THE ART HISTORY OF HILARY CLINTON & BERNIE SANDERS, FROM BLAZING AN AESTHETIC TRAIL AT THE WHITE HOUSE TO EARNING AN ARTS A+
by Alexandra Peers
If either of the two political parties in the United States could be considered patrons of the arts, it's probably the Democrats. They tend to land on the right side of history in debates around NEA grants, public artworks, obscenity laws, and the like. The Obamas swept aside the White House's historic avoidance of new art by bringing in contemporary and Modern art for the first time, placing a work by the president's friend Glenn Ligon in their private quarters along and spreading other loans by Ed Ruscha, Nicolas de Staël, and Jasper Johns around the building; Michelle Obama, meanwhile, has made waves (and lasting impacts) with her school arts program. In Part 2 of our special feature on the aesthetic preferences of the current presidential hopefuls, Alexandra Peers takes a deep dive into Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders's respective engagements with the arts.
Read Part 1: The Art History Of Donald Trump, From Disappointing Christie's To Becoming Warhol's Bête Noire
At first glance, it’s hard to get a read on the art tastes of the former First Lady/Secretary of State. Interiors of the Clinton family’s Chappaqua, N.Y., home are rarely photographed, and the pictures that do exist show no art. Their East Hampton home is a rental.
But decades-old White House brochures and interviews early in her career as First Lady in fact show a woman with a penchant for Modern art. (The couple’s first date, she has said, was to the Yale Art Gallery, which was featuring shows of Mark Rothko and Henry Moore.) The couple famously put an 1983 Willem de Kooning (interestingly, from his disputed late period) in their private living quarters upon taking office. A few months later, Carole Feuerman's Islamoraao, a hyper-realist sculpture of oil and resin, was added to the private collection, and Feuerman was invited to the White House and greeted warmly by Clinton, the artist says.
It so happens that among Clinton’s biggest initiatives in her early year in office was the creation of a series of sculpture exhibitions, each curated by a museum in a different region of the U.S. The shows filled the 120-by-60-foot Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis garden with works by Alexander Calder, George Segal, Louise Bourgeois, Donald Lipski, and a huge bronze nude by Gaston Lachaise (Standing Woman, 1932). These were not minor shows: The Northeast exhibition, for example, was curated by legend and New Museum founder Marcia Tucker, MFA Houston’s Peter C. Marzio did another, and National Gallery director emeritus J. Carter Brown was also heavily involved.
In a long interview with Sculpture Magazine nearly two decades ago, Clinton discussed her favorite works from that program, noting that she and Bill used to eat breakfast by their George Rickey, and enjoyed watching the kinetic piece—“I love the whole idea moving sculpture,” she told the magazine. But she fretted about the potential impact on Calder’s 1964 mobile Five Rudders from the breeze unleashed by the presidential helicopter as it landed on the South Lawn. (The sculpture held up.)
During her tenure, to her credit, Clinton hosted many artists, including Ellsworth Kelly and Segal, at the White House, some for the first time. Even more to her credit, when it came time for the Clintons to chose an artist for their official portrait, they chose Simmie Knox, the self-taught son of an Alabama sharecropper who became the first black painter to fill the prestigious role—anticipating the current widespread embrace of self-taught African American art.
While Clinton is clearly far more sensitive to the allure of contemporary art than her likely general-election adversary Donald Trump, it's worth noting that they share an aesthetic distinction: both own a painting by the singer Tony Bennett. Wonder who he is voting for?
The Vermont Senator’s personal taste in art is not very well known; while he has enthusiastically supported arts programs, they have mostly been music-based and his home is decorated with family photos. But he has flatly stated, “You have my promise that as President, I will be an arts President. I will continue to advocate strongly for robust funding of the arts in our cities, schools and public spaces. Art is speech. Art is what life is about.”
Shepard Fairey, who designed the iconic “Hope” poster that became a symbol of the Obama 2008 campaign, has formally endorsed Sanders and has designed an elaborate $30 “Feel the Bern” T-shirt to raise funds for the campaign. A Facebook site “Artists for Bernie Sanders” has created “a place for artists of all kinds to share their unlicensed work in order to elevate the grassroots movement” for the candidate; some works feature the Senator with a halo. A traveling exhibition, “The Art of a Political Revolution: Artists for Bernie Sanders” has toured Los Angeles, Boston, New York and Austin.
Beyond that, Sen. Sanders has this to recommend him: According to the Congressional Arts Voting Record, between 2004 and 2014 Sanders earned an A+ score on all of the Americans for the Arts Action Fund Congressional Arts Report Cards for his votes in support of the arts in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, respectively.
As far as collecting goes? We have the feeling he's a public-art guy.