Rendering of the new Kennedy Center expansion. (Courtesy Kennedy Center)
Senior art and architecture critic

To passionate arts lovers, the words of John F. Kennedy sound like Holy Writ. “I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft,” reads one of the 35th president’s ringing exhortations, prominently chiseled on the walls overlooking the Kennedy Center terrace. Nearby is another: “This country cannot afford to be materially rich and spiritually poor.”

When the Kennedy Center expansion project opens to the public in late 2018, there will be yet more words about art from the 35th president emblazoned on its walls. Picking new Kennedy quotations fell to the center’s chairman, David M. Rubenstein, who has donated $50 million to the project. Rubenstein uses some of the same sources — Kennedy’s famous 1963 Amherst College speech, and another he gave to promote what eventually became the Kennedy Center — which emphasize similar themes about art’s universality and its importance to civilization.

But in the decades since it opened, the Kennedy Center has moved to an understanding of art that is markedly different from that of Kennedy himself. Enough time has elapsed since the president’s tragic and untimely death for an uncomfortable truth to settle in: that Kennedy was never an art lover, and to the extent that he respected art, it was in the same way he respected accomplishment in science and sports. Nor was Kennedy moved by music or opera, or susceptible to the introspection offered by paintings or sculpture. He was, however, passionate about winning the Cold War on all fronts, including culture.

When the center’s new River Pavilion opens — part of a complex of structures designed by architect Steven Holl on the south side of the existing building — it will bear another line from the Amherst speech: “I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.” And the glass of a new boardroom will display a passage from the speech promoting a national arts center: “Art knows no national boundaries. Genius can speak in any tongue and the entire world will hear it and listen.”

Rubenstein, who once worked for Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen, says he wants to enhance the memorial function of the Kennedy Center. “We think the Kennedy Center does great things in the performing arts, but we want to remind people that it is a living memorial to President Kennedy,” he says.

Kennedy no doubt believed everything he said about art, at least in an abstract way. But notice the words that got cut while his team drafted the “art knows no national boundaries” line: “Art reminds us that man’s hunger for beauty, and truth and self-fulfillment, knows no national boundaries.” That cut, eliminating reference to how individuals actually engage with art — the hunger for deeper things and self-fulfillment — is significant.

“He was interested in all of the arts, more from the point of view of the discipline and the search for excellence which they embodied than he was in what might be called more purely aesthetic forms,” recalled August Heckscher, special consultant on the arts to Kennedy, in an oral history of the administration.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, a key adviser and major force for culture during the Kennedy years, concluded that the arts were primarily Jackie Kennedy’s influence, that the president could not make sense of abstract art, and that Jack Kennedy was more offended by mediocrity and shabbiness than anything else: “Excellence was a public necessity, ugliness a national disgrace,” Schlesinger wrote.

During his years as a congressman and senator, Kennedy was far more likely to address issues such as Soviet domination in Lithuania than the glory of the arts, though he once spoke in honor of Arthur Fiedler, famed head of the Boston Pops. As president, the arts focus seems to have been a lucky accident. After inviting Robert Frost to recite a poem at his inaugural, which was attended by a cross section of prominent artists and intellectuals, he was pleased to see the positive reaction to the gesture. After seven years of Harry S. Truman and eight years of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the nation’s creative elites were hungry for affirmation. Or as Thornton Wilder said, they were delirious to discover “a whole new world of surprised self-respect.”

“I can’t say honestly that he was an opera lover,” Rubenstein says. But, “he tended to spend time with artists more than many other presidents.” In this respect, Kennedy was like Barack Obama, who reveled with musicians and writers but wasted no significant political capital on furthering the arts. The Kennedy administration, writes David Smith in “Money for Art,” “introduced no new legislation, nor did it take any bold or novel steps, to invigorate the nation’s cultural life.”

That task fell to Lyndon B. Johnson, who broke ground on the long-delayed national arts center and established in law what Kennedy had created by executive order, a national arts council. But the two presidents had different conceptions of the arts, and in the end, it was Johnson’s view that prevailed and remains regnant in arts policy circles.

Whereas Kennedy believed the arts were an arena for excellence and that artists would raise American civilization to be the envy of the world, Johnson thought more in terms of access to the arts, and spreading a basic arts literacy throughout the country. At the signing ceremony for the creation of what would become the National Endowment for the Arts, Johnson sounded a different note, more akin to the basic tropes of the civil rights struggle than Kennedy’s Cold War rhetoric of American accomplishment: “It is in the neighborhoods of each community that a nation’s art is born,” he said. “In countless American towns there live thousands of obscure and unknown talents.” It wasn’t the Soviets, with their magnificent temples to the arts, that haunted him; rather, it was the fear that American talent might be wasted.

As Congress held hearings on the creation of a national arts agency, a long-standing cleavage about American culture came into view. On one side, professional arts organizations argued for sufficient funds to maintain world-class standards; from the other side came a call to spread the money far and wide to further local arts groups, amateur organizations and folk arts.

Kennedy was dead by then. Today, Johnson’s view lives on in prominent programs at the Kennedy Center that celebrate community-based arts leadership and broad educational initiatives. In 2016, building on ideas that have been made mainstream by Juilliard, the Aspen Institute, Yo-Yo Ma and other arts leaders, the center inaugurated its Citizen Artist Fellow Recognition program, “which celebrates emerging artists across the country who utilize their art form for positive impact on communities.”

And the center has moved decisively away from key words that Kennedy used about the arts. “The Kennedy Center, a living memorial to President John F. Kennedy, honors our 35th President everyday by uplifting ideals from his legacy (service, justice, freedom, courage, and gratitude) that live through the arts.” Nowhere in that statement is the word excellence.

That’s because the idea of excellence, and the fundamental view of the arts held by Kennedy himself, are a bit of an embarrassment in today’s democratically minded Johnsonian age of American arts. Kennedy may have been more of an arts admirer than an arts lover, and he was mocked even in his own time for being more an enthusiast than a deep connoisseur. In 1965, the Kenyon Review wrote that one of his most engaging statements on the arts, an article he wrote for Look Magazine, was written “in a vein better suited to a high school commencement address.”

But when Kennedy went beyond the rhetoric of American excellence and struggled with what artists actually do, he understood art in a way often lost on Johnson-minded arts leaders. He understood it as a solitary and contrary engagement with the world. Artists added to civilization by opposing the familiar, the common, the trivial and the complacent. The Cold War influenced his view, of course: “The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind against an intrusive society and an officious state.”

This allowed him to conclude something that arts professionals who champion the Artist as Citizen are reluctant to emphasize: “The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

That view lives on, on television and in Hollywood, where artists suffer for their genius, rail against restraint and ultimately achieve recognition for their lonely genius at the end. But it no longer prevails in elite arts circles, which have adopted a view of the arts and the artist — as social agent, teacher, community worker and familiar friend — that is antipodal to John F. Kennedy’s notion of the loner in an epic lover’s quarrel.