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Inaugural reflections on our golden era (or golden years?) of art and politics

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Today, more than a half century later, it seems like the beginning of a golden age in the relationship between art and politics, inaugurated on the inauguration day of John F. Kennedy. Robert Frost, an octogenarian poet with a statesman-like shock of white hair, read a poem from the presidential lectern, and the African American contralto Marian Anderson, a living legend of American arts who had once been snubbed by the fine white ladies of the Daughters of the American Revolution, sang the national anthem.

Culture, with a capital C, was no longer just an appurtenance to the political spectacle. It had been brought within the inaugural ceremony itself. Not just the supporting soundtrack at the inaugural ball, or a sideshow during the celebratory days before and after the oath taking, the arts seemed to stand on equal footing with the 35-word oath prescribed in the Constitution, and the extra trimmings that had gathered over the years, including the convocation, benediction, prayers and president’s address.

But it was a troubled golden age, and if one draws back and looks at the longer arc of history, it might be considered the beginning of a different and darker age for arts such as poetry and classical music in America. As so often happens, the moment something comes to be official — when it is brought within the semi-sacred canon of ceremony — marks the sign of its slow decline. It seemed a great honor at the time, a young president paying homage to an old bard, but in many ways it was rather like the induction of art into a museum: raising its status even as its vigor wanes.

Today, we’ve come to expect that poets will read and musicians will play during a presidential inauguration. But we might wish to turn the clocks back, long past our current age of packaged, television-ready High Culture, back before Kennedy gave his tacit benediction to the arts in the complicated thousand days of Camelot, back to when high and low culture weren’t rigidly walled off from one another by lines of class, education and social posturing.

Sort through a box of old inaugural programs, invitations and memorabilia at the Library of Congress, dating to the age of Andrew Jackson, and you discover an America in which high and low, European and homegrown, mingled without dissonance. Over the years, inaugural concerts contained obligatory chestnuts by Rossini and Gounod; opera and popular song were heard side by side; and late-19th-century Americans waltzed to the same Strauss and Lehar favorites to which European blue bloods were dancing in Vienna.

In 1909, the Taft inauguration concert featured music from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt,” a rousing dance by Liszt, and William Paris Chambers’s now entirely forgotten “Reminiscences of the Plantation: Grand Fantasia on Songs of the South.” A small booklet from the 1909 inaugural ball, listing the order of dances, still has attached to it a thin, lady-like white pencil, a dance card from an era when the smallest details of social life had a precise and borrowed etiquette.

To find specifically American cultural statements early inaugurals, you have to look to culture with a small c, to the populist spectacle, the parades and unscripted democratic chaos that flowed through the streets and sometimes into the drawing rooms. By the time of William Henry Harrison’s 1841 inauguration, parades were already functioning as American Expositions in motion. “A goddess of liberty and a ship of war” were featured in James Buchanan’s 1857 inauguration, according to one account, and later ones included not just the display of the latest military technology, but also floats that popularized the expansion of the United States, through war and the acquisition of new states. Geronimo paraded in front of Teddy Roosevelt.

Newspapers recorded almost every inauguration spectacle as “the largest yet” or “grandest ever.” But first-hand accounts also record a perennial tendency to mob behavior, stampedes for food and drink, riotous indulgence. If the parade demonstrated the abundance and strength of the nascent nation, the balls and obsessively detailed protocol during the inauguration itself — early programs devote the bulk of attention to a strict order of march and hierarchical patterns of procession and seating — showed not just power in action, but power attempting to chasten a still vulgar, impetuous and disorderly people.

The contemporary era

But by the time of Eisenhower’s inaugurations in the 1950s, something was changing. Television crews were patrolling the festivities, looking for jubilant faces, coaxing smiles for the cameras. And at his first inauguration, in 1953, a high school band from Mississippi mistakenly performed its routine facing the television cameras, not the president, an early indication of how the camera would reshape the cultural message of the inaugural festivities, shifting the emphasis from size and grandeur to visual choreography and packaged spectacle.

The easy coexistence of popular and high culture was also fraying. Ike liked good tunes, but his second inaugural concert also included a piece called “Declaration,” a 30-minute oratorio by Morton Gould for orchestra and chorus. It began with a passacaglia — in which a repeated bass line underpins musical elaboration — and ended with a fugue — in which multiple voices are woven together — and included a musical setting of the Declaration of Independence. Its time-tested and shopworn classical forms enacted in an audible way the underlying unity and diversity of democracy.

But the piece disappeared from the repertoire. The rise of new forms of popular music, and the decline of amateur music-making, made Americans deaf to the age-old messages of passacaglia and fugue embedded in Gould’s oratorio.

When Kennedy invited Frost and Anderson to be part of the proceedings on the presidential platform, he wasn’t just showing respect to the arts. He had carefully chosen brand-tested, household names. He was honoring arts celebrity as much as art itself.

Kennedy’s precedent for poetry didn’t immediately take hold. Leontyne Price sang during the inaugural ceremony for Lyndon B. Johnson, but there was no poem. And future presidents may have wondered if poets were too countercultural after Robert Lowell turned down an invite to the Johnson White House, and publicized the snub with a letter about Vietnam printed in the New York Times. It was 32 years until Bill Clinton renewed the tradition by inviting Maya Angelou to recite at his 1993 inauguration — a poem that reveled in lists, as if the unruly crowds of yesteryear were being reformed, in literary style, to populate the scripted ceremony:

“So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew

The African, the Native American, the Sioux,

The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek

The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheik,

The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher . . .

Just as Clinton recalled Kennedy by inviting a poet, Obama recalled both Democratic predecessors at his first inauguration by inviting Elizabeth Alexander to recite. But while Alexander’s poem was well-received, the musical contribution of superstars cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman was more problematic. The frigid weather made it impossible to play acoustic instruments outdoors, so the musicians mimicked playing along to a prerecorded sound track.

With that, it seemed the evolution from inaugurals as a forum for the unruliness of culture with a small c had truly given way entirely to the packaged, burnished, polished and basically moribund idea of Culture with a capital C. What mattered was the show, the presence of the star performers, not the truth or content of the music (which was a slight piece of repackaged American folk song arranged by Academy Award-winner John Williams). Culture was displayed merely as an emblem, rather like the presidential seal, shiny and pretty, but meaningless to the vast majority of the audience.

Curiously, few people remember how much went wrong at the Kennedy inauguration. A small fire (extinguished by the Secret Service) started smoldering beneath the podium as Boston’s Cardinal Cushing intoned a shapeless and indulgent prayer. There was an unseemly amount of shuffling and jockeying in the aisles behind Anderson as she sang the anthem. And of course Frost couldn’t see in the midday glare and had to discard “Dedication,” the poem he had written for the occasion, which hailed “A golden age of poetry and power / Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.”

Was it the beginning hour? When Frost gave up his original poem and recited instead “The Gift Outright,” he reminded the nation of what it meant to have a poem in one’s head, which is now a rare if not extinct skill, even among many poets. The small mistakes of that morning remind one of the longer tradition of inaugural mishaps, as fundamental to our memory of democracy as the few times everything went without a hitch. Today, in an age of security and media spectacle, we expect perfection in the ceremony and in High Culture’s purely symbolic role in it, seamless, smooth, and uneventful, which is to say we don’t expect very much.

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