Much has been written in recent days, most of it silly and some of it ignorant, about the modern art that Barack and Michelle Obama have borrowed to display in the White House. Among the more conspicuously vulgar of the pieces published so far was an essay by Blake Gopnik, the Washington Post‘s art critic, in which, among other things, he commented on the loan by the National Gallery of Art of two important still lifes by the great Italian modernist Giorgio Morandi:
Then there are Morandi’s mild-mannered paintings of bottles and jars. Those shouldn’t raise an eyebrow…unless a viewer cares that they were painted by a once-proud fascist who’d sucked up to Benito Mussolini. It’s not far-fetched to see something fiercely reactionary in Morandi’s work. Even the fiercest Blue Dogs might wince.
Anyone seriously interested in learning about Morandi’s involvement with Italian fascism can read all about it in this excellent book. Anyone who believes that it matters in the present context–or who is capable of using the phrases “mild-mannered” and “fiercely reactionary” to describe Morandi’s visionary, intensely concentrated art–is a philistine.
That said, I’ll give Gopnik this much: at least he acknowledges that the Obamas’ choice of art almost certainly reflects non-aesthetic priorities to some unknown and unknowable extent. While it would please me to know that the Obamas genuinely like modern art, long experience has taught me that no public act by a politician, least of all one that bears on artistic matters, can ever be taken at face value. Rarely do successful pols permit their personal tastes (assuming that they have any) to interfere with opportunities to show solidarity with their supporters.
Meg Greenfield put it best in Washington:
A walking, talking person-shaped but otherwise not very human amalgam of “positions,” that familiar, tirelessly striving figure interviewed on the evening news who resoundingly tells you what he is thinking–and you keep wondering whether you should believe a word of it. These are people who don’t seem to live in the world so much as to inhabit some point on graph paper, whose coordinates are (sideways) the political spectrum and (up and down) the latest overnight poll figures.
On the other hand, I fail to see how the hanging of two still lifes by Giorgio Morandi is likely to appeal to any identifiable group of voters. Morandi, after all, is by no means a popular master, even among the most passionate admirers of European modernism. It’s no accident that neither of the paintings borrowed by the Obamas was on view at the National Gallery of Art, nor have I seen either one hanging there at any time in the past. I’d like to think that the choice of these two canvases reflects nothing more than the discerning eye of the person or persons who picked them.
Alas, it appears that President Obama appears to have had little or no input in this matter. According to the New York Times:
In the weeks before the inauguration, Michael Smith, the Obamas’ decorator, paid a visit to Harry Cooper, curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery in Washington. Mr. Smith was not there to see the latest exhibition, but rather to talk about what art he could borrow….
Mr. Smith, working with Michelle Obama and the White House curator, William Allman, made choices for the first family’s living quarters and office areas after perusing the Web sites of three Washington museums: the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
All of which, needless to say, adds up to precisely nothing. The fact that two Morandi still lifes now hang in the White House tells us nothing more about Barack Obama than the fact that Jacob Lawrence’s “The Builders” was added to the White House art collection in 2007 told us about George W. Bush. It is a symbolic gesture pure and simple, one for which a modest amount of gratitude–but no more–is due.
As Tyler Green sensibly observed:
I’m glad the White House is hanging modern and contemporary art. But consider the White House art hang within the context of the New Zealand-Samoa ambassadorial nomination: It’s nice and it means something, but it’s a gesture rather than a commitment.
That’s about right.
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The fullest list of art borrowed to date by the Obamas appeared in The Wall Street Journal. You can read it by going here.