A newly released CBS News/New York Times poll finds that 61% of Americans say “race relations in the United States are bad, the highest percentage since 1992.” Maybe part of the reason for this giant step backward is that the first lady, who is black, views everything through a prism of race. Ask her to dedicate a new museum or concert hall, and she’ll tell you that “museums and concert halls” aren’t as welcoming to non-white visitors, especially children, as they are to whites.
The most recent occasion for this brand of grievance-mongering was Monday. Michelle Obama was here in New York to celebrate the opening of a branch of the Whitney Museum of American Art in the city’s trendy meat packing district, which she did by revealing that she grew up thinking that museums were not places “for someone who looks like me.”
You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood. In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum.
And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself. So I know that feeling of not belonging in a place like this. And today, as first lady, I know how that feeling limits the horizons of far too many of our young people.
But look how fabulous she turned out anyway. She is the first first lady in the nation’s history to host a “poetry slam” at the White House — one that featured, moreover, the works of a rapper named (appropriately) Common, whose verse not only promotes violence in general but pays homage to cop killer Assata Shakur (aka Joanne Chesimard).
Mrs. Obama mistakenly assumes that self-identification in works of art is a necessary — and sufficient — condition for an appreciation of culture. If anything, the fine arts, it might reasonably be posited, are a gateway to the exploration of a world far more vast and varied in both space and time than our own. Art, or at least much of it, is meant to stimulate thought, to take the viewer beyond the narrow confines of what is familiar and comforting. Then again, you wouldn’t expect the first lady, whose Performances at White House series has been limited to purveyors of pop culture, to know this.
As for her claim “there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum,” one last irony: In January of this year, a prominent New York City art museum sponsored a program titled “Looking Back at Black Male.” The exhibition, curated by Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum of Harlem, “investigated the complex aesthetics and politics at work in representations of African American men in the post-Civil Rights era.”
And what museum that hosted this show that even Michelle Obama could get excited about? It was the Whitney in the meat packing district.
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