The nation’s highest awards for the arts and the humanities aren’t about politics, one president after another has said; rather, they’re about celebrating the artists and scholars whose work best represents American ideals of freedom, openness and creativity.
But when one set of presidents honors conservative icons such as Midge Decter, Hilton Kramer and the Hoover Institution, and another set of presidents bestows medals upon liberal voices such as Anna Deavere Smith, Toni Morrison and Philip Roth, a political message is being sent.
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.”
More recently, the City University of New York rescinded an invitation to Kushner to receive an honorary degree because of allegations by a college trustee that the playwright had insulted the state of Israel. The invitation was later restored. Kushner has called the removal of Palestinians from their homes in Israeli-occupied territories ethnic cleansing, but he said he is a strong supporter of Israel’s right to exist.
Many of this year’s choices are less controversial, including screenwriter and playwright Elaine May, who was half of the 1950s comedy team Nichols and May and went on to direct movies such as “The Heartbreak Kid” and co-write films such as “Tootsie” and “Reds.”
Another arts medal is going to George Lucas, creator of the “Star Wars” franchise, which helped introduce the blockbuster culture that has dominated Hollywood since the 1970s. “Star Wars” represented a break from the cynicism and edgy aesthetics that defined post-Vietnam cinema, instead immersing viewers in a nostalgic “far, far away” world that had more to do with the movie serials and sci-fi adventures of baby boomers’ youths than with the probing self-examination that characterized movies in the years just before “Star Wars.”
Lucas is less well-known for his important contributions to the medium in sound and visual effects technology. With the THX sound system and his Industrial Light & Magic firm, Lucas vastly improved the clarity and precision of image and sound, which audiences now take for granted in theaters and home entertainment systems.
Among the music awardees this year is Allen Toussaint, a songwriter and producer who wove New Orleans’ rich, dense musical history into the R&B, funk and soul of the 1960s and ’70s. He’s an alchemist who took a local sound and made it universal — sparking imitations and echoes in the work of the Rolling Stones, Glen Campbell and scores of hip-hop producers.
Herb Alpert’s A&M Records introduced many Americans to mariachi and Brazilian music, and then went on to make a huge impact on pop music, producing hit albums by Carole King, Cat Stevens, Janet Jackson, the Police and Soundgarden.
Alpert and Toussaint also share a connection: “Whipped Cream,” the title track of Alpert and the Brass’s chart-topping 1965 album, was written by “Naomi Neville,” Toussaint’s pseudonym.
There’s only one Washington-area honoree on this year’s list, an arts medal for the Washington Performing Arts Society. Medals have been given to arts institutions and sponsors before, including Hallmark Cards and Exxon Corporation (both under President Ronald Reagan), the MacDowell artists colony (Clinton), the Interlochen Center for the Arts summer camp (George W. Bush) and the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival (Obama).
But WPAS gets its award before Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center, and the honor comes just as the D.C. organization has embarked on a major change of direction, having hired a new leader, Jenny Bilfield. The award reflects the 10-year tenure of her predecessor, Neale Perl, who ramped up WPAS’s educational activities and presented an increasing number of rising artists.
Although this year’s list is weighted heavily toward New York artists and scholars, the medalists do include some regional figures, such as Joan Myers Brown, who has brought African American dance and dancers into the national spotlight by founding Philadanco (the Philadelphia Dance Company) and by supporting black dance artists around the country by creating the International Association of Blacks in Dance and the International Conference of Black Dance Companies.
Honorees often recall their moment in the White House as a career highlight. The poet Donald Hall, who won an arts medal in 2010, cherished his brief embrace with Obama, but noted that “honors inevitably bring on self-doubt. Everyone knows that all medals are rubber.”
For a full list of this year’s medal recipients, visit bit.ly/neamedals
Washington Post critics Ann Hornaday, Sarah Kaufman, Peter Marks, Anne Midgette and Chris Richards contributed to this report.