The Meaning of the White House Art Collection

What does the president's taste in painting say about his politics?

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Art and politics have an uneasy, subterranean relationship on gallery walls. But on the walls of the White House, where the Obamas are planning to hang a more contemporary mix of paintings than past presidents, the political content of art is unaviodable. Local museums are loaning the Obamas 45 pieces, from famous abstract paintings by Mark Rothko to works by lesser-known African American artist Alma Thomas. What, if anything, does the new art collection reveal anything about President Obama? The debate centers on how much the identities of the artists factored into the selection.

  • Deliberately Selected to Favor Underrepresented Artists, Blake Gopnik says in The Washington Post. Gopnik says the Obamas "seem to redress past imbalances in the nation's sense of its own art." Taking inventory of the collection by ethnicity he finds works by African American artists (7), and Native American artists (4), but few from other disposessed groups.
There are still only six works by women, vs. 41 by men. And there are no works at all by Latinos. (A work by the deceased Cuban American artist Félix González-Torres would have filled the gap perfectly, and added a nod to the country's gay culture. The Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum has one that could have been borrowed.)
  • Obama Affirmed the Mixed-Race Heritage of His Country, Rachel Campbell Johnston writes at The London Times. "These things are still highly relevant he suggests as several works by the Afro-American Harlem artist, William Johnson, are added to the mix, brightly naive pictures which, for all their fuzzy-felt style look, celebrating such significant figures as Booker T. Washington who, born into slavery, rose to become an influential teacher." Johnston says his taste in art shows that Obama, "believes firmly in the importance of education, in the principles of hard work and perseverance which can turn America into a land of freedom and opportunity."
  • It's About Modern Art, Not Identity Politics, Rachel Somerstein protests at the art magazine Guernica. "The President’s interest in minority and women artists is hardly as iconoclastic as it seems—just as his nomination of Sotomayor, whose politics are relatively centrist, cannot accurately be described as noncomformist. What is revolutionary, however, and what has been overshadowed by the media’s emphasis on identity politics, is Obama’s decision to bring abstract art into the White House."
  • Oh, the Art Says Something About Him All Right  Juli Weiner rolls her eyes at Wonkette. "One of the most striking – and apt, as Mr Obama wrestles with his Afghanistan policy – is Edward Ruscha’s I Think I’ll …, a painting about indecision which superimposes phrases such as 'I think I’ll …' and 'maybe … no' and 'wait a minute' on top of a blood red sunset." Michelle Malkin is similarly amused. "If Barack Obama’s lack of authority and certitude weren’t costing so many lives, this would be comical."
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