Presidential art often a means to a message

Art: As an assemblage of neat White House artifacts, it's unimpeachable. But BMA exhibit's a few place settings short of a party.

September 23, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

With less than two months before the presidential election, this is probably as appropriate a time as any for a museum show about art and decor as they have been used by America's presidents. Unfortunately, the timing only partially compensates for the snooze factor inherent in the subject.

The Baltimore Museum of Art's big fall show, "Power, Politics & Style: Art for the Presidents," which opens tomorrow, is a potpourri of presidential decorative arts - White House furniture, dishes, plates, silverware and official portraits of the Big Guy and Missus.

The problem for the curator of an exhibition like this is creating a compelling story line that ties together a wide range of objects of disparate styles, periods and importance in a way that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. "Art of the Presidents" doesn't quite manage to do this, even though there are some really cool things on display. I suspect this show will appeal mostly to people interested in White House furnishings and decor.

The idea that political sovereigns exploit the arts of their time to enhance their personal prestige, impress their rivals and communicate to their subjects is nothing new, of course. The Pharaohs did it; so did princes and popes, emperors and Oriental potentates, absolute monarchs and republican statesmen. Art as propaganda has always been the handmaiden to power, and ever will be.

But unlike, say, the Medici of Renaissance Florence, American presidents have not as a rule been notably discerning patrons of the arts. We are a practical people, and our political leaders have mostly regarded art with the same steely-eyed tunnel vision for the bottom line as they have for major highway construction projects.

American presidents haven't patronized art because it moved their souls or epitomized the Zeitgeist of their era, or even demonstrated the nation's creative genius. Instead, they have used it as a means to an end, with the result that their choices in art and decor aren't always terribly interesting outside the context of presidential politics and the history of the office. Given this country's ambivalent attitude toward the arts, in fact, it's a bit surprising that American presidents have tried to use art and decor as much as they have to convey their message to the American people.

This show reminds us that in the days before television, the White House really was a grand political stage, not just an electronic backdrop for media events and photo-ops. The look and feel of the president's mansion was part of the theater of presidential politics, a way in which leaders from George Washington to Bill Clinton have presented themselves to foreign and domestic audiences. Whatever the president's personal interest in design and decor, he could hardly afford not to take a keen interest in how such things helped or hindered his political agenda.

On the evidence of this show, American presidents have alternately embraced what might be called either the imperial or the republican style. The former is intended to convey the nation's aspirations to greatness on the world stage, as a power to be reckoned with and, if necessary, feared. By contrast, the latter aims to project the democratic ideal - a government in service of the people, whose powers and prerogatives derive wholly from the consent of the governed.

James Abbott, the BMA's curator of decorative arts, has organized his show around these two contrasting styles, suggesting that in one way or another they helped shape the public image of the American presidency since the earliest days of the republic.

Washington, for example, favored the imperial style, which expressed itself in elaborately carved and inlaid federal furniture (named, tellingly, not for the period but for Washington's own Federalist Party) and a taste for kingly ceremonial finery that recalled the pomp and circumstance of European hereditary monarchs.

Jefferson, that man of the people, was horrified by such displays, believing that they contradicted the egalitarian principles on which the nation had been founded. He mocked Washington's original plan for a presidential palace that would have been several times larger than today's White House as "big enough for two emperors, one Pope and the Grand Lama."

When Jefferson was president, he cultivated a style of republican simplicity and modesty, but his successor, James Monroe, found it necessary to reassert the nation's claim to imperial grandeur after British troops humiliated the country by burning its capital during the War of 1812. Monroe ordered lavish furnishings for the rebuilt president's mansion patterned after France's Bourbon monarchy - lots of gilt tables and chairs and pretentious ornamental knick-knacks. His White House aimed to look like the seat of a great world power.

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