Last Friday the White House hung two new paintings in the Oval Office, and on Monday they released this picture to document the additions. Both paintings are by the eminent American artist Edward Hopper, and date from 1930-33. They are on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
From a visual and political point of view, the official White House photograph taken by Chuck Kennedy is as interesting as the art itself. It shows us the President, with his back to the camera, his arms folded, contemplating the Hoppers. Sun streaks across the polished floor to Obama’s left, and a small stack of what appear to be notebooks and folders are on the desk to his right.
Let’s break this down to see what it says about art and the Presidency. The first thing to note is that pile of official looking work materials on the desk. This detail reassures us: The president is taking a moment, but only a moment, from affairs of state.
Second, note the pose, with his back to the viewer, which reminds us of one of the most famous Presidential photographs in history, George Tames’s view of President John F. Kennedy silhouetted against a window in the Oval Office. Tames’s 1961 image is universally interpreted as one of the most concentrated depictions of the burdens of office, and the loneliness of being President.
Presidential loneliness, however, isn’t like other forms of loneliness. In the repertoire of presidential visual cues, it is very close to the presidential dog, allowing people to relate to the man without regard to his policies, effectiveness or morality. It is more about humanizing the leader than want of human company.
Loneliness, among presidents, is the great equalizer. Lonely Nixon on the Beach is almost as sympathetic a figure as lonely Lincoln, if seen through the prism of his loneliness. Ex-presidents, we are told, form a bond that transcends partisan politics, to a large degree through the shared memory of the burden of loneliness.
Presidents are in a constant whirl of activity, surrounded at all times by advisors, supplicants and wealthy donors courting favors. Their loneliness, we are supposed to believe, is the deeper loneliness of the busy man, the man who doesn’t have time to tend to his own needs and desires. Loneliness is a kind of martyrdom rather than a failure to connect with people, or an incapacity for friendship or ordinary human discourse.
The Kennedy photograph captured this very well, but it came with an unwanted message. The President didn’t just look lonely, he looked overwhelmed. The image suggested weakness, and it was connected with the stress of office during the dark days of the Cuban missile crisis.
Art is essential to neutralizing the potential instability of this image of Obama’s loneliness. Art is present here in an entirely therapeutic way–and this is the way most people think about art these days. It is to the presidential soul as vitamin pills and exercise are to the presidential body. It reassures us that even in the midst of great stress, he takes a moment–but only a moment–to be refreshed by art. He basks in its beneficent presence, letting its magic art rays wash all over him with renewing energy. That’s powerful stuff, art, almost like the sun, seen through the door on the left.
It is worth noting, however, that this president has left the position of Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts vacant for 13 months (and counting). This image helps confirm the opposite of what it seems to suggest. It isn’t about Obama’s interest in art, but rather about the trivial amount of time and energy he has devoted to high culture. It signifies the appallingly juvenile relation to art that has defined this administration.
And what of the art itself? The two Hopper paintings depict barns and a farm house near Cape Cod, where Hopper rented a summer house in the early 1930s. There is perhaps a tangential reference to the Great Depression in the choice of these images, reminding the viewer that the President came into office during the worst financial crisis since Hopper painted these works. They are also devoid of human figures, which reinforces the basic trope of presidential loneliness.
But the juxtaposition of the two images suggests a metaphor for the passage of time, and the now increasingly important question (to Obama) of the presidential legacy. The smaller painting on the bottom seems to have been painted at midday in glaring sun; the larger one on top shows the world cast into shadows and has a slightly autumnal feel. Thus, the president isn’t just contemplating art, he is thinking about the passage of time, from noon to evening, from spring to autumn. Ars longa, vita brevis, as the Romans used to say.
But I don’t think we should assume these works by Hopper have lulled the president into a wistful or reflective reverie. Rather, they suggest the President feels inclined to think sunny thoughts about his legacy. Consider the rather awkward arrangement of the two paintings: The larger picture is hung above, and rather overshadows the one below. This picture shows us a time of day and perhaps the year that falls later on the usual time line. Yet physically and by its placement it also suggests growth, and ascendance.
So here we have a president, lonely, but not too lonely, given momentary solace by art, equating the passage of time with growth and enlargement. What a wonder art is. Now if only he would take time to serve it a little better.