To suggest that President Obama should even remotely emulate Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin seems like off-the-wall heresy, contrary to what most people voted for when they pulled the Democratic lever last fall. But the autocratic, steely-eyed Putin has just done something that could inspire the new President, and it came--of all places--in the area of the arts.
Putin, whose expertise in the arts heretofore has been martial (he holds a black belt in judo), recently drew a folklore-inspired picture in pastels for a "celebrity painting" auction to raise money for a cultural group in St. Petersburg. Apparently, his effort wasn't half bad: One British critic noted that it was painted with "confidence" and said there was "nothing childish or naïve about this picture." It ended up fetching more than $1 million in the auction.
Obama's artistic talents are unknown, but he wouldn't have to put them on display to take a lesson from Putin. It's Putin's act of participating in the arts that's notable. Unusually, the Obama campaign actually had an arts policy, the very existence of which has raised expectations in the cultural world. Since the election, many art mavens have called for the naming of a secretary of the arts; the creation of a White House Office of the Arts; increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts; the creation of a fund to help museums cover operating expenses; the restoration of direct federal grants to musicians, artists and writers, which were curtailed in the culture wars of the 1990s, when many people objected to federal funding of "art" like performance artist Karen Finley's dance in nothing but smeared chocolate; an economic stimulus plan that employs artists, like the old Works Progress Administration; and a federal health care plan that covers artists, who are largely self-employed or part-time workers.
Some of the requests have merit; others don't. Who wants to start the culture wars all over again--or, to avoid them, impose federal "decency" standards for art? That could well be the result of some proposed measures. Obama wants to unite, rather than divide, remember? Besides, both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities have grown in spending power and in stature during the last few years of the Bush Administration, and a new bureaucracy could easily undermine their status. And what does it matter if the U.S. does not spend as many tax dollars per capita on the arts as European countries--the rationale of many art advocates. It isn't hard to argue that arts institutions in America, until recent Wall Street woes hit philanthropy, were healthier than their counterparts abroad.
Rather than radically increasing funding to the arts, President Obama should take his cue from Putin's example and demonstrate his personal support for the arts. He should ignore the American political tradition, a remnant of the Andrew Jackson era, of shying away from connections with high culture, for he is in a nearly unique position here. In a manner not seen in decades, Americans are looking to their President as an example--not only as someone to respect, but as someone to follow.
Obama could provide monumental support for the arts if he became an avid and public consumer of them. Just as his affinity for basketball is expected to create new fans for the sport, his regular appearance at the opera, at classical music concerts and at the National Gallery of Art would do wonders for America's arts institutions. Having Michelle at his side will leave an even greater impression, given her roots in working-class America.
Support for local arts institutions is even more essential. When Obama visits, say, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the state that gave his campaign life, why not stop in to see the studio used by American Gothic painter Grant Woods, along with the standard factory tour? When he has a stop in San Francisco or Houston, how about an evening at the ballet?
Obama has already veered in this direction by enlisting Yale University professor Elizabeth Alexander to read a new poem at his inauguration. He has shown that he understands the importance of gesture with his symbolic train ride from Philadelphia to Washington on Saturday, among other things. He has also shown a willingness to break stereotypes, not just in race, but by refusing to blur his membership in the "elite" class of Ivy League graduates with hokey ploys (pork rinds, anyone?). If President Obama made the arts "cool," he would enrich the lives of Americans in a way no White House Office of the Arts ever could, and the arts institutions would benefit from much more than money.