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January 20, 2009

TT: Art for politics' sake

I was eating breakfast in a shabby Latino-friendly diner on San Francisco's Geary Street when the torch was passed to a new generation--and a new class. It may say something of interest about Barack Obama that I was the only person in the Olympic Flame Diner who was paying any attention to his inauguration, even though the TV over the grill was tuned to CNN. President Obama, on the other hand, has been embraced with wild fervor by America's educated middle class, including virtually all of our artists. Hence it was of special interest to me that a piece of classical music and a poem were unveiled at the inaugural ceremonies--and that neither was any good at all.

The music was by John Williams, who has his moments (I love Star Wars) but isn't exactly a serious composer. Not surprisingly, his piece, Air and Simple Gifts, was an exercise in Americana à la Hollywood:

It was noteworthy solely because Williams borrowed so unabashedly from Aaron Copland's famous setting of the Shaker hymn on which Appalachian Spring is based. (That's what Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma should have played.)

The poem, "Praise Song for the Day," was by Elizabeth Alexander, a professor at Yale, and it was...well, about what you'd expect from a professor at Yale.

frost3.jpgRobert Frost wrote a poem for John Kennedy's inauguration, though he was unable to read it because of the bright sunlight (he recited "The Gift Outright" from memory instead). The best-remembered lines are the closing couplet, in which Frost foretold the coming of a golden age of poetry and power/Of which this noonday's the beginning hour. I find the first three lines more touching, though: Summoning artists to participate/In the august occasions of the state/Seems something artists ought to celebrate. Indeed it does, which is why I'm glad that President Obama summoned artists to participate in his inauguration. Still, I can't help but wish that he'd gone somewhere other than Hollywood and the groves of academe to look for them.

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Here is the complete text of "Dedication," written by Robert Frost in commemoration of President Kennedy's 1961 inauguration.

Posted January 20, 2009 1:26 PM

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