When a colleague shared a British tabloid report that Donald Trump was considering appointing a certain Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone as head of the National Endowment for the Arts, we rolled our eyes, speechless.
Stallone has since said he would decline any offer for the top arts spot from President-elect Trump. Yet -- and I can't believe I am saying this -- Sly Stallone may not have been such a bad idea for the NEA after all.
How fundamentally the world has turned in 2017.
Four years ago, when there was still hope that President Barack Obama might turn out to be an arts leader, I had proposed that for his second term he eliminate the NEA altogether and instead create a Cabinet-level Department of Culture, putting us on par with the rest of the world's civilized countries. I further suggested as candidates the two most probing, visionary and persuasive artists and public intellectuals I could think of: director Peter Sellars and Bard College President Leon Botstein.
There are many in Congress who would gladly eliminate the NEA to save an infinitesimal fraction of the federal budget (less than four one-hundredths of 1 percent, to be exact), replacing the NEA with nada. What the agency needs now more than vision is a fighter. A little star power wouldn't hurt, either. Could Rocky save it?
Obama never promised to be an arts president. What candidate does? (Bernie Sanders did, but he is the only major one in recent memory.) Still, there were indications early on that the Obama White House would prove to be a second Camelot, following the example of the arts-embracing Kennedys.
The mood for Obama's first swearing-in was classily set by classical musicians in 2009. Violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, clarinetist Anthony McGill and pianist Gabriella Montero warmed up the dignitaries with John Williams' "Air and Simple Gifts," written for the occasion. As with so much in Washington, a phony controversy ensued when it was learned that the quartet instrument-synced, but it was simply too cold to offer "Simple Gifts," which required nimble fingers on strings and keys. That may have also been the start of giving Obama cold fingers when it came to the arts.
Even so, for their new home, the Obamas borrowed from the National Gallery the most sophisticated art that had graced White House walls since Camelot. The first family occasionally showed up at the Kennedy Center or museums. The first lady hosted afternoon gatherings of musicians from different disciplines. We were told that the president was a reader of poetry.
The most promising sign of all was Obama's unpretentious grace in the company of artists. He said the right things. We took it for granted that he supported the arts and understood their importance for the betterment of society. The vast majority of artists in America felt that Obama was on their side.
So we coasted. The president had to pick his fights, and the NEA, it turned out, was never to be one of them. In 2009, another phony controversy occurred when the far-right website Breitbart News reported that a spokesperson for the Obama administration had reputedly tried to politically influence artists. That pales next to President Ronald Reagan phoning up theater critic Dan Sullivan at The Times in 1981 to ask that he prop up Reagan's old Hollywood pal Buddy Ebsen, whose new musical was a flop.