President Obama and the Arts
There’s an excellent piece by Wesley Morris in the New York Times this week about President Obama and his relationship with the Arts. I would encourage readers to check it out.
I write this brief post, almost exactly 24 hours after the end of the Obama Presidency. One of the many good points made by Mr.Morris in his essay is that for historians, there is always a debate about how much distance there must be between a presidency and historical evaluation. That is true, however when it comes to the Arts, especially as they relate to the popular part of pop culture, the best time to think about legacy is right now. We have had many presidents who understood the theater of the Presidency, but none have had a closer relationship with the constant churn of popular culture than President Obama. Part of that was the timing of his service, but it was also undoubtedly about his own self-awareness. Our world increasingly demands new content and it seems he was happy to oblige. It’s easy to imagine future presidents feeling more and more obligated to appear on late night television, post funny videos, etc but it may be quite some time before we see a president who was so damn good at it (and not to forget, it wasn’t just him – First Lady Michelle Obama has been a rock star for the last 8 years).
President Obama’s relationship with the Arts also wasn’t just about television and YouTube videos. He has talked about movies and books, but most visible has been his celebration of our musical history, especially music with African American roots. Over the last 8 years, even when I disagreed with the President fiercely on policy, I was also extremely proud to have him as a spokesperson for the American Experience as it relates to music. Just read his words about Aretha Franklin:
“Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R. & B., rock and roll — the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope. American history wells up when Aretha sings. That’s why, when she sits down at a piano and sings ‘A Natural Woman,’ she can move me to tears — the same way that Ray Charles’s version of ‘America the Beautiful’ will always be in my view the most patriotic piece of music ever performed — because it captures the fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top, the good and the bad, and the possibility of synthesis, reconciliation, transcendence.”
That is someone who gets it. The best presidents have always understood the political history of the United States and connected it with present events. President Obama took this one step further and connected the cultural history of America with the present and was brave enough to allow his own biases to shine through. He was on a crusade for 8 years to remind the American public how important African Americans were in forming our popular culture and it could be argued that this was not only his right but his responsibility as the first African American president. Teddy Roosevelt coined the term ‘bully pulpit’ to explain the tremendous power of the presidency to advocate ideas. In the case of the Arts, President Obama used it masterfully.
While we often imagine artists are at their best when they are tortured, I have always believed that to the contrary, humans soar when we are most confident. The Arts need a champion and they certainly had one during the Obama years. I don’t know what the next chapter in the Obamas’ lives will look like, but I hope they will continue to make their presence felt. It feels like they have a lot more to give us, if we can be so shameless as to ask for it. And I hope, unfettered from their obligations as First Family, we will see their outspokenness about the beauty of our culture only increase. We need that voice now more than ever.