When did art get so dull?

Barack Obama’s inauguration was as joyous as it was serious. So why, save for Aretha Franklin, was the culture on show so boring?

OK, like everyone else in America – and many people around the world – yesterday I watched the inauguration of Barack Obama on CNN. These were my favourite parts:

1. Our new president, who is incredible

2. Two million people on the mall, also incredible

3. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts messing up the oath of office, also incredible, but in a different way

4. Michele Obama’s avocado-coloured gloves, fantastic

5. Dick Cheney in a wheel chair

6. Aretha Franklin

7. Aretha Franklin’s hat

There is another list one could dream up of one’s least favorite parts. Because this is a time of celebration I’m not going to even bother writing down what mine would be. We’re done with the last administration and we should all be looking to the future, is all I’m going to say about that. However, I have to admit two things that would be on my least-favourite list, if I were to make one, would be the string quartet and the poem.

I didn’t like the art. The song the string quartet played was beautiful, and there is no question that Yo-Yo Ma looked great slashing away at his cello up there in the wind. But the piece was slow and portentous. And then the poem! Elizabeth Alexander seemed nice, but delivering every word in a monotone was a mistake. CNN had lots of shots of people wandering away down the mall; they were leaving the inauguration of the first African American president early, during the poem. That’s how bored they were.

So aside from Aretha and that fantastic hat, the art at the inauguration was high-minded and intellectual and serious-minded and kind of dull. The religious guys, on the other hand, were electric and lively. I thought Rick Warren, whose politics often offend me, was humble and eloquent and I also loved Joseph Lowery, who ended the proceedings with those resounding “Amens”. Both spoke with passion and appealed to our hearts to celebrate this moment when America has embraced true and truly needed life-affirming change.

Since we’re changing everything else, maybe we could just change art. I’m not talking about anything radical, just changing it back to like it was before, when it was also entertaining. Remember Jane Austen, Molière, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles? Remember people gathering in the streets to grab the next installment of the latest Dickens novel? Remember groundlings? Remember the impressionists and the pre-Raphaelites, how pretty and moving and strange those paintings were? Remember narrative? Remember how it all kind of fit together?

When did appealing to hearts and minds at, you know, the same time, turn into such a dumb idea?

Anyway, being an artist at Obama’s inauguration is the quintessential tough act, and I do salute those musicians and writers. But I would like to take this moment to publicly endorse Art. Art is great. At its best it engages the intellect and challenges the spirit; it connects us across history and reminds us of our humanity. I think we should all just remember that, as long as we’re taking the time these days to think about fixing the planet.

And at the next inauguration maybe Steve Colbert could write the poem.