11/12/2012 04:48 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

Norman Lear and Robert Rauschenberg

"It's very Maude. Very Norman Lear."

This was a friend's reply when I admired her long sweater coat. She told me it felt like the right thing to wear on election day. I said that Norman Lear, who is ninety years old and currently writing his memoirs, would surely have appreciated the homage.

I recently interviewed Lear at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation's new project space, and Maude, one of the sitcoms he co-produced in the 1970s, was among the topics we discussed. The show made history in 1972 with a storyline in which the title character, played by Bea Arthur, decided to have an abortion. The episode, like Lear himself, is very funny. And like its creator, it is simultaneously very serious.

Although much of his career is defined by television comedy, Norman Lear does not come off as a jokester. He is a careful listener, and when he speaks he uses precise gestures that complement his complete-sentence style of talking. He always wears his lucky hat, a white canvas pork pie model. This eccentric touch signals, I think, his openness to nonconformity, to magical thinking, and to people who live below the celebrity line. The majority of us, in other words. These qualities, and the chutzpah it takes to wear the same hat all the time, should be considered essential survival tools for progressives in today's political culture, recent election results notwithstanding.

Lear's serious side is well known. In 1981 he co-founded People for the American Way, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the support and promotion of democratic principles in this country. Less well known, however, is Lear's interest in, and involvement in, fine art. A longstanding collector, Lear was a close friend of the artist Robert Rauschenberg who, like Lear, was not shy about mixing creativity and politics. When we discussed their relationship (see here for a short video), Lear's quiet description of Rauschenberg somehow allowed me, and I think the audience as well, to experience something of the late artist's persona.

"Bob would have loved this," Lear said to me afterwards, gesturing around him. We were standing amidst the diverse portraits that comprise We the People, the art exhibition currently installed in the space. Several of Lear's sitcoms appear in the show's video portion, which I put together along with the exhibition's two curators, Jonathan Horowitz and Alison Gingeras. "Cousin Liz," the All in the Family episode featured in the exhibition, is Lear's favorite.

What I think Lear appreciated about We the People, and which prompted him to say that Rauschenberg would have approved, is its off-kilter counter-panorama of "the people." Assembling an idiosyncratic collection of types, the show is a bracing commentary on political advertising's demographic caricatures. Or pharmaceutical advertising. Or, most invidiously, the kind of PR campaign that multinational corporations launch in the wake of environmental catastrophe. In a world dominated by images such as these, it is a relief to hear Lear, calm and certain, tell us: "when the world is saved--and I think it requires saving now--the door will be opened by the arts, and the policies and politicians will follow."

We the People through Nov 17th at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Project Space, 455 West 19th Street