In February 2014, the White House released a photograph of President Obama standing alone in the Oval Office, contemplating two paintings by Edward Hopper recently borrowed from the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Obama’s back was turned to the viewer, and the pose recalled a trope of presidential iconography: the lonely leader, taking a pensive moment to contemplate the eternal verities, indulging in a brief caesura in the whirl of politics, power and strife that defines the job. Perhaps the most famous example is a similar 1961 image, by photographer George Tames, showing President John F. Kennedy alone in the Oval Office, framed in silhouette by a window.
The Obama image turned out to be misleading. All evidence points to the president being indeed thoughtful, even perhaps too thoughtful, if one believes critics who say he intellectualizes problems that demand more visceral responses. But there is little indication that Obama regularly indulges the particular relationship to art that this photograph implied: solitary contemplation of the inherited canon of paintings, sculpture, music, dance or theater. He is interested in culture, to be sure, but it is the living culture of our time, often the celebrity culture of popular music and commercial theater, but rarely the stuff people used to call “high” culture. Or that, at least, is the image his handlers have crafted.