Elena Kagan can appreciate opera but not visual art?

My heart sank when I read this about potential US Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan:

At some point probably in the late 1980s, Kagan had an encounter with a young associate at a mergers and acquisitions firm. According to [Carol] Steiker [who was interviewed about Kagan in the New York Times]:

“He was single and he had no family and he was earning — the sum seemed unimaginable — $750,000 a year as a young partner. So she asked the guy, ’What do you do with all that money?’ And he said, ‘I buy art.’  I remember her telling that story and just shaking her head.”

It is fine, laudable even, not to be motivated by money. But why so dismissive of the desire to purchase art? Does art leave Kagan cold?

The Supremes — as I like to call them — aren’t known for their love of visual art but there may be an exception, Justice Stephen Breyer, who floored a curator at a dinner party some years ago when he brought up Poussin. I should mention that Kagan isn’t a total culture-hater as she does love opera — which is also admired by justices Anthony Scalia, Ruth Ginsburg, and Anthony Kennedy.

The blog post over at ARTicles by MJ Andersen also has this great line as to why Kagan should give visual art another look:

A discerning eye does more than keep a judge well-rounded. It keeps her responsive to what she beholds, and to all that resists interpretation.

Well put.

West entrance of the US Supreme Court (photo by dbking)

I should also mention that critic Christopher Knight, of the LA Times, has a question he’s dying to ask Kagan: Do you support reopening the front doors of the United States Supreme Court to the people?

Earlier this month, the court ruled 7-2 to restrict access to the entrance which was crowned with the inspirational words, “Equal Justice Under Law.” the reason? Like everything else nowadays, the catch-all reason of security. Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued a separate statement that called the change unfortunate and unjustified. My question is: How can you uphold the ideas of democracy if you chisel away at the all important symbols, which inspire us to strive for the impossible?

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

12 replies on “What Does SCOTUS Nominee Elena Kagan Have Against Art?”

  1. I found your mention of closing the doors of the Supreme Court particularly interesting. Our new “closed door” democracy. Only a few can pass through the entrance.

    Art seems to be battling out, now, as well. Will we have an “open door” or “closed door” culture?

      1. I don’t think anyone should jump to any conclusions from that anectdote. C’mon. She could have been “shaking her head” at the absurd salary. Let’s have a bit more information before we jump to any conclusions. If we want to know her opinions about art, let’s ask her, or do some more research, but not instantly react to some two line anecdote. I expect a bit more from Hyperallergic.

        1. She hasn’t been on the record for anything. And we need to start a discussion somewhere. In this day and age the individuals in power are tight-lipped and try to give out as little information as possible. I bet you we’ll never know. And honestly, do you think she would have reacted the same if he said I bought a mansion or I travel the world?

  2. My point is that this anecdote is far from conclusive. One doesn’t have any clear idea what transpired. Did she shrug at the “art buying”, the salary, or perhaps a muscle twinge. We certainly have no idea. For me, it is not as important what a nominees specific views are, but rather they show indications that they will grow and evolve over the years in their views. We can always send Elena a subscription to Hyperallergic so she can learn the value of art. The important thing would be whether she was open to learning…

    1. It certainly isn’t conclusive. We need to wait and see. Maybe my post is partly a lament to the fact that art is so far outside the consciousness of many American leaders.

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