In last weekend’s Los Angeles Times, Mark Swed passes on a bit of liberal lore. John F. Kennedy, he writes, was our nation’s “arts patron in chief”:
“American artists have for three years looked to the White House with unaccustomed confidence and warmth,” Bernstein said that day. “We loved him for the honor in which he held art, in which he held every creative impulse of the human mind, whether it was expressed in words, or notes, or paints, or mathematical symbols.”
Taking advantage of artists to inspire national optimism, the Kennedy White House made art glamorous. In return, art became a crucial factor in the new Camelot.
But it is hardly surprising that this aspect of the Kennedy administration is being overlooked.
Despite an unprecedented explosion of the arts in America over the last half-century, artists have never again been afforded such national prominence.
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Art was there from the beginning for the Kennedy administration. The great, barrier-breaking, African American contralto Marian Anderson sang at the inauguration. My favorite photo of the Kennedy era is a picture of Bernstein and Frank Sinatra backstage at an inaugural ball as they waited to go on, each trying to appear cooler than the other and each looking like he had just been given the keys to the country.
John Steinbeck, W.H. Auden and Robert Lowell were on hand. In all, the president — no doubt at the urging of the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy — invited 50 writers and artists and musicians to the inauguration.
Except he wasn’t. There’s no doubt Kennedy invited a lot of artists to the White House and pretended to be interested in contemporary painting and music, but as David A. Smith notes in his excellent Money for Art, Kennedy (unlike his wife) cared little for the arts and did nothing in terms of policy other than follow the example of Theodore Roosevelt in creating an arts council by executive order:
Appearances notwithstanding, the Kennedy administration provided only marginal support and official encouragement for the growing movement to put the power of the government to work for American artists. Over the next two years and ten months, the administration introduced no new legislation, nor did it take any bold or novel steps, to invigorate the nation’s cultural life. In fact, throughout his administration President Kennedy came under fire from some in Congress for doing nothing to further the arts beyond hosting great artists at the White House.
And regarding Kennedy’s personal attitude towards the arts, Smith notes:
In matters of private preferences and artistic tastes, Kennedy had much more in common with his predecessor [Eisenhower] than most people would ever have imagined. One writer who spent time close to the president recorded that, White House performances notwithstanding, JFK was ambivalent at best toward “serious music.” He had no personal interest in opera, was bored by the ballet, and had even been known to doze off at symphony concerts. “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home?” was his favorite song. His taste in movies ran to Casablanca, Spartacus, or The Guns of Navarone rather than anything “too arty or actionless.” Like Ike, he also preferred paintings of Western scenes, several of which he hung in the White House living quarters, to anything remotely modern or abstract. Also like Eisenhower, Kennedy enjoyed action-packed bedside reading, though he chose the James Bond adventures of Ian Fleming over the Old West tales of Zane Grey.
So who was our “arts patron in chief” if it wasn’t Kennedy? Well, if you go by funding, it was Richard Nixon. That’s right.
After he was elected, Nixon met with Nancy Hanks, who was to head up the young National Endowment for the Arts. Nixon told her, as Smith notes, that “one of the important goals of my administration is the further advance in the cultural development of our nation.” He put his budget where his mouth was, overseeing the largest expansion of the National Endowment for the Arts in its short history, and the largest percentage increase over a period of four years to date. When Nixon took office in January 1969, funding for the NEA was at a little over $8 million. When he left office in 1974, its budget was over $60 million. If Nixon had not supported the NEA in the way that he did, the small, fledgling agency may have easily disappeared.
But, as they say, great myths die hard.