About fifteen years ago my dear friend Amy Weingartner introduced me to a particularly interesting term she coined. The descriptive phrase, as I remembered, was simply “Kennedy’s Children.” After a quick phone call, I was corrected. Her alliterative turn of phrase was “Camelot Kids.” Regardless, both descriptive monikers refer to those of us who were born during John F. Kennedy’s brief presidential administration. It places us squarely at the tail end of the Baby Boom generation, which is mostly defined as the post war surge in births from 1946 to 1964. I am a Camelot Kid.
It’s November and I just turned 51, one year shy of a full deck I’m fond of saying. I was one year and one week old when President Kennedy was assassinated. And I’ve been thinking a great deal about those fateful 34 months of his presidency. The intersection of personal and American history has always been of some intense interest to me. The intersection of art and political history is even more eclectic.
Take 1962 alone. Jasper Johns executed Diver, one of my favorite drawings ever. Andy Warhol had his first one-man exhibition here in Los Angeles in July of that year. Yves Klein died of a heart attack five weeks earlier at the inconceivably young age of 34. Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me were both published in 1962. Lawrence of Arabia was the top grossing film that year but Lolita, Days of Wine and Roses and The Manchurian Candidate were also in the top twenty. On October 13th Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf opened on Broadway. Nine days later my father whisked my mother, then eight months pregnant, off on a four-hour drive away from Manhattan, to upstate New York, Bolton Landing to be precise. The reason: the Cuban Missile Crisis.
To dip one’s toe in this simultaneity makes for a richer understanding of an era. Art history is almost always taught without popular or political context. Conversely, history is too often taught without the richly accompanied texture of (high and pop)culture’s offerings.
On Friday, November 22nd we mark the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. What few people know however is that President Kennedy travelled to Texas a full 30 hours before his ride in the open-air limousine at Dealey plaza. He and Jackie didn’t overnight in Dallas but rather 34 miles to the west at Hotel Texas in downtown Fort Worth. The reason for his trip was political. The upcoming year’s reelection campaign was already starting and his goal was to mend rifts between the liberal and conservative factions of the Texas Democratic Party.
Less than a week before his arrival, descriptions of Suite 850 at Hotel Texas were released to the public. Fort Worth Press art critic Owen Day thought the accommodations lacking and came up with the idea of decorating the three primary rooms with significant art that would properly convey to the President and First Lady the cultural sophistication of Fort Worth. He recruited prominent collectors and civic leaders, including Samuel Benton Cantey III, Ruth Carter Stevenson, Ted Weiner and Amon Carter Museum Director Mitchell Wilder. This ad hoc curatorial bravado included paintings by Claude Monet and Lyonel Feininger, an oil on paper study by Franz Klein and bronze sculptures by Henry Moore and Pablo Picasso. And this was just the parlor. Jacqueline Kennedy’s bedroom had a distinctly impressionist feel with works by Pendergast, Van Gogh, Marin and Dufy. And the President’s bedroom carried a more manly sartorial flair including Thomas Eakins, Marsden Hartley and Charles M. Russell.
This story has moved me tremendously ever since I heard it about a year ago. It speaks to me as a heroic act of generosity on the part of the inspired and ambitious civic leaders who pulled it together. It moves me as a grace note to the events of the following day and the tremendous scar that it left on a nation. It also, with great significance, is a reflection of the leadership role that the President and the First Lady played in championing the arts. It can be argued that no President before or after paid the respect to arts that John F. Kennedy did in his lifetime. The proof of this might be best witnessed in the linguistic fireworks of his speeches. Kennedy wielded metaphor and images at the service of inspiration, hope and aspiration. This attitudinal shift from the bully pulpit of the White House happened right at a time when the capital of the fine art world had immigrated from Paris to New York; from the old school of European tradition to the wild west of American Avant Garde.
I have, over the last several months, gone through what some might call a crisis of confidence. No feeling artist is immune to these occasional bouts of ennui. Some of this existentialism was based on the transposition of the financial inequities of the American economy versus the role that Fine Art plays in society in general. In a nut shell: if there is a 99%-1% split in the American economic landscape then perhaps, just perhaps, there is a 99.9%-.1% split in the American Societal landscape for those who consider that Fine Art is essential. Crunch the numbers and this comes out to around 313,000 people for whom Fine Art might matter. Glass Half Full? Or Half Empty?
But the lessons of Hotel Texas hold firm. Fine Art, and culture in general for purposes of this argument, is not only cause, it is effect. It is not only the light which illuminates our soul but also the mirror with which to judge the human condition. It is also both symptom and disease. In the end it is a catalytic converter of empathy. Most people may be intimidated by art, but the transformative potential never wavers.
For me, Art matters.
By mid December 1963 a Washington D.C. DJ named Carroll James started playing the Beatles on WWDC Radio. In today’s lingua franca, it went viral. On December 26th, a few days more than a month after those shots rang out in Dealey Plaza, the Beatle’s first album I Wanna Hold Your Hand was released in America, administrating, many could say, a most fortuitous pop culture salve of optimism, hope and tuneful distraction.
Art Matters! Culture Matters! Pop Culture Matters! Pop Art Matters!
Art, Music, Film, Dance, Books, Poetry are not luxuries, they are essential to the fiber of human spirit. They create the weave of experience. They afford us insight that allows us to move forward.
-Mario M. Muller, November 2013, Los Angeles
The Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth currently has an exhibition reuniting all the works that were displayed in the Presidential Suite #850. The Exhibition, Hotel Texas: An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy continues through January 12th, 2014
Click here to hear a three minute interview with actor Bill Paxton as he remembers hearing John F. Kennedy on the morning of November 22nd, 1963 in front of Hotel Texas.
One significant catalyst for my near obsession with the interdependance of art and political history is a fantastic book called The Judgement of Paris. In it Ross King traces the trajectory of Manet’s career in Paris from 1850’s through 1890’s. But far from a standard monograph, he weaves societal, economic, political and art history in a way that makes one wonder how any area of expertise can be appreciated without this wide angle lens. NY Times Review and Amazon page.