When President Obama hands out this year’s National Humanities Medals and National Medals of Arts at an East Room ceremony Wednesday, he will make a markedly different statement than his predecessors. By honoring William Bowen, the former Princeton University president who wrote one of the most rigorous defenses of affirmative action, and Tony Kushner, the playwright who turned the AIDS epidemic into a metaphor for a society suffering from a selfishness intrinsically linked to Reaganism, he takes a stand in the nation’s continuing culture wars.
The honorees are selected by the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, whose chairmen are appointed by the president.
Obama is by no means the first president whose arts and humanities awards aligned his administration with a particular intellectual approach. George W. Bush’s annual honorees tended to celebrate tradition, broad appeal and middle American tastes: He honored conservative actor Robert Duvall, jazz traditionalist Wynton Marsalis, the genial TV host Art Linkletter, the PBS show Austin City Limits, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.
Bill Clinton shared Bush’s preference for celebrities, but his administration’s choices tended to come from more liberal sectors of the culture, such as Hollywood (Robert Redford, Gregory Peck, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee) and media (Studs Terkel, Garrison Keillor, Norman Lear and National Public Radio).
Some choices seem to be above politics: When Obama honors Tijuana Brass trumpeter and record label mogul Herb Alpert this year, when Bush gave an arts medal to electric guitar pioneer Les Paul or when Clinton honored violinist Isaac Stern, ideology does not appear to be at play.
But the 24 honorees that Obama’s staff selected this year continue this administration’s turn away from celebrities and, especially in the humanities choices, toward writers and academics known for strong and even harsh critiques of U.S. government and policy. Journalist Joan Didion’s early writings against American policy in Central America and editor Robert Silvers’ direction of the New York Review of Books as a forum for criticism of U.S. policy from Vietnam to Iraq, along with Kushner’s work as an acutely political playwright, indicate a view of the medals as an opportunity to support a certain stripe of artistic and intellectual activism.
Although some administrations have sought to avoid controversy in their selections, the choice of Kushner represents the opposite pole. The playwright, one of eight New York City residents among the 24 honorees, wrote a scathing short play in 2004 in which Laura Bush reads a bedtime story to Iraqi children who have been killed by American bombs. Kushner is best known for his two-part AIDS/Age of Reagan play “Angels in America.”