Chin: An Artists’ President

Politicians must acknowledge the importance of art in its own right.

by Clara Chin | 11/4/16 12:15am

President Barack Obama has been praised for being up-to-date with popular culture. He appeared on the travel and food show “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” for example, sharing beer and bun cha with the show’s host. He enjoys rap, especially Kendrick Lamar, and has sung with B.B. King. Nevertheless, the president’s purview on art remains rather limited, focusing on the mainstream rather than the avant-garde. Rather than celebrate boundary-pushing innovation, politicians tend to treat art as a mere subset of education policy or as a tool to prove their own relevance, not as its own political domain. We often overlook the political influence of art, especially that which lies outside of the mainstream.

In the midst of global corporatism and burgeoning technology, popular art is alive and well. However, political leaders should encourage and appreciate artistic thinking outside the narrow realm of what is popular. While the president’s art initiatives — including hosting a student film festival and partnering with the Turnaround Arts initiative for empowering students in low-performing schools through art — are a step toward integrating art into our everyday lives, we should also appreciate art for art’s sake. We have yet to truly have an artists’ president, and neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump seem likely to take on this role. We need a president who conceives of art as not just a tool for economic or other policies, but a domain with a transformative, innovative power in its own right.

Recent presidents have created art initiatives and shown interest in the arts, but it seems to be mostly for show. As early as 2008, Obama created the National Arts Policy Committee, which released a promise to promote cultural diplomacy and win the “war of ideas.” This initiative, however, did not come to fruition; it also promoted the idea of art as a tool instead of something that can stand alone. Obama himself has failed to engage in the arts; by September of this year, Obama had yet to visit the National Gallery of Art and only infrequently visited the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, though both are major forums for art in the heart of Washington, D.C.

Obama’s main claim to artistic appreciation is his praise for “Hamilton,” a popular Broadway musical with clear political underpinnings. Much of Obama’s art advocacy involves forming groups like the Artist Corps and the National Arts Policy Committee. Yet these mostly include producers and directors of large corporations and do not seem to support artistic individuality.

Part of the reason we do not yet have an artists’ president is because it is difficult to understand where artists stand in the world of politics. Yet politics exist in art forms such as films all the time; Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” alludes to the space race, Akira Kurosawa’s “Dreams” contains an analogy to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Richard Kelly’s “Donnie Darko” references the 1988 United States presidential election. Sylvia Plath’s essay “Context” similarly describes the role art takes in conceptualizing the political world. Art always exists, implicitly or explicitly, as a response to our reality. If politics exist in the realm of art, then shouldn’t art also exist in the realm of politics?

Trump is the candidate most antithetical to art. There is nothing to read into, not even in his racist or misogynist rhetoric. His words seem straightforward and often unplanned, whereas artists typically strive for layered, carefully considered creations. Similarly, Clinton does not usually portray an especially deep knowledge or appreciation of the fine arts, though she did inspire a dance video called “Pantsuit Power.” This video — showcasing dancers across different genres and featuring corporate sponsorship by brands like Aritzia — demonstrates a rare synergy between individuality and multiplicity, corporate America and artistic America — which though often pitted against one another, actually depend on one another for their existence.

Instead of thinking about art as merely functional or traditional, we should think about art the way we think about entrepreneurship or science, technology, engineering and math. As a nation, we value STEM because we think of those subjects as the future, while entrepreneurship has a connotation of expansion. Art, too, can be innovative, and even often serves as the root of STEM and entrepreneurial imagination. Art is the future — but only when political leaders help create a culture around art and celebrate artistic individuality will this vision of artistic innovation be realized.