This week the stunning Obama portraits at the National Portrait Gallery were unveiled and Michelle Obama released this Valentine’s Day playlist titled “Forever Mine: Michelle to Barack”:
The importance that the Obama’s always placed on art of all kinds matters. It matters a lot.
They both chose African-American artists to paint their portraits and they did not do traditional portraits. Like his presidency, they are rich with symbolism; the Washington Post writes “these portraits will remind future generations how much wish fulfillment was embodied in the Obamas, and how gracefully they bore that burden.” As I listened to the Spotify playlist at work I thought about Michelle and Barack dancing in their living room to Calvin Harris, Leon Bridges, Alabama Shakes, Van Morrison, Kendrick Lamar, Tim McGraw and all of the other amazing artists on their playlist. I’m not sure what you do, but I turn on music (KTAO Radio) the minute I wake up, and we constantly have music on in our home and car. My whole life, and probably yours, has a soundtrack. It matters.
It starts with the inauguration, Obama had a poet at both of his. I listened to Robert Blanco reciting “One Today” over and over again after the 2013 inauguration. It matters that he chose a gay immigrant to deliver the inaugural poem. It matters that the Kennedy’s had Frost read a poem; and man, can I remember when the incomparable Maya Angelou recited “On the Pulse of Morning” at Clinton’s inauguration.
From the iconic poster of the youthful Barack’s face with the words “Hope,” to the yearly favorite books and playlists that were released, to the cultural food movement Michelle tried to accomplish (with resistance from lobbyists), to the references to history & pop culture that were a constant in Obama’s speeches. It matters.
We SEE one another in art. In books, poems, music, paintings, photographs, film. Story telling in all forms is an integral part of the human experience. It matters.
I don’t think I need to say this, but maybe I do (we humans seem to be stupider than ever these days, and yes, I am feeling snarky) – contrast all of the above to the current President who only believes in power, money, whiteness, and objectifying woman. An inauguration that focused on american carnage and the size of the crowd without a poet in sight. The man does not have a cultural bone in his (unhealthy) body – he doesn’t even believe in exercising or in eating unprocessed food (i.e. his love of fast food and desire to give poor people a box of processed yumminess). Again, he is trying to eliminate arts and humanities funding in his latest budget.
It matters who Americans elected as President. It filters down and out and around. Art matters and I miss having a President who knew that.
You know what’s crazy – Laura Ingalls Wilder probably would have voted for Donald Trump. I can’t stop thinking about Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. It is a book for right now. Like so many little girls, Laura Ingalls Wilder was an integral part of my childhood. I wanted to live in a little house on the prairie and travel around in a covered wagon.
As Fraser describes Wilder’s life in vivid detail several myths are shattered over and over again. The myth of the romantic American West. The myth of surviving by homesteading. The myth of American Exceptionalism. The myth that a farmer can make it on their own. There is huckster fantasy, and then there is reality. Which, of course, is what we are seeing right now.
Wilder lived during an incredible time and Fraser takes us through all of it. She delves into the man-made Dust Bowl, reactions to the New Deal, yellow journalism, Little House books used as propaganda in Japan, “Indians”, the TV show, and politics. So, so much politics. Charles Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder both lost (several) homes and, perhaps, it was easier to blame the government than their bad decisions when this happened. This led to Wilder and her daughter to have very strong (and interesting and often hypocritical) political feelings. An article in the New Republic talking about the book “Ultimately, that same drive to be alone with the wilderness got converted to a founding myth of individualism, out of which emerged an ideology that visualized freedom from government as an equivalent of freedom itself. The descendants of that myth are among us still. If Laura Ingalls Wilder were alive today she would be a member of the Tea Party. She would almost certainly have voted for Donald Trump, many of whose followers yet believe that he will restore to them the dubious glory of the frontier America that Wilder so passionately celebrated in her books.”
More stuff to make you think…
Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward – Devastating and beautiful. My heart broke so much as I read it. Reminded me of Toni Morrison. Much-deserved National Book Award winner.
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz – I can’t believe how much I loved this delightful, Agatha Christie type book. A mystery within a mystery to get totally lost in. A book I could recommend to almost anyone.
The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman – Main character has a familiar (not a pet!) that is a crow. I am so jealous of her… another great Hoffman book full of dreamy, magical enchantment. It takes place in the 60’s and is a companion piece to Practical Magic.
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent – A story of survival in a shitty world. The cruelty of family members, nature, the world at large. Be prepared for horrible abuse scenes like last year’s A Little Life.
Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo – Utterly depressing book by a Nigerian writer about infertility and desperately needing/wanting baby. Extreme measures with repercussions.
Improvement by Joan Silber – Little linked stories about one decision affecting multiple people. Short, good read.
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich – this is a frustrating, dystopian book with really good parts. Somehow it feels very real even with the lack of all the details and the unknown parts of the story. Loved this: “Some men smell right and others don’t. You know what I mean if you are a woman who breathes in the fragrance of the stem end of a melon to choose it or if the odor of mock orange or lilac transfixes or if you pass a piece of woody earth and know from a gulp of air that the soft, wet, fleshy foot of a mushroom has thrust from the earth somewhere close. Men smell good in all different ways. Salty vanilla. Hot dirt. New grass. Bitter lead…” and also loved this: “I can’t bear it – crackers and cheese! It reminds me of all the wonderful, normal times that I have eaten crackers and cheese with my parents or friends. So many times in my past life and I’ve never appreciated how comforting and convivial those times were.”
Also this discussion between Atwood & Erdich where they bring up the 2000 election…which was determined by a handful of votes like the current one. Imagine if Gore had been elected and climate change was addressed, the strides that could have been made over last 16 years. The world would look completely different.
I Used to Insist I Didn’t Get Angry. Not Anymore. by Leslie Jamison – Article in the NY Times. I identify, do you?
Look and See – Netflix documentary on Wendell Berry, farming and the Kentucky county where he has lived most of his life. It floored me. How are we humans going to fix the problems we’ve made?