Dave Eggers and White House ‘Culture’

Photo Source Tom Lohdan | CC BY 2.0

Dave Eggers is a talented, compassionate and widely respected writer. Unfortunately those characteristics are no guarantee of insight when it comes to politics.

In June Eggers penned an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled “A Cultural Vacuum in Trump’s White House”.  The point of the piece was to nail Trump’s as “the first presidency in American history that is almost completely devoid of culture.” By this Eggers means that in the time Trump has been in office, he’s only invited a few artists to the White House, and nobody who’s performed there. This, Eggers believes, is a great loss for American society: “When we are without art, we are a diminished people – myopic, unlearned and cruel.”

The assumption here – that the White House somehow represents “we” as the “people” – should immediately put us on our guard.

The bulk of the essay is given over to contrasting the cultural vacuum under Trump with his predecessors, both Democratic and Republican, going back to Jack Kennedy. The picture Eggers paints is of a White House constantly engaged in a celebration of cultural life in America. And the New York Times boosted this message with a series of pictures: Ronald Reagan awarding a medal to photographer Gordon Parks, Bill Clinton hanging with rocker Lenny Kravitz, Barack Obama with composer Burt Bacharach and George W. Bush at a reception for Kennedy Center honorees including Warren Beatty, Ossie Davis, Elton John and Joan Sutherland. Just looking at the pictures is enough to produce a swell of nostalgia … or to make you puke.

For Eggers the politics of these presidential patrons of the arts has little significance. About the worst he can say is that, for instance Bush “widened the partisan rift” in Washington, a cliche that should have made a fine novelist wince. A million dead Iraqis? Katrina? Hey, what matters is that “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.”

And if that isn’t enough to make you burst with patriotic pride, Eggers informs us that Bush “was an avid reader – he maintained a long-running contest with Karl Rove to see who could read more books in a year.” Imagine that – a reading contest between a war criminal and the mastermind of post-truth politics!

On it goes. Jimmy Carter and Clinton are given kudos for hosting the series “In Performance at the White House”. We are told that “no Republican could match Ronald Reagan” for artist invites to the White House and, when he went to Moscow in 1988 to talk to Mikhail Gorbachev, “he brought along the Dave Brubeck quartet.” What a guy! Even Richard Nixon gets to take a bow for “heartily” shaking hands with Elvis.

But the real hero of Eggers’s narrative is JFK, who, when coming to office, “pivoted hard” against the prevailing McCarthyism of the Fifties and “made support of the avant-garde a priority.” We then get a long list of artistic celebrities Kennedy consorted with. His support for the arts is contrasted with the Soviet Union which is Eggers’s example of an authoritarian regime that “sees artists as either nuisances, enemies of the state or tools for the creation of propaganda.” “Every great civilization has fostered great art”, Eggers tells us in yet another cliche, and for him Kennedy is the embodiment of that kind of fostering.

There is a bit of truth in this, but only a bit. Kennedy made a point of appearing more ‘cultured’ than predecessors like Truman and Eisenhower, though it isn’t clear that he actually was. As for McCarthyism, it was mostly a spent force by the time Kennedy took office, so he didn’t need to do much ‘hard pivoting’ to distance himself from it.

But the biggest distortion is the uncritical – or rather unpolitical – way Eggers presents Kennedy’s “support of the avant-garde.” He makes no mention of the Cold War context for that support. Anyone with access to Wikipedia can find out the back story: how the CIA acted as a marriage broker between avant-garde art (particularly the New York school of abstract expressionism) and Cold War politics through a front group, the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

This alliance began before Kennedy came to office (and it should be said that some of the artists involved participated unwittingly) but there is no question that for Kennedy this kind of artistic patronage was thoroughly political. As one historian put it, “The existence of abstract art was used, both at home and abroad, to make a case that we had a kind of freedom that was alien to the Soviet person.” Or as Nelson Rockefeller, one-time chairman of board of the Museum of Modern Art, liked to say: abstract expressionism was “free enterprise painting”.

The sad irony here is that what Eggers sees as a shining example of how a “great civilization” relates to art turns out to be a case where art was used as a “tool for the creation of propaganda” – in much the same way as he describes how authoritarian regimes operate.

It’s also striking how Eggers ends up parroting Cold War anti-communism, which I’m guessing is due to ignorance or bad politics (or a combination of both) and should come as a disappointment to his admirers. One doesn’t need to be an apologist for Stalinism to recognize that even under the harshest political conditions, the Soviet Union produced some of the greatest art of the last century.

One notable absence from Eggers’s text (though not from the Times photo display) is Barack Obama. One reason for that might be that Eggers himself developed a close relationship with Obama, campaigned for him and got invited to the White House. But mention of that would make Eggers look like just another liberal bellyaching about Trump, whereas he very much wants the White House celebration of art to be seen as non-partisan. Which, one might add, only underscores his affinity to Obama who made being ‘above’ partisanship a hallmark of his politics.

The absence of Obama is actually a shaping presence. I mean this in more than just a directly political sense. To many liberal artists and intellectuals Obama was more than just a politician in the White House, he was a hero. This was partly due to his being the first black president but a big part of it was also due to his image as an intellectual, ‘one of us’ as it were. Crucial to that image was a characteristic pointed out by Yale professor David Bromwich – Obama’s persistent efforts to distance himself as a person from his actions as president. He wanted it known that personally he was distressed by drone strikes and kill lists and by the security state’s intrusions into personal privacy. In other words he was a decent human being, even though this decency had little bearing on what he did as president. It was a stance designed to be disarming, and a lot of prominent writers, artists and media celebs were happy to be disarmed.

A typical example is novelist Marilynne Robinson: “His [i.e. Obama’s] sensitivities to other people’s circumstances and feelings is remarkable.” Tony Kushner let it be known that Obama was his model for Lincoln in the movie script about the iconic president he wrote for Steven Spielberg. Ta-Nehisi Coates put a message in the title of his recently published collection of essays: We Were Eight Years in Power – again the telltale We. Eggers delivered a similar message when he took to The Guardian after the 2016 election to lament the end of the Obama era, declaring: “The days of decency are gone.” Decent – not the deporter-in-chief. Sensitive – not the persecutor of Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden. The “We” who were in power obviously didn’t include the 8 or 9 million families who lost their homes in the subprime mortgage meltdown – but it certainly did include all the bankers responsible for that meltdown who stayed out of jail courtesy of the decent, sensitive man in the White House.

What’s going on here is more than just about Obama’s personal charm or the color of his skin. It’s really about the crisis of American liberalism. Trump’s coming to power is a mystery unless you understand that the policies of Obama and the Clintons paved the way for it. But like liberals generally, liberal artists and intellectuals are in denial about this. They operate in an atmosphere of atomized consciousness where everything is subsumed by the individual, whose ‘concreteness’ devolves into vapid abstractions like decent and sensitive. They also eschew ideology without realizing how (unconsciously) ideological that is.

Eggers ends his article thusly: “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 parents – the White House’s attitude towards 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.”

Heartfelt though this no doubt is, it is also full of platitudes. Even within Eggers’s own narrative, examples like Bush or Reagan blow a big hole in the claim that “with art comes empathy”. Expand the historical context and it completely falls apart. No political leader paid more attention to art than Adolf Hitler. He devoted far more time and money to it than the presidents Eggers admires, and appeared regularly with artists, musicians and architects. He was also, like Bush, a painter!

It’s simply not true that art “makes it impossible to accept the dehumanization of others.” If it were true, no artist would ever have been allowed to appear at the White House. It is naive, dangerously so, to imagine that art can ‘rescue’ politics from itself. Art can deepen our humanity AS INDIVIDUALS, but it is an optical illusion to imagine that you can transfer this directly to politics, which is about collectivities, and above all social classes. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has an Ode to Joy that famously invokes freedom and universal brotherhood – and yet it was (as a historian noted) one of “the pre-eminent musical set pieces” for important state occasions in Nazi Germany. If anything, it is politics that has to rescue art from being degraded in this way, but that entails a radically different sort of politics than that practised by Eggers’s White House heroes.

If Trump were to invite more artists to the White House (assuming any would come), this would not make him a better president. And it would do nothing to lessen the social disaster now unfolding in America. That Eggers doesn’t understand this testifies to his own myopia and that of many other liberal artists and intellectuals.