Art and architecture critic

The recipients of the first Kennedy Center Honors in 1978 were beyond stellar. They were legends, household names and artists with enormous influence and still unfolding historical impact. Marian Anderson’s 1939 performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was a powerful and dignified early step on the march to African American civil rights; George Balanchine was the most important choreographer working in the United States, with an unparalleled legacy of work; Richard Rodgers wrote every beloved song that George Gershwin didn’t; prominent ballet stars have called Fred Astaire the greatest dancer of the century; and Arthur Rubenstein defined the aristocratic piano tradition for generations.

The next year, 1979, was just as good, with honors going to Aaron Copland, Ella Fitzgerald, Henry Fonda, Martha Graham and Tennessee Williams. And for the next few years after that, the selections offered a coherent picture of American creative culture, with the high arts in the lead and the popular arts respectfully along for the ride. Today, however, the choices rarely inspire much enthusiasm; the honorees are respected but hardly iconic; the annual telecast of the ceremony is a superficial spectacle full of cultural solecisms; and audiences who care primarily about the traditional arts that are central to the Kennedy Center’s daily activity find little to interest them.

This year’s nominees are consistent with the longer arc of the Honors, which has tended away from an early focus on the traditional performing arts in favor of more popular, commercial or entertainment-driven media. With honors going to the Eagles, Carole King, George Lucas, Rita Moreno, Cicely Tyson and Seiji Ozawa, the honors include only one artist — Ozawa — who is primarily devoted to the fine arts.

One can quibble, of course. Cicely Tyson is a great actress with credits in the serious theater; Carole King’s songs define a new “classical” tradition of American song. The Kennedy Center Honors, which have always been vaguely defined, seem designed to invite quibbling, with an exception to almost any rule one can propose when analyzing the choices. It is a lifetime achievement award, except when it goes to an artist or entertainer who is still in mid-career; it honors artistic impact and excellence, except when it goes to television celebrities with little or no direct participation in the arts; it celebrates the arts in America, though the honorees need not be American, and it has often honored people who have built their careers on foreign shores. But the elasticity of how they are defined is now simply a smoke screen for hiding the obvious: They have become an all-purpose celebrity/entertainment/media award.

Those in charge of the Honors, including the center’s recently arrived President Deborah F. Rutter, stress the diversity of the honorees as a primary strength of the award. When this year’s honorees were announced, Rutter praised them as “artists who defy both convention and category.” In an interview after the announcement, Rutter says the awards strike a balance between traditional and newer art forms: “My goal is to deepen the role of the classical artistic art forms in our society and demonstrate the critical role they play,” she said. “But the performing arts are an evolving, growing expression of humanity.” New art forms, and new forms of creative expression, only stay new for a while; eventually they are canonized, alongside all the others.

Choreographer George Balanchine sits with President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter, at the Kennedy Center during the taping of a gala honoring the award of the first annual Kennedy Center Honors on Dec. 4, 1978. (Ira Schwarz/AP)

But even if you are leery of cultural categories and distinctions, you can’t avoid the obvious conclusion looking at the Honors over the past 38 years: They reflect an idea of artistic greatness basically defined by a large television audience. In the early years, when the so-called golden age of television was still a fresh memory, that audience was more broadly familiar with the high or traditional arts. Today, those art forms are a marginal or niche interest, and most of them face extraordinary financial challenges; meanwhile, the bulk of the honorees come with a higher ratio of celebrity buzz to traditional artistic accomplishment.

And there have been other trends. In the early years, “makers” or “creators” were well-represented, almost equally so with performers or interpreters. But the presence of composers, choreographers and playwrights has faded. There hasn’t been a playwright honored since 1996 (Edward Albee) and the last “classical” composer honored was the highly jazz-literate Andre Previn, in 1998. This trend away from creators persists even as major figures such as playwright August Wilson and composers Philip Glass and Terry Riley go unacknowledged.

There has also been a shift among the “doers” represented toward more popular art forms. Classical instrumental soloists were frequently represented in the first decade but have become a rarity in recent years. And since giving the honors to the Who in 2008, rock-and-roll groups have become regular contenders, a subtle but substantial response to shifts in generational taste and preference.

There was, of course, a lot of excellent low-hanging fruit in the early years of the award, when a generation of artists who had successfully straddled the popular and the traditional arts was still alive, an in many cases, still productive. Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins were all early recipients, and all of them enjoyed careers that crossed boundaries between more formal, traditional arts and entertainment. Many of the early honorees were well-known to television audiences not because they were television stars, but because the arts hadn’t yet been banished from the network airwaves.

Today, however, pop cultural cachet is the main criterion for winning and figures like Ozawa are included as token reminders of the original purpose of the award.

Television has played a key and influential role in the honors since they were created, though it’s not entirely clear what that role is. Broadcast by CBS was part of the original conception of the honors, which former Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser said “created a national profile for the center.” CBS, which continues to broadcast the event, plays no role in the selection of the winners, according to a center spokeswoman. Money from the network covers the cost of producing the show, which in turn plays a huge role in the center’s annual fundraising (it brought in $6 million last year).

The selection process includes input from the public, the taste of which is largely determined by what they see (and don’t see) on television. Rutter says that public nominations come in by the thousands; these are summarized by center staff, and these summaries are updated every year. “We keep track of all the names over a period of time,” says Rutter. “Just because someone doesn’t work out in one year, we don’t want to lose track of them [in subsequent years].” Input from artists, and from previous winners, is also considered. A special advisory committee then makes recommendations to the center’s executive board — which has 10 voting members — and the executive committee makes the final determination. An artist’s availability for the honors gala is a key factor in determining whether he or she will be chosen in a given year, and in recent years, concerns about broader cultural representation have factored into the selection of more Latino artists.

But whether directly or indirectly, the large role of television in the proceedings has helped ensure that the winners are culturally telegenic. David Letterman, who won in 2012, was a comedian before he was a nightly presence in America’s living rooms; Oprah Winfrey, who won in 2010, has a side career as an actress as well. But both of them, and Bill Cosby who won in 1998, are primarily creatures of the small screen, and their receipt of the honors — along with honors given to entertainment figures such as Bob Hope and Johnny Carson — seems more a matter of deference to outsize celebrity clout than to artistic accomplishment.

The Honors, this year, are in transition. Longtime broadcast veteran George Stevens Jr. was let go from the show he has produced since it was created; a new team, Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss of White Cherry Entertainment (which produces the Tony Awards, among others) will be in charge this year. Rutter says that the tradition of having the honorees sit in the Opera House box seats while other artists perform for them will be retained; but she won’t say much about how different the rest of the program will be. “We are in the developmental stage,” she says. “Stay tuned.”

As television consumes an ever larger portion of American leisure time, and as participation in many of the arts regularly presented at the Kennedy Center shrinks, the Honors desperately need more radical reinvention, a return to their original focus on art forms more central to the daily mission of the Kennedy Center. It was still possible, in 1978, to believe that television could have a constructive role as an evangelist for the arts. Today, the arts have simply disappeared from television; and the representation of the arts — as a career, avocation or daily fact of people’s lives — is almost equally nonexistent or, worse, a parody of reality. New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross has even defined a term — Pop Triumphalism — which deserves common currency. It refers to the unnecessarily hostile way in which pop culture treats the high arts, or as Ross says: “It’s not enough for pop culture to dominate the mainstream; it must colonize the spaces occupied by older genres and effectively drive them from the field.”

That, alas, is what the Honors increasingly honor.

The arts need an award solely devoted to the arts. The Kennedy Center’s loose categories for what gets honored — once a strength of the award — now obscures the obvious marginalization of the very art forms central to its mission: symphonic music and opera, serious theater and musical theater; ballet and modern dance; chamber music and recitals. Even as award shows proliferate for other media, reflecting the special and niche tastes of an increasingly fractured American audience, the Kennedy Center’s Honors have become generalized, and all too often merely to amplify the cultural power of men like George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, who have already triumphed in the winner-takes-all cultural sweepstakes.

The Honors have lost their way, and it will take far more than tweaks to the televised ceremony to improve them. What it will take, in fact, is courage, the courage to declare the Honors solely devoted to the arts that define the Kennedy Center’s mission. The Honors should return to what they were in the beginning, primarily focused on the live, performing arts, makers who are not primarily engaged in packaging and repackaging commercial, corporate entertainment products, and doers who have cultivated individual talent, perspective and virtuosity to exceptional levels. Ballet, opera, theater and dance should drive the event, not tag along in the jump seat.