Al Gore favors public funding for the arts, has a passion for van Gogh—and relaxes by painting abstractions.
When I asked Albert Gore, Jr., to name his favorite artists, he began by insisting, “I don’t consider myself an expert in any way.” Then, without a moment’s hesitation, the vice president reeled off the following list: van Gogh, Vermeer, Chuck Close, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Red Grooms, and Mary Cassatt. With a chuckle and pride in his voice, he added, “You know, Red Grooms is a Tennessean!” When I pressed him for his absolute favorite, he named van Gogh. Why? “Because of the raw emotion that just leaps off the canvas at you.”
In a wide-ranging interview from his car phone, the Democratic presidential candidate spoke to ARTnews about his own efforts as an artist, his commitment to federal support for the arts and the humanities, and his opposition to censorship in the arts. Gore has been interested in art since childhood. In his new book, The Prince of Tennessee: The Rise of Al Gore, David Maraniss reports that Gore took art classes at the St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., for nine years and that he paints abstractions. Buddy Hillow, a former classmate, told Maraniss, “His painting was bold, abstract, vibrant…. He wasn’t concerned with painting reality, with making a realistic statement
…. He used his painting as a sword. I think there’s something about the way a person paints or gardens that is a much more powerful expression of personality than words.”
Prompted by this bit of Gore’s history, I told him that I knew his favorite medium was watercolor and asked if he still painted. Yes, he answered, “I also work in tempera. It’s very relaxing. I don’t have as much time to paint as I would like, and no time at the moment.” When I asked him if he would allow ARTnewsto publish one of his works, he paused and then said, “Let me think about that.”
We moved on to another subject, but Gore returned to my request to reproduce one of his works. “I recently did a collage in an elementary school in Columbus, Ohio,” he said. “The teacher gave a free-form assignment and set a time limit of 20 minutes. I sat at a desk with the students and worked with scissors, paste, and paper. My collage was about the world and its environment. You can reproduce it if you want.”
Mary Ann Burns, the principal of Avondale Elementary School, later described the collage Gore made in Tonya Pace’s third-grade class: “It’s a picture of the earth seen from space. The continents of Africa and Antarctica are prominent. You have the brown desert with the Great Pyramid, a blue ocean, green grass, and a white Antarctica. The vice president wasn’t finished, and his staff wanted him to stop. He said, ‘I’m not leaving until I’m done.’ It appeared to me that the work was completed, but later in the day he put the finishing touches on it in my office. You can photograph it, but you can’t have it!”
I asked Gore what he thought about a statement made by Paul Mellon, the late philanthropist and art collector. Mellon once said that he wanted to provide those less privileged than himself with a “five-cent reverie.” That’s why he built museums and donated works of art to them. Yet many people in the United States are still deprived of the cultural experiences that enrich our lives. Does Gore think that, as president, he could do anything to ameliorate this situation?
“I strongly believe in encouraging and supporting the arts and humanities,” he answered. “The arts are an important part of our lives and our history. A lot of creative energy has moved into areas that have a wider impact than ever before—the movies, TV, and the Internet. I think that we may look back on some of these new forms as the cutting edge of art in the 21st century.”
In Congress, Gore supported the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and opposed slashing its funds. Since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Republican leadership has threatened the viability, if not the very existence, of both the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The Clinton-Gore administration made it known that it would veto legislation to destroy the endowments. At present, the NEA receives $97.6 million and the NEH $110 million annually.
I asked Gore how, as president, he would deal with both agencies and their critics. Without reference to any specific case, he responded, “There should not be censorship. There should be the use of sound judgment on the part of the people with artistic integrity. They should make decisions based on the creative value of the works involved. Decisions have to be made, and they should be made according to artistic sensibility and common sense. “I believe in the importance of museums and federal funding for the arts,” he summed up. “I have always been a strong supporter of federal funding for the arts. I have always been a strong supporter of a federal role in making art and art programs, music, and community theater available. I will continue the current policy of support.”
Gore has also pushed the Department of Education’s “Goals 2000,” which calls for including the arts in public-school core curricula. I asked him about his philosophy of education. Does he think we have come so far in our pursuit of a narrow political approach to education (that is, training), as opposed to a broad liberal education (that is, knowledge), that thinkers and artists such as Thomas Jefferson are no longer relevant to the body politic?
“No, I don’t agree with that,” Gore answered. “I think you’re seeing right now the beginning of a movement away from specialized education back to a holistic approach.”
Gore said that he enjoys “surrounding myself with works of art and, when able, visiting artists’ studios, listening to music, and going to the theater.” The Gore family’s move into the vice president’s residence on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory coincided with the 100th birthday of the house. To celebrate, the Gores decided to fill the Victorian mansion with art suitable to its age, under the aegis of the Vice President’s Residence Foundation. Working with a group of trusted friends—Memphis native Lucia Gilliland; Chicago collector Susan Manilow; another old Tennessee friend, Jane Siena, now a project specialist at the Getty Conservation Institute (and the wife of this writer); and Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Art—Tipper Gore began to borrow paintings from several Washington museums. The works she has selected over the past seven years tend toward the bright and colorful, reflecting the family’s taste and temperament, as well as works appropriate to the period of the house. The favored artists include American Impressionists Frederick C. Frieseke, Childe Hassam, Henry Siddons Mowbray, George Gardner Symons, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Edmund Charles Tarbell, Abbott Thayer, and Julian Alden Weir, and later masters Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, William Glackens, George Luks, and Fairfield Porter, among others. A WPA work by William Bunn is also in the mix, as are pieces by immigrant artists Ilya Bolotowsky and Robert Brachman. In 1996 the foundation commissioned a new work by Jamie Wyeth, titled The Vice President’s Residence, which features the family dog, Shiloh, scampering on the snowy lawn in front of the house. Photographs, both historical (copies of works in the Library of Congress archives) and contemporary, are displayed in the visitors’ entrance.
Among the photos are a few by Tipper Gore. She is an accomplished photographer who began her career at the Nashville Tennessean. She still takes pictures constantly, everywhere. In 1996 she published Picture This: A Visual Diary (Broadway Books), and in 1999 she spearheaded the exhibition
and accompanying publication “The Way Home: Ending Homelessness in America,” organized by the Corcoran Gallery (on view at the Los Angeles Public Library through the 15th of this month), which includes her photos along with those of 12 other photographers. Tipper Gore’s major causes are mental health and homelessness, and she believes strongly in the power of photography to “illuminate” those controversial subjects. “Photographs can touch the soul and motivate people to take action,” she wrote in the catalogue. The other photos in the visitors’ entrance to the house include arresting images by the young photographers featured in “Picture L.A.: Landmarks of a New Generation,” a show sponsored by the Getty Conservation Institute, for which young people of various backgrounds were asked to photograph the sights they considered landmarks.
The mansion that the Gores have so enthusiastically filled with art brought to mind Bernard Berenson, the renowned art historian. Berenson spent most of his 94 years trying to turn himself into a work of art and often commented on the process in his writings. The elements he welded together were art, literature, music, people, animals, and nature. They composed what he called his “house of life.” When I asked the vice president what he thought of Berenson’s approach, he reacted with gusto. “As we need clean air and water to live, we also need the arts to understand our world and our lives,” Gore said. “Artists and poets are at the frontiers of perception and have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to show us a meaning that has not yet been articulated or conceptualized in word or image. They show us what has been obscured from our vision."
M. Kirby Talley, Jr., is a contributing editor of ARTnews.