Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Kennedy administration and the arts

This Jan. 18 Wash. Post article details the many events that the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is staging to celebrate the arts legacy of the Kennedy administration. On Jan. 20 there was a star-studded concert to mark the 50th anniversary of JFK's inauguration. On Jan. 25, Yo-Yo Ma recreates the famous Pablo Casals concert given in the White House in November 1961. That concert is, of course, sold out (I just checked).

Reading the article, it occurred to me that the promotion of the arts by the Kennedys (JFK and Jacqueline) may stand as one of the most important accomplishments, if not the most important accomplishment, of that administration. Partly because it was cut short and partly because of Kennedy's own caution, the administration did not have many notable achievements in domestic policy. In foreign affairs, the avoidance of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis was of course a major achievement, but it was something bad avoided rather than something good brought into being. So the legacy of the Kennedy administration is mostly the aura, the myth of Camelot, the remembrances of what David Rubenstein, chairman of the Kennedy Center's board, calls "happy days" in a quote in the article. Those "happy days" were a subjective phenomenon rooted less in the existential reality of the U.S. in the early 1960s and more in the minds of those having the experience. At least that is my impression at two removes, as I was a young child in the early 60's and was living outside the U.S. for most of that period.

Caroline Kennedy is quoted in the article as saying she does not remember those famous White House musical evenings but remembers hearing about them "all my life, especially from my mother. For me, these concerts are reconnecting to those memories with her...." It's nice that the Kennedy Center is allowing those memories to be revivified and recognizing the Kennedys' contribution to the arts. It emphasizes a side of the late president and first lady that coexisted with the hard-nosed, occasionally ruthless politician that JFK also was. If the razor-thin election of 1960 had gone the other way, Richard Nixon would have been inaugurated in January 1961 and the world might have been incinerated in a nuclear war in October 1962. And Pablo Casals would not have played in the White House and Yo-Yo Ma would not be playing on Tuesday. Change a few votes in Chicago and one or two other places, and a lot of things would have been different.

P.S. Apart from the handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the setting up of the Peace Corps, JFK's foreign policy was nothing to celebrate. But that would have to be the subject of another post.

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