Being influenced in the arts by a friend’s dad

When I was in high school my best friend’s dad was the drama teacher.  Neither my friend nor I took drama (we both played in the band), but lots of our friends did, and his dad was one of the more popular teachers at the school.  His classes put on plays each year, went to UIL drama contests, and every other year joined with the music program and staged a full musical.  That there were classes dedicated to learning drama struck us as no more remarkable than band or choir, or, for that matter, chemistry or typing.

I also had the good fortune to have my friend live just down the street since the time we were in kindergarten, and consequently I spent a lot of time at his house and got to know his dad pretty well.  He never was one to pontificate about the arts (and the status of the arts in schools was never really an issue in those days) but it was clear just by being around him that the arts were something very important.  Beside my parents, he was the main adult that I knew who showed that the arts were worth taking seriously.

I learned quite a bit from him that I didn’t learn at home, specifically about drama as an art form.  Just for starters, although I’d heard of it I never had a clear idea of exactly what “Broadway” meant, and I knew nothing of the Tony Awards (which is actually short for the “Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Theater”) until I learned about those things from him.  I remember being amazed to learnthat there was a nationally televised show—just like the Oscars and Emmys, which I certainly knew about—in which awards were given out for plays in New York City. I found this intriguing, but also a clear indication that some people regarded plays just as highly as I regarded movies and television shows.

It was also from him that I first learned the titles of many of the canonical works of American theater. For several yearshe had in his living room framed programs from some of the plays he’d staged like Blithe SpiritThe Man Who Came to DinnerYou Can’t Take it with You, and Noises Off.  It hit me that although I had never heard of them, these plays were something worth knowing about.

He’s also a big fan of musicals.  I encountered West Side Story for the first time in my life at my friend’s house, for instance, and I still marvel at it.  I listened to the original cast recording just today as I thought out how I was going to write this column.  Through him I came to enjoy South PacificOklahoma!The Music ManMy Fair Lady, and many others.

I’ve heard numerous people in the military express concern that as fewer Americans have any direct experience with the armed forces, the level of understanding of and support for them will wane, both in public and even in Congress.  The arts, it occurs to me, are similar.  If a young person doesn’t know anyone interested in the arts, he will grow up not understanding how important and enriching they can be, and not knowing why he should care about them.  All it really takes answer this is exposure.  This makes the atrophy of art programs in schools—and in the daily lives of more people—all the more regrettable.  My friend’s dad showed me the arts were important and worth knowing about.  We all can be something similar to someone else.

Originally published in the Waco Tribune-Herald, August 1, 2013

The image of the Presidency

The US presidency is much on people’s minds these days, to put it mildly, and there’s a lot of talk about what kind of image the current occupant of that office is putting forward. While Trump may be a different style of President in many ways, what really isn’t new is the interest in how the public image of the President shapes our attitude toward the job he holds.

As I’ve listened to arguments about the degree to which Trump is changing how we think of the presidency, I’ve been rereading an interesting book entitled The Painter’s Chair: George Washington and the Making of American Art by historian Hugh Howard. In it, he tells the story of the many times George Washington posed for painters over the course of his public life and the ways in which the resulting portraits influenced how people thought of Washington himself and, ultimately, the curious new office which he was the first to occupy.

Many great artists painted pictures of Washington over the course of his life, and doing so (or at least doing so well) contributed significantly to their fame rising alongside his. Charles Willson Peale, his son Rembrandt Peale, John Trumbull, and French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon are just some of the accomplished artists who played a part in shaping the image of the man who was known as the “Father of his Country” long before he became its first President. The senior Peale first painted Washington’s portrait in 1772, three years before the Revolution broke out and he was tapped to be Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. Howard notes that “beyond the few who had seen the man in person, most of those who had begun proudly to call themselves Americans became acquainted with George Washington through Mr. Peale’s eyes.”

Gilbert Stuart’s portraits, however, are perhaps the ones with which we’re most familiar today; certainly one in particular is. In 1796, he began working on a portrait of Washington that remained unfinished a year later except for the head. But by that point, most who saw it were in agreement that Stuart had captured something significant even in the small portion he had thus far completed. It became known as The Athenaeum portrait (so labeled because it went to the Boston Athenaeum after Stuart’s death) and is the basis for, among other things, Washington’s likeness on the one-dollar bill. In 1823, art critic John Neal commented that if “a better likeness of him were shown to us, we should reject it,” because by then this image had become the universally acclaimed one.

As famous as these paintings would someday be, a relatively small number of people saw them in the first century of their existence. As he explains in his book Popular Images of the Presidency, the eminent historian of the early republic Noble Cunningham points out that “contemporaries did not often view the oil portraits painted from life by accomplished artists. Most Americans gained their impressions of the presidents from engraved prints and later—and more widely—from popular lithographs.” The works of Stuart, Peale, and other artists of greater or lesser ability formed the basis for thousands of inexpensive reproductions that circulated among everyday people.

Cunningham titles the opening chapter in his book “The Presdency Enshrined” and indeed this is what Washington’s ubiquitous image did in the minds of Americans. The respect and devotion people felt for Washington transferred to the office which he pioneered, and showed for the first (but not last) time how a personal public image can affect our attitude toward the the government itself.

Originally published in the Waco Tribune-Herald, May 25, 2017

General George Washington Resigning his Commission, John Trumbull, c.1817-1824, oil on canvas, United States Capitol rotunda, Washington, DC.