Describing them as teachers, President Barack Obama said that two dozen recipients of national medals for contributions to the arts and humanities have created works that will last for American life.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you so much. (Applause.) Thank you. (Applause.) Hey! Thank you. Everybody, please have a seat. See, everybody is cheering because I’ve bought their books, I’ve seen their movies, I buy their records. (Laughter.) So we’re major contributors here.
Well, hello, everybody, and welcome to the White House. Thank you for joining us to celebrate the recipients of the 2012 — because I guess this is retrospective — National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medals.
One of the special privileges of this office is getting a chance to honor individuals who’ve played an important role in my life as well as in the nation’s life. And that’s what today is all about — celebrating some extraordinary men and women who’ve used their talents in the arts and the humanities to open up minds and nourish souls, and help us understand what it means to be human, and what it means to be an American.
I want to give some special thanks to the people who help to preserve and to support that cultural legacy — the Acting Chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Joan Shigekawa. Give Joan a big round of applause. (Applause.) Where is she? There she is. And her predecessor, the irrepressible Rocco Landesman — (applause) — as well as the Acting Chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Carole Watson. (Applause.) Both organizations do an incredible job lifting up some of today’s best artists and scholars, and helping to cultivate the next generation of talent and intellect.
And I’d like to also acknowledge the co-chairs of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, George Stevens, Jr. — where’s George? There he is. (Applause.) As well as Margo Lion — where’s Margo? Good to see you. (Applause.) As well as members of Congress who are here today, all of whom support the arts.
But we are primarily here to acknowledge these incredible individuals. And, frankly, this is just fun for me because I feel like I know you all because I’ve enjoyed your performances; your writings have fundamentally changed me — I think for the better, Marilynne. I believe that.
At first glance, this is a pretty diverse group. We’ve got incredible singers and dancers; we have poets and producers; musicians, playwrights, scholars. They come from all across the country, all around the world. And yet, for all their differences, today’s honorees have one thing in common — and that is they are teachers. Whether they realize it or not, they’ve taught us about ourselves and about our world.
American philosopher Will Durant once wrote, “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” And that’s an extraordinary skill — to tell the untold stories of history; to reveal the sculpture that’s waiting there in a block of stone; to transform written music into song; to make it look like those planes in space are actually flying like they are. (Laughter.) I’m just saying, I remember when I first saw Star Wars. (Laughter.) There’s a whole generation that thinks special effects always look like they do today. (Laughter.) But it used to be you’d see, like, the string — (laughter) — on the little model spaceships. Anyway, I’m being led astray. (Laughter.)
Because the arts and the humanities aren’t just a source of entertainment, they challenge us to think and to question and to discover, to seek that inward significance — and that helps us grow and to change and to reach new heights, and to understand each other at a time when the world is constantly crying for the capacity to bridge that gap and speak to people who aren’t like us.
And that’s exactly what these artists and these humanists have done — by working hard, developing their craft, following their dreams, never giving up.
Somebody like Allen Toussaint, who is being honored here for his incredible contributions to the rhythm and blues and jazz music of his beloved New Orleans. After his hometown was battered by Katrina and Allen was forced to evacuate, he did something even more important for his city — he went back. And since then, Allen has devoted his musical talent to lifting up and building up a city. And today, he’s taking the stage all over the world, with all kinds of incredible talent, doing everything he can to revive the legendary soul of the Big Easy.
Somebody like Ernest Gaines, who grew up as the descendent of sharecroppers in the South and farming the same land as his ancestors. He did not let that define his future. Instead, he took that experience and used it to help fill in gaps in American literature with the stories of African American life. And then, Ernest moved back to Louisiana, onto the very same land he and his family had once worked. And he spent more than 20 years teaching college students to find their own voices and reclaiming some of the stories of their own families and their own lives.
Somebody like Joan Didion, who, rightly, has earned distinction as one of most celebrated American writers of her generation. I’m surprised she hasn’t already gotten this award. (Laughter.) But in her early years, she was in school only sporadically, basically taught herself how to read while she and her family followed her Army officer father around the country. She obviously learned quickly. She won a contest for Vogue in college; gave up her dream of being an oceanographer, writing became her world. And today, decades into her career, she remains one of our sharpest and most respected observers of American politics and culture.
What’s true for those three is true for all the recipients here. So many of you have touched me and touched Michelle, and now we’re trying to get them to — Malia and Sasha to see some of Anna’s work, or read “The Iliad*” because we want to share that, because we think it was important to us.
And we celebrate people like our honorees here today not just because of their talent, but because they create something new. They create a new space and that becomes a lasting contribution to American life. And that’s true for all of these honorees.
So together, the men and women with us today have helped us appreciate individual talent, but as I said earlier, they’ve also helped us to bridge our differences — to recognize all the things we share as Americans, whether it’s arts or humanities or sports.
Frank, I grew up reading Sports Illustrated, and I think it was very good for me. I don’t know about you. (Laughter.) Because all these endeavors, they don’t discriminate, they don’t prejudge — they speak to all of us equally if we’re open to it. They’re part of all of our common heritage. They convey all these distinct voices and emotions and stories, and that’s us. That’s who we are.
So for more than 200 years that culture has helped shape our views of democracy and freedom and tolerance and progress. Sometimes the observations or the incredible art or scholarship that’s been done by these honorees are overlooked, but somewhere they’re having an impact. And like Bobby Kennedy talked about, they create “ripples of hope.” They’re like stones in a lake, and it emanates, and we never know exactly how, or who, will be touched by it. But it makes a difference. And it’s made us better.
And the work that we honor today, the lifetime achievement of these artists and these scholars, reminds us that the human imagination is still the most powerful tool that we have as a people. That’s why we celebrate their creativity and the fundamental optimism, the notion that if they work that hard somebody will actually pay attention. That’s why we have to remain committed to the dreamers and the creators and innovators who fuel that progress and help us light the way ahead, because our children, our grandchildren deserve to grow up in a country where their dreams know no bounds and their ambitions extend as far as their talents and hard work can take them. And it’s important that they have examples — people who’ve carved out a path for them.
So I want to thank today’s honorees for doing their part to foster that spirit, to enrich our entire nation. Every one of them has helped us see beyond outward appearances and appreciate the significance of what’s within. And for that we are incredibly grateful.
So it is now my privilege to present these medals to each of them as one of our military aides reads their citations. (Applause.)
(The citations are read and the medals are awarded.)
MILITARY AIDE: National Medal of Arts recipients:
Herb Alpert. (Applause.) For his varied contributions to music and the fine arts. The musician behind Tijuana Brass phenomenon and co-founder of A&M Records, which launched several storied careers, Mr. Alpert is also a philanthropist who shares the power of arts education with young people across our country. (Applause.)
Lin Arison. (Applause.) For her contributions as a philanthropist and arts education advocate. Co-founder of the National YoungArts Foundation and the New World Symphony, Ms. Arison’s work celebrates, showcases, and supports the next generation of great American artists. (Applause.)
Joan Myers Brown. (Applause.) For her contributions as a dancer, choreographer and artistic director. Founder of the Philadelphia Dance Company, Ms. Brown carved out an artistic haven for African American dancers and choreographers to innovate, create, and share their unique visions with the national and global dance communities. (Applause.)
Renée Fleming. (Applause.) For her contributions to American music. Known to many as “the people’s diva,” Ms. Fleming has captivated audiences around the world with an adventurous repertoire spanning opera and the classical tradition to jazz and contemporary pop. (Applause.)
Ernest J. Gaines. (Applause.) For his contributions as an author and teacher. Drawing deeply from his childhood in the rural South, his works have shed new light on the African American experience and given voice to those who have endured injustice. (Applause.)
Ellsworth Kelly. (Applause.) For his contributions as a painter, sculptor and printmaker. A careful observer of form, color and the natural world, Mr. Kelly has shaped more than half a century of abstraction and remains a vital influence in American art. (Applause.)
Tony Kushner. (Applause.) For his contributions to American theater and film. Whether for the stage or the silver screen, his scripts have moved audiences worldwide, marrying humor to fury, history to fantasy, and the philosophical to the personal. (Applause.)
George Lucas. (Applause.) For his contributions to American cinema. By combining the art of storytelling with boundless imagination and cutting-edge techniques, Mr. Lucas has transported us to new worlds and created some of the most beloved and iconic films of all time. (Applause.)
Elaine May. (Applause.) For her contributions to American comedy. With groundbreaking wit and a keen understanding of how humor can illuminate our lives, Ms. May has evoked untold joy, challenged expectations, and elevated spirits across our nation. (Applause.)
Laurie Olin. (Applause.) For his contributions as a preeminent landscape architect. Renowned for his acute sense of harmony and balance between nature and design, Mr. Olin has dedicated his energy to shaping many iconic spaces around the world and to educating new leaders in his art. (Applause.)
Allen Toussaint. (Applause.) For his contributions as a composer, producer and performer. Born and raised in New Orleans, Mr. Toussaint has built a legendary career alongside America’s finest musicians, sustaining his city’s rich tradition of rhythm and blues, and lifting it to the national stage. (Applause.)
Accepting on behalf of Washington Performing Arts Society, Jenny Bellfield. (Applause.) For bringing world-class performances to our Nation’s Capital. From concert hall premieres to in-school workshops, Washington Performing Arts Society has drawn renowned artists to the Washington community and inspired generations of young performers to follow their passions. (Applause.)
National Humanities Medal recipients:
Edward L. Ayers. (Applause.) For his commitment to making our history as widely available and accessible as possible. Dr. Ayers’s innovations in digital humanities extend higher learning beyond campus boundaries and allow broad audiences to discover the past in new ways. (Applause.)
Accepting on behalf of William G. Bowen, David Bowen. (Applause.) For his contributions to the study of economics and his probing research on higher education in America. While his widely discussed publications have scrutinized the effects of policy, Dr. Bowen has used his leadership to put theories into practice and strive for new heights of academic excellence.
Jill Ker Conway. (Applause.) For her contributions as a historian and trailblazing academic leader. Dr. Conway has inspired generations of scholars, and her studies of exceptional and empowered women have revealed a common drive that unites women across the globe to create, to lead, and to excel. (Applause.)
Natalie Zemon Davis. (Applause.) For her insights into the study of history and her exacting eloquence in bringing the past into focus. With vivid description and exhaustive research, her works allow us to experience life through our ancestors’ eyes and to engage truly with our history. (Applause.)
Frank Deford. (Applause.) For transforming how we think about sports. A dedicated writer and storyteller, Mr. Deford has offered a consistent, compelling voice in print and on radio, reaching beyond scores and statistics to reveal the humanity woven into the games we love. (Applause.)
Joan Didion. (Applause.) For her mastery of style in writing. Exploring the culture around us and exposing the depths of sorrow, Ms. Didion has produced works of startling honesty and fierce intellect, rendered personal stories universal, and illuminated the seemingly peripheral details that are central to our lives. (Applause.)
Robert D. Putnam. (Applause.) For deepening our understanding of community in America. Examining how patterns of engagement divide and unite, Dr. Putnam’s writing and research inspire us to improve institutions that make society worth living in, and his insights challenge us to be better citizens. (Applause.)
Marilynne Robinson. (Applause.) For her grace and intelligence in writing. With moral strength and lyrical clarity, Dr. Robinson’s novels and nonfiction have traced our ethical connections to people in our lives, explored the world we inhabit, and defined universal truths about what it means to be human. (Applause.)
Kay Ryan. (Applause.) For her contributions as a poet and educator. A former Poet Laureate of the United States, her witty and compact verse infused with subtle wordplay, reminds us of the power of language to evoke wisdom from the ordinary. (Applause.)
Robert B. Silvers. (Applause.) For offering critical perspectives on writing. As the editor and co-founder of The New York Review of Books, he has invigorated our literature with cultural and political commentary, and elevated the book review to a literary art form. (Applause.)
Anna Deavere Smith. (Applause.) For her portrayal of authentic American voices. Through profound performances and plays that blend theater and journalism, she has informed our understanding of social issues and conveyed a range of disparate characters. (Applause.)
Camilo José Vergara. (Applause.) For his stark visual representation of American cities. By capturing images of urban settings over time, his sequences reflect the vibrant culture of our changing communities and document the enduring spirit that shines through decay. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Let’s give our honorees one more big round of applause. (Applause.)
Well, I could not imagine a more deserving group of honorees. We are thrilled to have them here.
Fear not, the party is not over. (Laughter.) My understanding is the food here at the White House is not bad. (Laughter.) And we may get some nice tunes from our Marine Band — they can play anything, so feel free to make requests. (Laughter.)
But to all the honorees, thank you, again, for enriching our lives in so many different ways. We’re going to have an opportunity to see you and your families, and take some pictures with the honorees. In the meantime, enjoy the reception. And thank you all. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. Thank you. (Applause.)
At a White House ceremony on July 10, 2013, Obama awarded medals to 23 singers, dancers, poets, producers, playwrights, scholars and others, and one performing arts organization.
Medal of Arts Recipients:
- Herb Alpert, of Malibu, Calif., the musician behind the Tijuana Brass phenomenon and co-founder of A&M records
- Lin Arison, of Bal Harbour, Fla., co-founder of the National Young Arts Foundation and the New World Symphony
- Joan Myers Brown, of Philadelphia, founder of the Philadelphia Dance Company
- Renee Fleming, of New York, soprano known to many as “the people’s diva.”
- Ernest J. Gaines, of Oscar, La., author who drew on his childhood in the rural South in his work
- Ellsworth Kelly, of Spencertown, N.Y., painter, sculptor and printmaker
- Tony Kushner, of New York, playwright
- George Lucas, of San Anselmo, Calif., Filmaker
- Elaine May, of New York, for contributions to American comedy
- Laurie Olin, of Philadelphia, landscape architect
- Allen Toussaint, composer, producer and performer born and raised in New Orleans
- Washington Performing Arts Society, of Washington, D.C.
2013 National Humanities Medal Recipients:
- Edward L. Ayers, of Henrico, Va., historian
- William G. Bowen, of Princeton, N.J., former Princeton University president and academic leader
- Jill Ker Conway, of Boston, historian and academic leader
- Natalie Zemon Davis, of Toronto, historian
- Frank Deford, of New York, sportswriter
- Joan Didion, of New York, author
- Robert Putnam, of Cambridge, Mass., social scientist and Harvard professor
- Marilynne Robinson, of Iowa City, Iowa, author
- Kay Ryan, of Fairfax, Calif., former poet laureate of the United States
- Robert B. Silvers, of New York, editor and co-founder of The New York Review of Books
- Anna Deavere Smith, of New York, actress and playwright
- Camilo José Vergara, of New York, photographer and documentarian