For years now, the Kennedy Center Honors have been devolving from an event that recognizes stellar achievement across a diverse and rich tradition of American arts into an entertainment-driven event that rewards star power and pop-culture cachet. Representatives of the wide range of traditional arts, including classical music, opera and ballet, have been slowly edged out until, it seemed, they were lucky to have a single medal among the five given out each year. This year even that toehold looks precarious. Of the five artists to receive the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors, only dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade falls into the tradition of the arts on which the Kennedy Center was founded and built its reputation. The other honorees — television producer Norman Lear, singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan, music mogul Lionel Richie and hip-hop star LL Cool J — are all great talents, but belong to a commercial entertainment culture that has no need of the Kennedy Center, or the honors that bear its name, to establish and maintain a connection with their enormous audiences.
This year, not one violinist, pianist, conductor or orchestral composer has chosen. No one from the opera world is represented. Despite de Lavallade’s theatrical credits, theater is mostly absent this year, with no playwrights, actors, directors or designers among the bunch. Sam Shepard died this week without ever achieving the favor won in recent years by the Eagles, David Letterman and Oprah Winfrey. Not one artist who has taken up the legacy of Aaron Copland or Tennessee Williams or Virgil Thomson (all honored in the early years of the Kennedy Center) is included. Majors figures in American musical life, such as composers Philip Glass and John Adams, still await Honors, as do opera stars Kathleen Battle, Samuel Ramey and Frederica von Stade. For a cultural center built around an opera house and symphony hall, it’s depressing that this year not one classical musician has made the list and that again, this year, none of the musicians who have made America a force in pioneering the early instruments movement were included.
It is easy to quibble over who should be on the list. More troubling is what this year’s omissions say about the larger direction of the Kennedy Center. And there are other signs. In June, one of the finest musicians heard at the center in recent years, the Washington National Opera’s music director, Philippe Auguin, was unceremoniously dumped from the company, despite having led magisterial performances of Wagner’s Ring Cycle last year. “We are evolving toward different needs from a music director,” said the WNO’s chief, Francesca Zambello, of a conductor who could assuredly meet any musical needs presented by any opera composer of the last half millennium. Zambello’s words now sound more ominous than ever. The center also seems to have given up on its annual international festival of the arts, but it can’t quit the hit musical “The Book of Mormon,” which will return for its third engagement this fall. And the 2014 decision to change producers for the CBS broadcast of the annual Honors ceremony only made the once glamorous affair seem more like conventional television pablum — which didn’t build new audiences for spectacle.
A response to a question I recently put to the team overseeing the redesign of the center’s beloved chamber music and recital hall, the Terrace Theatre, is also deeply troubling. During a tour of the almost-finished space last week, I asked if the acoustical goal was to replicate the excellent dynamics of the original theater. They equivocated, saying of course that none of that would be lost, but it was also being reworked to host other kinds of events, included those with heavy amplification.
We won’t know if they’ve wrecked the space until it opens in October. Nor will we know what direction the new music director takes at the WNO until he or she has been announced. And the Kennedy Center Honors will be back again next year, and perhaps the choices will represent a more diverse and open understanding of American culture, one that recognizes that there is more to the arts than what one sees on television, or goes platinum on the pop charts.
But the signs are disturbing. The Honors have always included a range of what is often called high and popular culture, but they have never been so slavishly focused on mass entertainment, and they have never entirely forsaken the arts that were foundational to the creation of the institution. Audiences who seek a rich diet of culture — not just corporate entertainment product — should be alarmed and must become vocal about maintaining the center’s commitment to true diversity in the arts.
The philosophical foundation of the “arts” that have defined the center’s existence since it opened in 1971 was always big tent. And the Honors have properly been given to both George Balanchine and Gene Kelly, Marian Anderson and Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman and Rudolf Serkin. Few if any of those artists would be likely to be honored today, given what the awards now celebrate. Which is talent that has also received the benediction of our new age of consumer-driven winner-takes-all success.