Art in the Age of Obama

Like much of America, the art world has fallen for Barack Obama with unguarded sincerity. From Shepard Fairey's widely reproduced poster to Robert Indiana's HOPE sculpture based on his well-known LOVE statue from the 1960s, artworks created to raise cash for the campaign manifest a partisan earnestness rarely seen since the graphics of the Russian Revolution of 1917. In one popular print, Ron English depicts Obama's face morphed with an image of Abraham Lincoln.

Visual art, explicitly or implicitly, broadly reflects the politics of its generation. The art world has embraced Obama not only because of his soaring message of hope, firm anti-war stance, and strident call for change but also because he was the only candidate whose campaign explicitly embraced the arts as a policy concern. The Bush years have been a deeply despondent period for American art. With Obama's presidency, though, a new era may be dawning in which artists, strongly supported by an administration as culturally sophisticated as it is politically enlightened, will transcend starry-eyed campaign pictures and develop new forms of enduring art that reflect both the indelible optimism of the moment and the undeniable challenges of the years to come.

In the George W. Bush era, art moved decisively away from the permanent object -- the painting, the sculpture -- toward transitory installations composed of found objects and recycled items. The September 11 attacks, and the Bush administration's twisted reaction to them, deepened that morbid perception of ephemerality. Nowhere in the art world has this collective despondency and resignation been more starkly revealed than in a recent Guggenheim Museum exhibition lethargically titled "theanyspacewhatever." Ten relational artists -- that is, those focusing on how people and communities interact -- who made it big over the past decade were commissioned to collaborate with curator Nancy Spector on installations that would occupy the museum's five spirally arranged floors. Much of the show featured empty space, and Douglas Gordon's faux-sage existential notions stenciled across the walls ("You're closer than you know," "Nothing will ever be the same") seemed calculated to convey the profundity of banality and vice-versa -- a Bushian notion if ever there were one. Perhaps the conceptual high point of the exhibition was Jorge Pardo's maze of cardboard-screen partitions unevenly perforated with vaguely alien shapes, which made viewers yearn for it all to be over.

Other shows that reflected the country's malaise include the 2008 Whitney Biennial, a huge survey exhibition organized by the Whitney Museum that aims to take the pulse of American art, and the New Museum's "Unmonumental." For the Biennial exhibit, curators Henriette Huldisch and Shamim M. Momim chose the theme "lessness," and many of the selected artists devised easily transportable, conceptually witty, improvised projects, often using discarded materials that could be arranged and rearranged depending on the space available. "Unmonumental" curators Richard Flood, Laura Hoptman, and Massimiliano Gioni assembled a collection of distinctly unheroic objects, cobbled together from everyday stuff, that seeks to capture the unease, displacement, and anger peculiar to our times. In all of these exhibitions, little of the work has any intrinsic value as objects, and most pieces can easily be knocked over with a stiff kick. The corollary is that what Bush hath wrought can be easily reversed.

If only that were the case. Bush has left a large and complicated mess for the 44th president. At the same time, there is a realistic expectation that Obama will cure the American polity of most of the ills that Bush has visited on it. Already the art-world cynicism enshrined in the Guggenheim and the Biennial shows is giving way to the hope-infused swooning of Shepard Fairey and Robert Indiana. But given the fraught political landscape that Obama has inherited, reality may soon moderate artistic sentimentalization. It is unfair to insist that he immediately live up to comparisons to Lincoln.

The change in the prevailing aesthetic is likely to be more evolutionary than revolutionary, nurtured as much by the Obama administration's considered patronage as by its sheer inspiration. The Obama Arts Policy Committee, chaired by Broadway producer Margo Lion and American Film Institute founder George Stevens Jr., engaged artists, cultural leaders, art educators, and arts advocates to explore the major issues confronting the art community. Their campaign document, "Barack Obama: A Champion for the Arts," was released in early 2008 and recommends expanding public/private partnerships between schools and arts organizations, creating an "Artists Corps" to work in low-income communities, promoting cultural diplomacy, and attracting foreign artists by streamlining the visa process that was tightened after September 11. In its appreciation of the power of artistic endeavor to forge community and showcase creative freedom, this agenda recalls some of the best aspects of government subsidization of the arts during the New Deal -- for instance, through the Works Progress Administration, which operated art, drama, media, and literacy projects. It also harks back to broadminded government (indeed, CIA) support for avant-garde art during the Cold War, which demonstrated that America's political and cultural liberalism was an incubator of iconoclastic as well as traditional art and literature. Thus, the committee suggests that today's artists should be tapped as an instrument of American "soft power" to counter Islamic extremism and other forms of illiberalism by fostering international cultural and artistic exchange. During the Bush administration, many artists saw U.S. cultural outreach programs as propaganda operations for Bush's failed policy and refused to participate in them. But perhaps artists will be more inclined to serve as informal ambassadors under Obama.

At the same time, the committee's recommendations draw very pragmatically on 21st-century sociology. The document refers to studies in Chicago that have shown that test scores improve faster for low-income students enrolled in schools that link arts to the rest of the curriculum. The broader idea is that while arts education won't necessarily produce more artists, it will help teach students how to think creatively and ensure that future generations maintain America's global position of intellectual leadership and achievement. The committee has also called for increasing the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which has seen a net $50 million budget decrease since it peaked at $175 million in 1992.

Among artists, the larger hope is that during Obama's administration, the "culture wars" that erupted in the 1990s between the arts community and the Christian right will be buried once and for all. During the Clinton and Bush administrations, the Republican-led Congress, blanching at risqué, cutting-edge, NEA-funded work like Robert Mapplethorpe's infamous photographs, gutted the NEA and abolished grants to individual artists. These grants enabled many young and mid-career artists to continue working despite fluctuations in the art market. In 1992, some 40 percent of the money was set aside as block grants for states, which funded noncontroversial work that art journalist Lee Rosenbaum aptly described as "do-good projects that sound more like educational and social-welfare programs than professional cultural activities." If the Obama administration follows the spirit of the committee, individual artists' grants will be restored and more challenging cultural projects funded.

On a more direct level, Obama supports the Artist-Museum Partnership Act, introduced in 2007 by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, which would amend the Internal Revenue Code to allow artists to deduct the fair market value of their work for charitable contributions. Currently, if a wealthy collector like, say, Eli Broad, donates a painting to a museum, he gets to deduct the full market value of the work. If the artist who created the same painting were to donate it, however, he or she would only be allowed to deduct the cost of materials. Since most artists are paupers compared to collectors, this is regressive taxation pure and simple and has discouraged artists from donating their works to museums and other cultural institutions.

As Obama tries to steer the country back on track, visual artists and the curators who select and organize their exhibitions are likely to be energized both by a new sense of inclusion and patriotism and by a quieter, more down-to-earth confidence born of the administration's pro-arts policies. Each factor should temper the other, so that neither uninflected idolatry nor mundane make-work becomes the order of the day. Ideally, artists will find a rich middle ground, marked by a durable affirmation of this moment's transformative optimism and a more provisional hope that President Obama will become a great leader. We'll likely see a revival of subordinated artistic values such as hand-making processes and craftsmanship, and a resurgent interest in visual aesthetics over clever ideas and rhetorical rationale. Artists and critics are disillusioned with recycled, found, and shoddily assembled projects and will begin embracing media that are less ephemeral than those that were so popular during the Bush years. A future retrospective on art in the Obama era probably would not have much empty space or diversionary glibness but might instead offer finely wrought objects with allusive depth that forthrightly stake a claim on space and time in history -- and deserve it.

However it turns out, Obama's presidency promises to be a political, social, and cultural watershed. The hope is that its momentous newness will revive the old-fashioned notion that visual art should endure for future generations.

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