Yesterday, a reader sent me this piece from the Washington Post, asking what the Trump administration means for the arts. I’ve written about the cringeworthy portrait of him by Ralph Wolfe Cowan that hangs in his home in Mar-a-Lago. However, his taste in art hardly matters. Politics doesn’t affect the arts directly; it makes or breaks us in how it runs the economy.
WaPo mentioned that incoming VP Mike Pence and his wife Karen have a strong history of supporting the arts. She has an undergraduate minor in art, she has taught art, worked as an artist, and championed art therapy.
That undergraduate minor was an afterthought. Her college, Butler University, required a declared minor. “I thought gosh, ‘I’d like to learn more about art,” she told the Indianapolis Star on the eve of Pence’s inauguration as governor of Indiana. “I pulled it out of the air.”
Mrs. Pence grew up outside of Indianapolis in a town called Broad Ripple. I’ve painted in Indiana, and I agree with her assessment that “Indiana is just a very special place. There are no other people like Hoosiers.”
When the Pences had children, Karen decided to take an art class. She chose watercolor because it dries fast. “I told Mike I need a night when you’re in charge and I just go have fun,” she said. “Then what happened was, I realized I can paint.”
Unlike Mrs. Pence, I’ve always painted, but work and kids got in the way. I picked up my brushes again when my youngest child was born, from the same need to escape the incessant demands of motherhood. I’d wager that isn’t uncommon.
Indiana First Lady Karen Pence takes in the 91st Annual Hoosier Salon Exhibition at the Indiana Historical Society, August 2015. (Courtesy of http://www.in.gov/)
What followed for Karen Pence was a series of house portrait commissions: well-executed and deeply traditional. As a politician’s wife, she’s had the opportunity to champion art to a broader audience. In 2008, she became the honorary chair of the Art Therapy Committee at the Riley Hospital for Children. The Indiana First Lady’s Charitable Foundation, has, during her tenure, focused on children, families and the arts.
Karen Pence also ran an Etsy shop, selling something she called “towel charms.” It was suspended during the election, but not before it was broadly ridiculed.
Indiana First Lady Karen Pence working with students from Southside Elementary School on an art exchange program with Japanese students. (Courtesy of http://www.in.gov/)
Those who lampooned her towel charms as ‘useless’ have apparently spent no time at all on Etsy, where whimsy is the by-word that has created an $85.3 million a year business. While I certainly wouldn’t defend her towel charms as ‘art,’ I would note that art is intended to be useless. In fact, lack of purpose is the primary distinction between fine art and fine craft.
Do I think Karen Pence is a great artist? No, but I hardly see how that matters. Teacher, wife, mother, artist, operator of an Etsy shop: it’s the resume of many working artists.
As we ponder how to close the gender gap in the art world (here and here), I suggest that we quit apologizing for being women. It’s not like male artists don’t work other jobs at points in their careers (including child care). The bottom line is, no matter what lip service they give to feminism, many intellectuals don’t really like the things women actually do.