I can’t decide if I’m surprised by the news from late last week that all the members of the presidential Committee on the Arts and Humanities had resigned. They cited as their reason the president’s comments following the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, along with a host of other administration policy positions of which they disapproved.
In all, 16 members of the committee signed the statement and a 17th later said he was out as well. All of them were Obama appointees; Trump had yet to put anyone on the committee. In response, the White House said the president had already decided that he wasn’t going to renew the Executive Order authorizing the committee, so it would expire later this year anyway.
This committee, by the way, is not the group that steers the more familiar National Endowment for the Arts (that one’s the “National Council on the Arts”) nor does it have much to do with the NEA. The PCAH was created in 1982 by president Ronald Reagan to survey the efficacy of government arts policies and explore ways to increase private sector support for the arts around the country. Now barring some dramatic change, by the end of the year it will cease to exist.
And this isn’t the only group of artists currently on the outs with the president. The Kennedy Center Honors is a program designed to highlight individual or group contributions to the arts in the United States. Each year since 1978 the Board of Trustees of the Kennedy Center has chosen a handful of artists to receive the distinction and they’re feted with a formal dinner hosted by the State Department, a lavish reception at the White House, and a gala all-star performance at the Kennedy Center that airs on national television, usually a few weeks later.
The first group of honorees included Marian Anderson, Richard Rogers, George Balanchine, Arthur Rubenstein and Fred Astaire. Since then, recipients have ranged from mainstream entertainers like Sammy Davis, Jr. and Billy Joel to lesser-known artistic superstars like Martha Argerich and Twyla Tharp.
In the past couple of weeks, two of this year’s honorees — dancer/choreographer Carmen de Lavallade and television writer/producer Norman Lear — said they were boycotting both the ceremony and the White House reception because of the president’s words and policies. In response, the president announced that he and the first lady would be skipping this year’s festivities.
Until now a president has missed the event only three times: Jimmy Carter didn’t attend the gala in 1979 due to the ongoing Iranian hostage crisis; George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton each missed one because they had to attend meetings overseas. In addition, for the first time the White House portion of the program has been cancelled entirely.
Such open confrontation between the president and the arts world is hardly unprecedented. Back in the days of the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson hosted a large gathering of artists at the White House. Several of those invited loudly refused to attend, many doing so via major newspapers. Art critic Dwight MacDonald showed up, but tried to gather signatures for a petition condemning the president. (He and Charlton Heston almost wound up in a fistfight, by some accounts.) A sour Lyndon Johnson said, “Some of them insult me by staying away and some of them insult me by coming.”
There’s no real way to prevent it, but it’s never welcome when the nation’s chief executive quarrels openly with the arts community. They’re both important elements in the nation’s life, and while differences are inevitable, open warfare does no one any good.