Obama as Arts Czar?

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Obama-Holocaust MuseumSince Election Day, when Barack Hussein Obama became President-elect of the United States, I, like everyone else, have been swept up in the wave of enthusiasm over the results of the election. But truth be told, I'm elated not just because we have our first black president, but because for the first time in decades, our commander-in-chief is a brilliant person whose intelligence and eloquence wins friends and foes alike. With that, plus his famous discipline, the sky is the limit.

For the first time, in god knows how long, an American president is including art in his political agenda. During the campaign, Obama was the only candidate to distribute a detailed program of initiatives, including plans for an 'Artist Corps.' It would promote art in schools and low-income communities, increase funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, and provide healthcare for artists. In an interview on Meet the Press, Obama said, "Our art and our culture...is the essence of what makes America special, and we want to project that as much as possible in the White House."

Kennedy deKooningProbably you've heard about the petition circulating in the last few weeks urging Obama to create a new Cabinet-level position for an 'Arts Czar." My advice to him would be to take it upon himself to promote art and culture, because he has a unique opportunity to champion it for the American public -- let's say by making a habit of visiting the museums within walking distance of the White House, accompanied by family, friends and sometimes by visiting dignitaries. You may remember, I did a program asking him, "Please, Mr. President, Take Us on a Date." Can you imagine the media frenzy if Barack takes Michelle and his adorable girls on a stroll through the National Gallery? Can you imagine our new president deciding to bring contemporary artworks into the White House -- not only in the living quarters, but in the Oval Office as well? Wouldn't it be a great chance to breathe new energy into the historic rooms, which have gotten a bit stale and could use a break from traditional images of cowboys roaming the Wild West?

Insight_apr05_mailbox_freud_largeAnd could President Barack Obama take a cue from John F. Kennedy, who had the chutzpah to ask not an established or famous artist to do his official portrait, but a young, unknown painter – Elaine de Kooning – whose first exhibition had been panned by critics? The resulting portrait of JFK is a remarkable and welcome departure from the predictable and boring portraits of so many American presidents. After all, even Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II had the balls to sit for an official portrait of her painted by Lucian Freud, one of the most celebrated painters of our time, notorious for refusing to flatter his subjects. Take a look at her portrait on the Art Talk page of the KCRW website: not pretty, not kind, but one tough broad you don't want to mess with –- and all that under a heavy, bejeweled crown. Wouldn't it be intriguing to see what Lucian Freud would do with Obama? Or for that matter, how the presidential portrait would look if it were done by the great American artist Chuck Close?

Think about how many prominent artistic careers Obama and his family could launch if they agreed toObama-Calderon pose for a variety of young artists who would have to compete for such an honor. You can say that I'm a dreamer, but encouraging signs abound: in the weeks preceding the inauguration, we see photographs of Obama visiting a Washington museum in the company of Mexico's President Felipe Calderón, and we can also find an amazing variety of portraits of Obama spreading like wildfire via the Internet. The most interesting one I discovered there is a mural-size image of Barack Obama as Abraham Lincoln, plastered on a wall in Boston –- an image as cool and colorful as the man who today became the 44th President of the United States.


Banner Image: Obama art posters