The people who receive the National Medal of Arts are usually drowning in recognition for decades of creativity. But when the same household names were summoned to the Oval Office yesterday to receive the government's highest acknowledgment for the arts, they said it felt different.
"This is one of the greatest honors," said George Jones, the country music legend who has 40 years of awards back home in Nashville. Receiving an honor from the president, he said, was just as good as being elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame. "I never dreamed I would meet Roy Acuff, my idol when I was a little boy . . . much less being on the Grand Ole Opry with him. I never dreamed these things would happen, especially if you come out of the Big Thicket of East Texas."
William "Smokey" Robinson, the legendary Motown singer-songwriter, said just getting the call about the award made him think about his country. "It is different in many ways, especially right now. It is almost like a patriotic award. It feels very American to me," said Robinson. "Plus I am getting it right from the president. Man, you can't ask for more than that."
Jones and Robinson, both clad in black, joined the seven other luminaries in a holding room at the Mayflower Hotel before boarding a bus for the ceremony with President Bush. The White House closed the event to the media because of scheduling and security concerns. Potential honorees are nominated by the public, then the National Endowment for the Arts advisory board pares the list and sends it to the president, who makes the final selections.
In addition to Jones and Robinson, the recipients were Florence Knoll Bassett, the designer and architect; Trisha Brown, the dancer and choreographer; Philippe de Montebello, the art historian and director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Uta Hagen, the actor and teacher; Lawrence Halprin, the landscape architect; the late Al Hirschfeld, the artist and show business caricaturist; and Ming Cho Lee, the set designer and educator.
"We honor these individuals for the singular distinction of their artistic careers," said Dana Gioia, the NEA chairman. "Whether they were creating stunning choreography, reconceiving contemporary stage design or adding Motown to our nation's musical vocabulary, these remarkable people have made significant contributions to our nation's cultural life."
Though politics is the undercurrent of every occasion in Washington and war seems imminent, the artists were steering clear of controversy. "I'm mum on that," said Robinson. De Montebello demurred, too. "I'm an art historian. I have no perspective. I don't think he wants my advice on the matter," he said.
And Hagen expressed her lifelong belief that that was just as well. Artists who speak out on political issues without studying do more harm than good, she said. "I don't think we are politicians," Hagen said, adding: Those who hold forth on things they know little about "make fools of themselves, and they downgrade our profession."