Essential Arts: New president, same old pandemic

A collage of inauguration images including Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, Donald Trump, Lady Gaga and Bernie Sanders.
Inauguration Day inspired its fair share of memes.
(Photo illustration by Micah Fluellen / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)

Welcome to the first Essential Arts newsletter of the President Biden era. I’m Times arts writer Jessica Gelt, filling in for the indefatigable Carolina Miranda with a rundown of the week’s culture news — the Bernie memes edition.

The Biden inauguration, with L.A. assists

The inauguration proceedings were a little surreal, what with the National Mall largely empty and the ceremony at the Capitol filled with ex-presidents in face coverings reminding us that we might have a new administration, but we’re still in the same old pandemic times.

Arts staffers here, like the rest of Twitter, were amused by the presence of the famously irascible Sen. Bernie Sanders sitting on a socially-distanced folding chair, wearing a bulky brown jacket with his legs crossed and brown-knit mittens on his hands, his surgical mask askew beneath his glasses. He was us and we were him, and a joyful internet meme was born: Inauguration Bernie digitally cut and pasted into a variety of historic scenes, including many famous works of art.


There was Bernie and his mittens sitting in the serene tableau of Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte”; perched on Van Gogh’s chair; behind Jesus in “The Last Supper”; reclining across from performance artist Marina Abramovic doing “The Artist Is Present”; and glowering in the glass window of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House 22, as photographed by Julius Shulman.

If Sanders’ gloomy face echoed our collective pain after months of confronting a potentially fatal virus and the prospect of civil war, then youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman represented our determination in the face of uncertainty, and our hope for a brighter future. In a sunny yellow dress, the 22-year-old L.A. native spoke about being a “skinny Black girl” raised by a single mother and dreaming of being president, only to find herself reciting for one. Her Twitter followers exploded past a million, and the president of Maryland University even offered her a job.

A less prominent inaugural contribution came from Altadena-based composer Peter Boyer, who wrote the fanfare played by the United States Marine Band during the one-hour prelude to the inauguration. Boyer told me in a phone interview the day before that he was keenly aware of the historical significance of the event and the pivotal moment in time during which it was to take place. His title: “Fanfare for Tomorrow.”

Light, loss and a cautionary but hopeful symbol

The day before the inauguration, then-President-elect Biden honored the 400,000 American lives lost to COVID-19. During a somber ceremony by the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington, Biden, joined by wife Jill Biden, then-Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, watched as 400 lights switched on along the perimeter of the water. If you missed the ceremony, you can see it in a post by Times staff writer Deborah Vankin, who notes that the LAX pylon lights and L.A. City Hall went amber as part of the coordinated national memorial.

The painting of the day

Times art critic Christopher Knight turns his eye on the symbolism of the official “inauguration painting” chosen by Jill Biden and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.): “Landscape With Rainbow,” a 1859 oil on canvas by Robert S. Duncanson. Knight notes that Duncanson was a prominent Black artist painting America on the “brink of catastrophe,” with the Civil War around the corner. “‘Landscape With Rainbow’ is a cautionary image painted as the seams of American union were being pulled apart,” Knight writes. “But it carries with it an unmistakable ray of hope: Rainbows typically appear after a storm has passed, not before.”

Robert S. Duncanson, "Landscape With Rainbow," 1859, oil on canvas.
(Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Inauguration as theater, with a new cast

Times theater critic Charles McNulty compares Donald Trump’s exit and Biden’s entrance as a contrast in performances, noting how Trump left telling onlookers to “have a good life” before boarding Air Force One to the “manufactured cheer” of the Village People anthem “Y.M.C.A.” Biden’s reentry on the world’s stage, McNulty writes, marked a return to dignity, and even inaugural performances by pop stars such as Lady Gaga, Garth Brooks and Jennifer Lopez “had an air of momentous sincerity.”

Lady Gaga is greeted by President-elect Joe Biden during his inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
(Associated Press)

Secretary of Culture, please

The start of a Biden administration presents opportunity for arts lovers longing for a president who cares about culture. Trump didn’t attend the Kennedy Center Honors, and he rarely awarded the National Medal of Arts (and when he did he gave it to political supporters such as Jon Voight and Toby Keith).

Times music critic Mark Swed has a suggestion for how Biden can elevate the arts once again: Create a Cabinet-level position of Secretary of Culture. Swed’s argument: “Standing outside politics (at least in principle), a Secretary of Culture could bring a broad social, economic, environmental and human perspective to the discussion of national policy in Cabinet meetings and in public forums.” You can click through to read more about Swed’s two suggestions for the post.

Wayne Brown, Biden and Deborah Borda
Biden flanked by Wayne Brown, left, and Deborah Borda.
(Gary Gershoff/WireWireImage; Matt Slocum/AP; Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

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A troll in the garden of heroes

One of Trump’s final acts as president was to sign an executive order for the creation of a so-called Heroes Garden, to be built at a future time in an as-of-yet undesignated place. Our columnist Carolina Miranda takes a closer look at that list of heroes and concluded that the project would be “the world’s most absurd sculpture garden” celebrating a largely white, male, Eurocentric legacy. She also notes that there are just 14 artists, architects and designers on the list, almost all of them white men. Only three were born in the 20th century.

On his way out the door, Trump signed an executive order to create a sculpture garden of heroes.

The kids are all right

Watching Gorman read her poetry and Harris ascend to the White House gave me hope for my two daughters. I have been worried about them during quarantine: Will a year without in-person learning affect their future? Are they depressed? How much do they miss their friends? Are they being damaged socially?

In an effort to get them out of the house and shake us free from our dreary pandemic routine, I took them to a drive-through event called “Jurassic Quest,” which features more than 70 massive animatronic dinosaurs. As grateful as I am for the diversion, I am reminded of how much I mourn our lost pre-pandemic world: the controlled chaos of art museum crowds, the crush of humanity at concerts, the collective sighs of delight and despair in darkened theaters.

The vaccine can’t come soon enough.

In other news

Christopher Knight writes about the Botticelli painting up for auction.

The pandemic turned an independent theater company into game designers.


Le Petit Cirque shares its fight for survival during the pandemic.

This man plays the organ to soothe people getting vaccinated inside an 800-year-old cathedral in Southwestern England.

Basquiat and Birdland, here are Matt Cooper’s 15 culture picks of the week.

And last but not least ...

I give you the Bernie Twitter memes, because, well, why not?