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Obama rehabs art history loving image, sends apology letter, hosts Monuments Men

President Barack Obama appreciates two new Edward Hopper painting now adorning the Oval Office, Jan. 7, 2014; Obama is trying to rehab his image relating to the arts after joking about art history degrees in a speech about technical job training, Jan. 30
President Barack Obama appreciates two new Edward Hopper painting now adorning the Oval Office, Jan. 7, 2014; Obama is trying to rehab his image relating to the arts after joking about art history degrees in a speech about technical job training, Jan. 30
Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

Since causing an uproar when he mocked the importance and relevance of graduating university with an art history degree, President Barack Obama has been publicly trying to make up for the "glib" remark, showing he truly "loves art history" and prove the criticism wrong that he does not find the art important. His public relation checklists covered all areas of the art world; he has ordered two Edward Hopper paintings for the Oval Office on Feb. 7, 2014, finally appointed a new Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) on Feb. 12, then the same day sent an art history professor a personal handwritten apology, and finally screened the new art history heavy film "The Monuments Men" in the White House inviting the cast, crew, author, and a real life monument man to a dinner and the movie's viewing on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014, all in an attempt to turn around his art indifference image.

President Obama in a recent speech on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014 belittled the importance of a graduating university with an art history major as opposed the technical job training programs he was selling to the public, expressing; "I promise you that folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree."

Now with his flap over art history and the resulting criticism such as the Washington Post noting that Obama has not made the fine arts a priority evidenced by the fact that he has ignored and "left the position of the Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts vacant for over a year," President Obama has tried to backtrack and demonstrate the he finds the arts important.

First he ordered two Edward Hoppers paintings to be loaned to the White House from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York that houses the largest collection of the American artist's works. The two paintings arrived on Friday, Feb. 7, according to the White House blog they are "Cobb's Barns, South Truro, and Burly Cobb's House, South Truro -- oil on canvas works painted in 1930-33 on Cape Cod." These two painting are part of the artist's study of the farm house he rented in the early 1930s in South Truro, Cape Cod at the height of the great depression and painted just as Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the White House.

The two Hoppers will ornate the Oval Office and have been placed on "southeast side of the room." The remaining art in the President's office includes five paintings from the White House's permanent collection:
George Washington by Rembrandt Peale, c.1823
Abraham Lincoln by George Henry Story, c.1915 (from life studies painted in 1861)
The Three Tetons by Thomas Moran, 1895
The Avenue in the Rain by Childe Hassam, 1917
Statue of Liberty by Norman Rockwell, 1946

To capture President Obama, the art connoisseur to the public official White House photographer Chuck Kennedy photographed the President standing in the traditional art appreciators' pose back to the camera looking at the two Hoppers. Phillip Kennicott, the Washington Post's Art and Architecture Critic expressed; "From a visual and political point of view, the official White House photograph…. is as interesting as the art itself…. It signifies the appallingly juvenile relation to art that has defined this administration."

Chuck Kennedy wanted to portray Presidential loneliness an often depicted subject of official presidential photographs. Kennicott concluded; "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."

Finally filling the vacant chair of the National Endowment for the Arts post, President Obama nominated Jane Chu the president and CEO of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, MO on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014.

As the Washington Post pointed out the position had remained vacant until Obama looked to curb criticism against him. Chu, a pianist had headed the Kauffman Center since 2006. Chu is relatively unknown nationally, but is known locally for heading the construction of a new center completed in 2011 and costing $326 million, all acquired from private fundraising.

For thirteen months since the start of his second term in office, President Obama has ignored filling the position. Since November 2012 when Broadway producer Rocco Landesman left the position, senior deputy chair Joan Shigekawa has held the top spot in a temporary and acting capacity, with Shigekawa in place Obama did not feel rushed to find a permanent replacement.

President Obama in the statement nominating Chu, praised; "Jane's lifelong passion for the arts and her background in philanthropy have made her a powerful advocate for artists and arts education in Kansas City. She knows firsthand how art can open minds, transform lives and revitalize communities, and believes deeply in the importance of the arts to our national culture." It will be a challenge for Chu to build up the NEA that has seen an increasingly shrinking budget. Chu will require Senate confirmation before taking up the post.

Next up for Obama was making to up to art history professors for his remarks. The President sent a handwritten apology note to Ann C. Johns, who is a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin, an expert in Sienese architecture, who teaches Gothic and Renaissance Italian art and architecture and heads the art and art history's department Tuscany summer program. The President's overt gesture is making news. Although after the President made his remark about art history he asked that no complaint emails be sent to the White House, Johns penned Obama an email, which she claims to have not saved.

Professor Johns speaking to the blog Hyperallergic revealed she did tell the President that "It's a changed discipline and I think in many ways it does prepare students very well for a complex global world... Perhaps the idea of just going and looking at nice images is not really what the discipline is about." She also explained that her courses are twofold; "We teach our students to do critical thinking, critical reading, critical writing. We present a very global approach," and teach the actual art history. Johns kept to the humanities greatest argument that the critical thinking skills taught allows graduates to be prepared for a variety of careers, and are much desired by employers.

The White House sent Professor Johns an email response on Wednesday, Feb. 12, a scanned copy of President's Obama's letter on White House letterhead was included, and she was told she would also receive a hard copy in the mail.

The following is the contents of President Obama's handwritten note:

Ann -
Let me apologize for my off-the-cuff remarks. I was making a point about the jobs market, not the value of art history. As it so happens, art history was one of my favorite subjects in high school, and it has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed.

So please pass on my apology for the glib remark to the entire department, and understand that I was trying to encourage young people who may not be predisposed to a four year college experience to be open to technical training that can lead them to an honorable career.

Barack Obama

Professor Johns never expected the President to personally respond, and wrote on her Facebook page; "What I did NOT expect is that THE MAN HIMSELF would write me an apology. So now I'm totally guilty about wasting his time." Johns told ABC News the students in her senior art seminar are intending write President Obama and "tell their stories about what their art history degree means to them."

Finally, Obama celebrated "The Monuments Men" on Tuesday evening, Feb. 18, a film that honors art historians who served in a special unit in World War II ordered by President Franklin Roosevelt to save stolen European art from Nazi Germany and the destruction of war. The art stolen by the Nazis belonged mostly to the European Jews that the Nazis looted, sent to ghettos, concentrations camps and then killed over 6 million from the European continent. There are still battles going on to get Nazi looted art returned to the owners' descendents.

For Obama this was a public relations feast, bolster his art loving image, honor art historians, and military veterans from the greatest generation all with one event filled with Hollywood heavy hitters. Obama screened the movie based on the book by Robert M. Edsel The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History and starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Cate Blanchett. The movie was also directed by Clooney, who is also a major supporter and fundraiser of the President's.

According to the ABC News the guest list included a mix of those involved the book, movie, and real life events that served as an inspiration, representatives from the Jewish community, and members of the administration from the State Department, military and other educational and cultural departments, organizations and museums, who the White House calls "“our country’s modern day monuments men and woman." The White House further explained; "Cultural heritage preservation is a vital tool of foreign policy. Celebrating and preserving diverse heritages strengthens the foundation of bilateral relationships. For over 30 years, the State Department’s Cultural Heritage Center has been a leader in global preservation for cultural heritage sites and objects,” "

The following attended the screening; "the film's star and director George Clooney, his parents Nick and Nina Clooney, the film's star costars; Bill Murray, Matt Damon, Grant Heslov, the author The Monuments Men book Robert Edsel, Harry Ettlinger, a living member of the original Monument Men group, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom, State Department Chief of Staff David Wade, Under Secretary of State for Public Affairs Richard Stengel, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Evan Ryan, Secretary of the Army Bill McHugh, Director the US Holocaust Memorial Museum Sara Bloomfield, Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation, Director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services Susan Hildreth, and Archivist of the United States David Ferriero."

For two days after delivering his State of the Union Address, President Obama tried to sell his economic opportunity program on Wednesday, Jan. 29 and Thursday, Jan. 30. Speaking at the third stop on his post State of the Union tour at the General Electric Waukesha Gas Engines Facility, in Wisconsin on Thursday, Jan. 30 Obama discussed the technical job training program that will include; apprenticeships and partnerships between community college and employers. There Obama signed an executive order to review all federal job training programs, and Vice President Joe Biden will be in charge of the initiative.

President Obama became a little over zealous with trying to sell his jobs training program. The purpose of his training program for jobs in manufacturing, technical jobs aimed primarily at helping the unemployed find work, the unskilled to improve the job skills. However, the purpose of the program should not be to discourage high school students from attaining a college education, or thwarting or demeaning a major in the humanities. Apparently part of his plans for American opportunities is talking high school students out of striving and attending university, especially if they plan to major in Art History or the humanities. Instead the President thinks that a technical education is superior to a university degree.

President Obama caused a minor uproar in the academic world over some of his remarks about majoring in Art History in university versus attaining a degree in a professional disciple or STEM, Science, technology, engineering and math. Obama thought he was making a joke, expressed; "I promise you that folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree."

Realizing that he should have not made that remark, the President backtracked; "Now, there's nothing wrong with an art history degree; I love art history, so I don't want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I'm just saying, you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education, as long as you get the skills and training that you need."

The President's remarks caught the ire of the College Art Association, particularly CAA president Anne Collins Goodyear, and executive director and CEO Linda Downs, who were quick to respond in the press about the President's comments; "However, when these measures are made by cutting back on, denigrating or eliminating humanities disciplines such as art history, then America's future generations will be discouraged from taking advantage of the values, critical and decisive thinking and creative problem solving offered by the humanities."

Goodyear and Downs reminded the President and the country that; "It is worth remembering that many of the nation's most important innovators, in fields including high technology, business, and even military service, have degrees in the humanities. Humanities graduates play leading roles in corporations, engineering, international relations, government, and many other fields where their skills and creating thinking play a critical role."

Downs also spoke to the Chronicle of Higher Education, where she expressed her "disappointment" in President Obama's remarks and message and "his lack of attention to higher-education issues" Saying she understands "that he has to put people back into jobs"… "but he shouldn't be doing it to the denigration of the humanities."

Art History is often used as the scapegoat of the humanities world, seen as the major of the elite it considered by those outside the discipline for the rich and leisure class. In the United States less than one percent of college students major in Art History. In January 2013 Joy Starkey wrote an op-ed entitled "History of art: a degree for the elite?" in the United Kingdom's Guardian paper about the perception of Art History degrees. Starky explained that "Art. A word that has sat on a gleaming plinth and peered down at us mere mortals for centuries. In the past, the study of art was reserved for the wealthy and educated. Even today, galleries have become an elitist haven for the middle-classes."

Another reason for the opinion of "The subject's elitist image has been exacerbated by the long list of royals who have studied it - Prince William, Kate Middleton and Princess Beatrice to name a few. This not only gives the impression that you have to be from the right background to study it, but also reinforces the notion that this subject is not useful in the current barren landscape of graduate recruitment." Starky explained that in the U.K. the perception has become a reality and most students that study art history Cambridge University come from private schools

It is an elite and select group who studies art history with only 0.2 percent of undergraduate students graduating with a degree in the subject in the U.S. Those who strive and reach the pinnacle with a doctorate in the discipline are greatly rewarded financially, according to Census Bureau's 2010 American Community Survey 5.9 percent of graduates compromise the top one percent of wage earners in the country, ranking 9th overall.

Starky concluded what many in the art history field feel; "I have discovered that art is one of the most vivid ways of viewing history - it is an intimate glimpse into someone's world. Art has traced many of the sociological changes that have occurred throughout history, all through the eyes of real people. Studying it stretches your analytical and interpretive abilities. And while course content may not be directly related to the average graduate job, this is the case with many degrees, especially humanities subjects. The study of art shouldn't have to carry the weight of a stereotype created so long ago."

Although President Obama's "glib" remark about art history put a spotlight on the President's record with the arts, his administration's disinterest and neglect of the arts is as long as his presidency. With the exception of some borrowed works acquired and adorning the White House and annually hosting the Kennedy Center honorees, President Obama presidency has been devoid of appreciating high art and culture, instead pop culture and today's entertainers in music, television and movies have taken the place of true art appreciation, it has been a poor substitute. Too bad it took the outcry from one Freudian slip on the President's part for Obama to try to make up to the arts in two weeks what he should have been doing for the past five years.


Bonnie K. Goodman is one the 0.2 percent who graduated with an art history degree with an emphasis in Gothic and Early Renaissance art and architecture, and also has a DES in Communications from Vanier College where she focused on the fine arts. She believes art history is one of the most centralizing disciplines intersecting anthropology, history, religion, and politics. Art is the common language of the world and its history from 30,000 BCE to today.

She is also the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are politics, history, religion, education and art and architectural history.

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