I never start my weekly radio broadcast by giving you its title; only if you visit the KCRW website or sign up to receive Art Talk via email do you find out that each program comes with a headline. Today, for the first time, I want to start this broadcast with the title. Here it goes: PLEASE, MR. PRESIDENT, TAKE US ON A DATE.
I hope you know that I am pleading with Barack Obama and not W. Some time ago, I read that our President-elect took his future wife on their first date to the Art Institute of Chicago, and Michelle – tough and brilliant cookie she is – was mighty impressed with his knowledge of art. Poor Sarah Palin, obviously no one told her about Barack's interest in art, so she was not able to use it against him as more proof that he is not a real, red-blooded, patriotic American.
It's been far too long since an American president was comfortable enough to be associated with art and culture at its best and most sophisticated. Since the Kennedys, can you recall seeing a photo of the First Family visiting a museum exhibition in New York or Washington? Or, for that matter, attending a ballet or opera performance?
Can you imagine the media frenzy that would ensue if our president-elect decided to take Michelle and his adorable girls – soon after they're settled in the White House – on a stroll through the nearby National Gallery of Art? Oh, please, don't tell me that the President's schedule is too tight for that kind of thing. After all that his wife and daughters had to endure during the endless campaign, I think he owes them big: ice cream parlors, movie matinees, dinners out. Actually, I did see a couple of days ago the footage of Barack taking a resplendent Michelle out for a night on the town.
So, Mr. President, how about taking the whole family to a museum? No doubt, Oprah would jump at the chance to be there with her crew and film the whole thing. Lo and behold, the entire country might find itself inspired by being in a museum on a date with its president. In unsettling times like these, it would do us good to look at art – and talk about it, because of the power of art to console and lift our spirits and its ability to teach us a thing or two about our imperfect nature.
Here's what I suggest for our 'first date,' Mr. President: let's take Sasha and Malia to the West Wing of the National Gallery and show them the extremely rare, beautiful paintings by Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch master famous for poetic, luminous images of poised young women – with or without the pearl earring. By the way, one of the Washington Vermeers, A Lady Writing, a small, jewel-like painting, is on loan right now to the Norton Simon Museum here in Pasadena. The next time you're in Southern California, Mr. President, you might consider taking your ladies to visit this museum with its exquisite collection of European and Asian art.
And talking about Vermeer, twelve years ago long lines of visitors waited to get inside the National Gallery for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see an exhibition of 21 of the 35 existing paintings by Vermeer. The exhibition was a blockbuster, but because of the two federal government shutdowns, the National Gallery and its Vermeer show was closed due to lack of funds for almost three weeks. Come to think of it, governments come and go, but Vermeer's magic is forever.
Vermeer's A Lady Writing from the National Gallery of Art, Washington
On view at the Norton Simon Museum through February 2, 2009
Banner image: Detail of Johannes Vermeer's A Lady Writing