Tag Archives: White House

A White House without art

Gloomy-White-House-678x381By Dave Eggers

This White House has been, and is likely to remain, home to the first presidency in American history that is almost completely devoid of culture. In the 17 months that Donald Trump has been in office, he has hosted only a few artists of any kind. One was the gun fetishist Ted Nugent. Another was Kid Rock. They went together (and with Sarah Palin). Neither performed.

Since his inauguration in January 2017, there have been no official concerts at the White House (the Reagans had one every few weeks). No poetry readings (the Obamas regularly celebrated young poets). The Carters began a televised series, “In Performance at the White House,” which last aired in 2016, where artists as varied as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Patricia McBride performed in the East Room. The Clintons continued the series with Aretha Franklin and B. B. King, Alison Krauss and Linda Ronstadt.

But aside from occasional performances by “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, the White House is now virtually free of music. Never have we had a president not just indifferent to the arts, but actively oppositional to artists. Mr. Trump disparaged the play “Hamilton” and a few weeks later attacked Meryl Streep. He has said he does not have time to read books (“I read passages, I read areas, I read chapters”). Outside of recommending books by his acolytes, Mr. Trump has tweeted about only one work of literature since the beginning of his presidency: Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury.” It was not an endorsement.

Every great civilization has fostered great art, while authoritarian regimes customarily see artists as either nuisances, enemies of the state or tools for the creation of propaganda. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev asserted that “the highest duty of the Soviet writer, artist and composer, of every creative worker” is to “fight for the triumph of the ideas of Marxism-Leninism.”

When John Kennedy took office, his policies reacted against both the Soviet Union’s approach to the arts and that of Joseph McCarthy, who had worked hard to create in the United States an atmosphere where artists were required to be allegiant and where dissent was called treason. Pivoting hard, Kennedy’s White House made support of the avant-garde a priority. The artists Franz Kline and Mark Rothko came to the inauguration, and at a state dinner for France’s minister of cultural affairs, André Malraux, the guests included Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Robert Lowell, Geraldine Page and George Balanchine. Kennedy gave the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, who had exiled himself to France and then Puerto Rico to protest Franco’s fascism, a forum in the East Room. Casals had performed in the White House once before, at the young age of 27. Now 84, and a man without a country, he played a mournful version of “The Song of the Birds.”

Casals-at-the-White-House

Pablo Casals at the Kennedy White House.

It’s crucial to note that the White House’s support of the arts has never been partisan. No matter their political differences, presidents and artists have been able to find common ground in the celebration of American art and in the artists’ respect for the office of the presidency. This mutual respect, even if measured, made for the occasional odd photo-op. George H. W. Bush met Michael Jackson, who wore faux-military garb, including two medals he seemed to have given himself. Richard Nixon heartily shook the hand of Elvis Presley, whose jacket hung over his shoulders like a cape.

George W. Bush widened the partisan rift, but culturally, Mr. Bush — the future figurative painter — was open-minded and active. He met Bono in the Oval Office. He hosted a wide range of musicians, from Itzhak Perlman to Destiny’s Child. He was an avid reader — he maintained a long-running contest with Karl Rove to see who could read more books in a year. Laura Bush has long been a crucial figure in the book world, having co-founded the Texas Book Festival and the National Book Festival in Washington, now one of the country’s largest literary gatherings.

But perhaps no Republican could match the presidency of Ronald Reagan, whose guest list was a relentless celebration of the diversity of American culture. He and Nancy Reagan hosted Lionel Hampton. Then the Statler Brothers. Then Ella Fitzgerald. Then Benny Goodman. Then a night with Beverly Sills, Rudolf Serkin and Ida Levin. That was all in the fall of 1981. The Reagans did much to highlight uniquely American forms, especially jazz. One night in 1982, the White House hosted Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea and Stan Getz. When Reagan visited Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in 1988, he brought along the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

But that kind of thing is inconceivable now. Admittedly, at a time when Mr. Trump’s policies have forcibly separated children from their asylum-seeking parents — taking the most vulnerable children from the most vulnerable adults — the White House’s attitude toward the arts seems relatively unimportant. But with art comes empathy. It allows us to look through someone else’s eyes and know their strivings and struggles. It expands the moral imagination and makes it impossible to accept the dehumanization of others. When we are without art, we are a diminished people — myopic, unlearned and cruel.

This post originally appeared in the NY Times. Dave Eggers is the author, most recently, of “The Monk of Mokha” and co-founder of The International Congress of Youth Voices

‘Blue Iris’ Playwright Athol Fugard: Wisdom at 80

Athol Fugard

South African playwright, actor and director Athol Fugard describes the time Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 as “a period of euphoria that was the most extraordinary experience of my life.”

He says he was also convinced he would be the country’s “first literary redundancy.”

“My life had been defined by the apartheid years,” he says. “Now we were going into an era of democracy … and I believed that I didn’t really have a function as a useful artist in that anymore.”

But as President Mandela gave way to Thabo Mbeki and later Jacob Zuma, Fugard’s disappointment set in, and it did not take him long to realize his voice was still needed. He says he isn’t sure his comments will be welcomed though, “because amongst armchair liberals, the notion that South Africa is now a happy democracy and that Nelson Mandela did it all, is very widespread.”

On his plays:

Continuing its 12-year relationship with Athol FugardThe Fountain Theatre celebrates the master playwright’s 80th birthday with the U.S. premiere of his newest play. Directed by Stephen Sachs and starring Morlan Higgins, Julanne Chidi Hill and Jacqueline SchultzThe Blue Iris opens at the Fountain on August 24.

“The Blue Iris” (US Premiere, 2012, Fountain Theatre)

The Blue Iris is set in Fugard’s beloved and desolate South African desert, the Karoo. In a burnt-out farmhouse, a widowed farmer, Robert Hannay (Higgins) and his housekeeper, Rieta (Hill) sort through the fire-ravaged debris of their lives. The discovery of a miraculously undamaged painting of a flower – a blue iris – created by Hannay’s deceased wife (Schultz) unlocks long-forgotten memories and hidden secrets. Fugard digs deep into the human heart, and the result is a love story full of tender, soul-touching and surprising revelations.

Fugard started writing plays in his mid-20s, and this year, five decades later, at least six are being performed in the U.S. and U.K. He says he’s surprised to see there’s still so much interest in his work.

Described by Time magazine as “the greatest active playwright in the English-speaking world,” Athol Fugard celebrated his 80th birthday on June 11, but the prolific writer shows no signs of slowing down.

“The Train Driver” (US Premiere, Fountain Theatre, 2010)

This year, the Signature Theatre in New York is hosting Fugard as its first international residency playwright and showing three plays from various periods of his career. He says it’s given him a chance to look back over the 50 years that span the writing of the first play he directed, Blood Knot, and the last play he says he will direct, The Train Driver, which had its US Premiere at the Fountain in 2010 and just opened in NY Aug. 14.

Fugard describes the two plays as “the bookends of an arc that essentially defines myself as a playwright,” though he assures his fans this does not mean he’s stopped writing.

On the people who shaped him:

As a child, Fugard says that “society was trying to make me conform to a set of very rigid, racist ideas,” and he credits his mother for making him challenge them. He says she was “endowed with a natural sense of justice and decency” and was “a simple Afrikaans woman (who) gave me my soul.” He thanks her for prompting him to “break the conditioning that was taking place on school playgrounds, in classrooms, everywhere.”

He describes his father as “a gentle man and a very beautiful man,” and also, like himself for a period of time, an alcoholic. This family dynamic shaped his plays.

“You’ll see that the strong, the affirmative, the positive voice in any of the plays I’ve written is that of a woman,” he says. “My men are, well not quite worthless, but they are certainly weak, and that reflects the reality I grew up with and what I think has in a sense shaped me.”

Athol Fugard (center) with actors John Kani (left) and Winston Ntshona at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1973.

On working with a multiracial theater group:

In the 1950s, when so much of South African life was regulated to keep the races separate, Fugard worked with a multiracial group of actors.

“It was foolhardy and we paid prices, but it was a gesture of defiance,” he says.

He learned enough about the laws to work out situations that would allow him to work with his black colleagues.

“It raised a very, very serious issue of conscience,” he explains as he acknowledges that his punishments were relatively minor compared to what those colleagues would eventually endure at Robben Island with Mandela.

On racial prejudice:

As an observer from outside looking at the American scene, Fugard says he believes that racial prejudice and profiling is flourishing, and that underlying all the opposition that President Obama is encountering is actually “the problem is that there’s a black man in the White House.”

He says South Africa has also not overcome its apartheid legacy, and explains that the real intention of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up after the end of the apartheid regime, was not achieved.

“You can’t legislate into existence an act of forgiveness and a true confession, those are mysteries of the human heart and they occur between one individual and another individual, not a panel of judges sitting asking questions, trying to test your truth,” he says.

 On wisdom at 80:

When asked what wisdom he would like to impart to listeners, Fugard directed his comments to fellow 80-year-olds. He says “it’s supposed to be the age when you stop, but that is such nonsense. … I have a greater sense of adventure at this moment in my life than I ever had in the past.

“There are most probably five or six more years left in my case, but I’m going to live them up to the hilt.”

And does that mean he’ll keep writing? Of course.

“The act of witnessing is important to me, somebody’s got to tell the truth, you know what I mean?” he says.

The Blue Iris   Aug 24 – Sept 16  (323) 663-1525  More Info  Buy Tickets