It is often customary, when writing about a person, to open with an image or an anecdote that illustrates something about them. When I sat down to write this story, which is about President Joe Biden, and particularly his influence on culture, I could think of very few. I tried to manufacture some, watching videos of his inauguration and subsequent speeches; looking at pictures of him in the Oval Office and reading about the art he had chosen for the White House; considering the Bidens’ Christmas decorations; even asking people I’d interviewed what cultural moments of his first year in the presidency had stuck with them. Yet everything I came up with felt forced.
The truth of the matter is that the first year of Biden’s presidency has been marked by a certain absence of striking symbolic images — an aesthetic lack.
This absence is particularly noticeable because the last two presidents reinforced the idea of the American president as a cultural-tastemaker-in-chief, albeit in very different ways. Barack Obama for years has put out year-end lists of his favorite contemporary fiction, music, movies and TV shows. He made a public March Madness bracket every year in office. As first lady, Michelle Obama became a style icon; her tastes were as closely followed as his. As Ta-Nehisi Coates documents in his essay “My President Was Black,” the Obamas invited to the White House musicians ranging from Bob Dylan to Tony Bennett to De La Soul; they had Chance the Rapper and Frank Ocean at a state dinner, and invited the rapper Common to perform over the objections of right-wing media.
On the heels of this, dizzyingly, Donald Trump sought to legally enforce neoclassical design in federal buildings and build a “National Garden of American Heroes” that would have statuified Bob Hope and Ben Franklin. First Lady Melania Trump’s Christmas décor, which included two long lines of faux, blood-red trees, earned mockery for its almost garish horror. There were heavy-handed symbols, employed both by supporters and detractors of his politics: the MAGA hats, the iconic swoop of hair. There was the flashy opulence of Mar-a-Lago and the red-white-and-blue of his raucous rallies. As Dan Zak observed in the Washington Post, Trump’s personal aesthetic — “the gold, the braggadocio, the huckster superlatives, the reality-TV staging, the all-encompassing obsession with his surname” — blended and clashed with the traditional norms of the presidency. But all of it was, anyway, striking.
Biden, meanwhile, doesn’t make a year-end Spotify playlist (one wonders: does he even use Spotify?). His inauguration was quiet. His Christmas decorations are not in any way notable. Perhaps his most defining fashion choice, a vestige of the image cultivated by the Onion during his VP years, is wearing aviator sunglasses, looking like a rockstar in retirement. He doesn’t generate any controversy with his decorative decisions. His most quintessential piece of Oval Office art, in my mind, is a 1917 painting he selected by Childe Hassam titled “The Avenue in the Rain.” Stars and stripes soaked in oil-painted rain — it’s easy-visualizing, a combination of impressionism and Americana. It’s also sentimental. Critic Glenn Adamson, just after Biden’s inauguration, referred to the painting’s “aesthetics of reassurance” amid our much-invoked challenging times. Who can reasonably object to a president’s choosing a painting like that? And who can really claim to find it interesting?
Steven Heller, co-chair of MFA Design Department at the School of Visual Arts, described Biden’s aesthetics, in a word, as “invisible.” “Biden,” Heller says, “is this kind of white fox who blends into this winter of our discontent.”
This is all, in a way, to be expected. It affirms Biden’s political messaging — the back-to-normalcy he promoted during the campaign, the implicit promise that he would be a boring president you wouldn’t have to think about, and the overall return to a man in the White House who resembles a 20th-century politician more than one who’s governing in the 21st. Perhaps especially during a pandemic, the fact that there is a certain absence of culture and images from the first year of his presidency hardly comes as a shock.
Still, it marks a shift — one that ultimately might say less about Biden and his administration, and more about the kinds of cultural icons Americans want today. In a country that’s increasingly divided, as well as increasingly heterogenous, and in a media landscape that’s increasingly fragmented, who is really looking toward the president for culture? Especially toward a president who is fashioning himself, more or less, as just a president.