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Rec Room: Rachel Somerstein: Artists in Government

February 16, 2010


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We already knew that, when it comes to art, President Obama has good taste. His selections for the White House art collection, which I wrote about for Guernica back in August, broke with the traditional, figurative art American presidents have mostly chosen to surround themselves with. But last week marked another groundbreaking for arts and the Presidency: Mike Boehm at the Los Angeles Times reported that Obama has nominated writer Jhumpa Lahiri and painter Chuck Close to the Committee on the Arts and Humanities, making them the first-ever writer and artist, respectively, appointed to the committee.

Despite its name, the Committee on the Arts and Humanities is typically stuffed with actors, businesspeople, and arts patrons. (You can see the full list, whose private members include Anna Wintour (!) and Teresa Heinz Kerry, here .) Indeed, the President’s other recent nominees fit that bill: Fred Goldring, a business lawyer in Beverly Hills who once chaired Rock the Vote; Sheila Johnson, a founder of Black Entertainment Television; San Francisco-based arts patron Pamela Joyner; and Ken Solomon, chair of Ovation TV and CEO of the Tennis Channel.

It seems to me a peculiarly American phenomenon that we tend not to entrust government affairs in artists’ hands, even when those affairs have to do, directly, with the arts. Perhaps that’s because we’re still hung-over from the House Un-American Activities Committee’s suspicion of artists and writers during the heyday of McCarthyism, not to mention the more-recent culture wars of the 1980s (and the routing of the NEA that followed). The exception being, of course, the present and former heads of the NEA, including Obama’s selection, Broadway producer Rocco Landesman , and Bush appointee Dana Gioia, a poet who had previously served as a vice president of marketing at Kraft foods.

Of course, some might say that, when it comes to administration and politics, artists have no idea what they’re talking about, and are fundamentally unqualified for the job. While not untrue, that same allegation can be lodged against some other U.S. candidates who have run, both successfully and not, for public office. And the handful of other countries who have had artists for leaders—the Czech Republic (playwright Václav Havel), Venezuela (novelist Rómulo Gallegos)—suggest that they couldn’t do much worse than anybody else.


Bio: Rachel Somerstein’s essays and criticism have appeared in ARTnews and Next American City. She recently earned her M.F.A. from New York University and is presently at work on a collection of short fiction. She

is a staff writer at Next American City.

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