Annals of Cultural Diplomacy: Obama and Ed Ruscha

“Words matter.” This was what Obama said during his campaign. Did his celebrated belief in—and unique gift with—language factor into his choice of artist Ed Ruscha when considering a gift for the British Prime Minister? And is the fact that David Cameron, in return, gave our American President a piece of art composed of words similarly significant? Or, was it simply casual coincidene. Even if the latter, it is hard not to remark on the gifts symbolizing the “shared language” of these two nations, one reason for the historical special relationship.


Many of Ruscha’s most beautiful canvases consist of words. The print Obama chose, Column With Speed Lines, does not, and so it may not be, to those less familiar with the artist’s work, immediately identifiable. But when we think about visual artists who use words as tools we think of Ruscha first among equals in twentieth-century art. His works are beautiful in their politics. Google image him, and you’ll see.

There is no Ruscha canvas that reads SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP, but this recent exchange of art feels inimitably Anglo-American, especially when the artists in question employ language any English or American school child would know. The Daily Beast framed the transaction through the lens of the art world:

“The exchange indicates a new moment for contemporary art. It signifies that art is a currency for gratitude and esteem, and that these works are measurable national treasures.”

Yes, and: the transaction says something not only about the essential modernity of these two leaders (there being a certain conscious absence of pretense in their choices), but as well something about these men’s essential urbanity. Ruscha may be as American as an iPod, but his skill—and his message—is vastly more cerebral and sophisticated. Ruscha might be the artist Jackie Kennedy would have chosen for a diplomatic exchange. The former First Lady paid deep, reverent attention to the relationship between art and diplomacy, and knew that the things with which we surround ourselves can serve as uniquely powerful symbols of our ideals and our intentions, as uniquely powerful as the things that we say, or the bills that we sign.

Whether or not Ruscha’s market value rises as a result of this, something in Obama’s fundamental ideology has been confirmed: intelligence. Ruscha was an intelligent choice, a cool choice, and a choice that affirms the power of language as a tool which, when used well, has the power to change the world. Or, at the very least, to solder diplomacy.

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