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.
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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.