake?


East Wing, National Gallery, Washington, DC, USA
Photo from


We know that President Obama has had the courage and conviction to bring contemporary art into the living quarters of the White House, among them a painting by Ed Ruscha. He even bestowed the National Medal of Arts upon Frank Stella, Mark di Suvero and Martin Puryear. And still, there is a feeling that his advisors warn him about the negative impact of being perceived as elitist if he were to be seen in a museum or, god forbid, attending an opera.


Louvre-Lens, Aerial View
Image © SANAA/ Imrey Culbert/Catherine Mosbach


Meanwhile, even if we ignore the spiritual impact of the arts on our lives, how about the well proven and well documented impact of the arts on the economy? During the depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) gave employment to artists, writers and directors, engaging them in large literacy, media and mural projects. A more recent example is the so-called "Bilbao Effect" on rundown cities going through difficult economic times. Frank Gehry's shimmering museum building in this provincial Spanish city rejuvenated Bilbao, by turning it into a tourist Mecca. Following this example, the French are taking a calculated risk and investing money, plus the prestige of their most famous museum, in opening a satellite of the Musée de Louvre in the provincial northern city of Lens. You never heard about this city? Me neither. But there is a great chance that this gamble will pay off and it will turn into the French Bilbao. So don't give me this "elitist" argument against the arts. Smartly used, art and culture not only feed our souls, but can fill the national coffers as well, with dough, plenty of dough. But for this to happen, our politicians need to overcome their deeply ingrained fear of being associated with the best of art and culture.

Banner image: Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux. Photos by Edward Goldman