Art Works Blog

The Better Precincts of the World We Inhabit: Celebrating the National Medals

Text by David Remnick Photos by Ralph Alswang

Herb Albert receives the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama.

David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, delivered the keynote address at the dinner hosted by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities to celebrate the 2012 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities medal recipients. Here is a slightly edited version of his remarks.

Some years ago, Paul Simon was honored at the Kennedy Center: he watched as his songs were sung, film clips of his storied career projected, and standing ovations periodically delivered. Finally, after all the music and buildup, Steve Martin, Simon’s admirer and friend, came out on stage and said, “It would be easy for me to stand up here for the next few minutes and talk about Paul Simon and his consummate skill as a songwriter and musician. But this seems neither the time…nor the place.”

So it is tonight---times twenty-four. We are gathered here on the eve of the President’s awarding medals to two-dozen scholars, artists, patrons, and performers. The honorees are among the most creative minds this country is lucky enough to know. I hope you will reach deep into your cups and give them all your most raucous and love-filled round of applause.

Allen Toussaint receives the National Medal of Arts from the president.

Now, I could spend my time and yours talking about the virtues of each and every one of our honorees. About the imagery of Camilo Vergara, Laurie Olin and Ellsworth Kelly, or the unmistakable voices of Renee Fleming, Marilynne Robinson, Ernest Gaines, and Kay Ryan. We could talk about how, Herb Alpert, well before the age of diversity, described the makeup of his band, The Tijuana Brass, as “four lasagnas, two bagels, and an American cheese.” We could discuss how the anxious asperity of Slouching Toward Bethlehem is as vital to the twentieth-century American sound as “So What,” “Strange Fruit,” “Roll Over, Beethoven,” and “Hills Like White Elephants.” We might cite the generosity of Lin Arison, the programming vision of the Washington Performing Arts Society, the innovative scholarship of Natalie Zemon Davis, the teaching of Joan Myers Brown, and the progressive visions of Jill Kerr Conway, William Bowen, Robert Putnam, and Edward Ayers. We could sing hosannas to the king of New Orleans, Allen Toussaint. And we could talk of Elaine May, who began her career in Yiddish theater. In Elaine’s days performing with Mike Nichols, she captured the rhythms of the universal maternal with the unforgettable phone call greeting, “Hello, Arthur, this is your Mother. Do you remember me?”

Lin Arison with President Barack Obama after receiving the National Medal of Arts. Photo by Ralph Alswang

Arts patron Lin Arison with President Barack Obama.

I’d like to pay personal homage to Bill Bowen, who was president of Princeton, when I was an undergraduate. In 1978, when the South Africa divestment campaign was the one sign of activism on campus, I joined in a springtime occupation of Nassau Hall. We slept overnight on the corridor floors, outside the office of President Bowen, who didn’t seem to mind much. I think the historically-minded among you remember what happened next: As a result of our many minutes of undergraduate suffering and sacrifice, apartheid immediately collapsed.

We could cast honors in all directions tonight, but, as I say, this is neither the time nor the place. Honestly, there is so much talent assembled here tonight, so much creative and intellectual wattage, that we would, in attempting to pay proper homage to everyone, do justice to none.

Washington Performing Arts Society CEO and President Jenny Bellfield accepts the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama on behalf of her organization.

These are celebratory and welcome occasions. But maybe they are a little fraught, too. At least since the days of Vietnam, if not before, American artists and scholars, have harbored a wariness about being celebrated by, or even being invited to, official Washington. Sometimes that inner reluctance rises to the level of public refusal. As a protest against the war, Robert Lowell spurned Lyndon Johnson’s invitation, in 1965, to read at a festival of the arts. “Every serious artist knows,” Lowell wrote to Johnson, “that he cannot enjoy public celebration without making subtle public commitments.” Thirty years later, another poet, Adrienne Rich, refused the National Medal of Arts, because of what she described as the “radical disparities of wealth and power” in the United States and the “cynical” policies of the Clinton Administration and Congress at this time. “[Art],” she said, “means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.…A President cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”

Philadanco! founder Joan Myers Brown with President Barack Obama.

These were honorable acts of protests by serious people. But I think it is more than possible to be present at such an occasion, too, and remain wholly of independent mind. The evidence is all around. No one here is a centerpiece at the table of power.

In fact, some are the best kind of irritants. Take, for instance, the fervent irritations of Tony Kushner. His writing, his extraordinary plays, were about many things but they were also ferocious indictments of enforced sexual conformity and the early complacency about the AIDS virus. His radicalism is now majority opinion. A few weeks ago, we saw a national celebrations for the great victories won at the Supreme Court on gay marriage. Even if Justice Scalia thinks otherwise, Angels in America had a role in that American evolution.

Tony Kushner with President Barack Obama.

Anna Deavere Smith, as a playwright and as an actor, has, whether in South Central or Crown Heights, given voice to the multiplicity and complexity of American tribalism, confusion, spirit, rage, love, and aspiration. Her art is both forgiving and unrelenting. Robert Silvers, the elegant, tireless dean of American editors, invented, along with the late and deeply missed Barbara Epstein, a journal that has published dissent on every aspect of public life. Commenting on the euphoria surrounding the 2008 election, the ever-un-euphoric Joan Didion wrote this in Mr. Silvers’s New York Review of Books: “Imagining in 2008 that all the world’s people wanted to be with us did not seem entirely different in kind from imagining in 2003 that we would be greeted with flowers when we invaded Iraq, but in the irony-free zone that the nation had chosen to become, this was not the preferred way of looking at it.”

President Barack Obama presents Renee Fleming with the National Medal of Arts.

Indeed, one of the President’s favorite forms of relaxation---watching college sports---doesn't even get a break from this group. William Bowen and Frank Deford see the NCAA and big-time college sports not as a field of dreams but as an arena of greed that undermines the values of higher education.

In other words, we are honoring men and women tonight of fearless, critical thought. They inspire and prod us; they serve as examples to young artists and thinkers. And yet what of the atmosphere, the times, in which they work and we gather?

It is a matter of fact, not alarm, that the activities we’re paying homage to are too often marginalized, under-funded, overlooked, cast aside. We gather at a time when a primacy of science and technology is a matter of consensus and even policy.

The president greets Ernest Gaines before presenting the National Medal of Arts.

In 1959, C.P. Snow delivered his famous, if schematic, lecture, "The Two Cultures." Snow criticized British educated elites, in particular, for over-rewarding a knowledge of the humanities at the expense of the sciences. He inquired if any card-carrying group of humanists had even a faint idea of, say, the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Such a question, he said, was the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's? “I now believe,” Snow said, “that if I had asked an even simpler question---such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read?”[they wouldn’t know].

Now the reverse is true. In our time it is a matter of fact, not alarm, that the knowledge and pursuits that most profoundly deepen our capacity to interpret the world are being eclipsed. We live at a time of veneration for science and technology, for the undeniably remarkable innovations in distribution, computation, inheritance, and acceleration. It remains the responsibility of thinking people to have some working knowledge of science---no one is disputing that---but it now seems a commonplace, in too many quarters, that it is neither essential nor desirable to grapple with the enigmas suggested by music, philosophy, art, and literature.

Ellsworth Kelly after receiving the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama.

This concern is not the hysteria of a paranoid humanist; it’s rooted in realities, it’s heard daily in the rhetoric of economic competition. Not long ago, the governor of Florida, Rick Scott, recommended that state universities charge higher tuitions for humanities majors; “You know, we don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state,” he said. “It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here.”

Politicians and commentators, liberals and conservatives, routinely pay awed obeisance to the educational systems of China and Singapore. Which is strange in a democracy. Martha Nussbaum is right to point out, however, that a grounding in the humanities, in interpretation and critical thinking, is essential to civic life and dissent; it is not by accident that the humanities play such a diminished role in educational systems where civic dissent is discouraged or outlawed.

If Harvard is an indicator of anything it is worth noting that in 1954 36 percent of its undergraduates majored in the humanities; that has dropped to 20 percent. Last year, the State University of New York at Albany closed down departments in French, Russian, Italian, classics, and theater---a moment that the critic William Derisiewicz has called a “wholesale slaughter of the humanities.” As Tony Kushner could tell us, Lincoln’s great legislative achievements include not only emancipation and the transcontinental railroad, but also the signing the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, which put into motion the country’s once-extraordinary system of public universities. Nothing helped contribute more to everything politicians say they value: opportunity, wider prosperity, and civic knowledge. But now even the epitome of that public university system---the public universities of the state of California---are in straightened circumstances, with the humanities hit most squarely and immediately.

Elaine May with President Barack Obama during the National Medal of Arts ceremony.

It’s foolish, pure snobbery, to diminish the urgency of getting a decent job. And we can hardly deny what technology has done for the easy and frictionless distribution of ideas. Medical revolutions have saved and lengthened countless human lives. The mapping of the human genome and the keener understanding of neurobiology is sure to lead to more such revolutions. I don’t know about you, but I am counting on those advances to ensure that, when I am of a certain age, fast approaching, I’ll be able to remember my name and find my keys. But these advances are so astonishing, so at the center of our attention, that it is sometimes hard for anyone to think of anything else.

Recently, Judith Shulevitz, writing in The New Republic, archly suggested that the way to convince a technology-obsessed nation of the value of the humanities is to remind everyone that it is humanities---in the form of art, architecture, and literature---that lead to science fiction. And science fiction, she wrote, leads to actual science and actual technology: think of the proto-submarines in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea; the vision of an internet in William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer; the tablets in 2001: A Space Odyssey. From this point of view, this is George Lucas’s world; we just live in it.

The president presents George Lucas with the National Medal of Arts.

There are questions that cannot be answered through the scientific method and with technological means. There are, and always will be, questions that are far beyond, and to the side of, engineering, genetics, computer science: How and whom to love; the nature and responsibilities of being a parent, a son or a daughter; the nature of loss; the nature of identity; questions of innocence and guilt; faith and disbelief; how to think about authority, tyranny, and democracy; how to think about truly difficult moral questions like abortion, charity, poverty, and mercy; what one man or woman owes another in a society; what a powerful country owes a poor country. A sense of history is no less important to the fate of a people than a grasp of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The stories, imagery, ideas, and music that men and women make are at least as valuable dimension of the human legacy as their technologies. Civilization is based on these things. How can civilization be a matter of secondary concern?

President Barack Obamam with landscape architect Laurie Olin.

I know that I’ve done none of the honorees even the remotest justice tonight---this was neither the time nor the place---but I would at least like to do justice to the independent nature of the artistic and intellectual ambitions being celebrated here. There are men and women here tonight who have, without question, made you and me more alive, more joyful, more prepared to confront life, even at its darkest moments. I like my iPhone as much as the next man, but I cannot live, no one should live, without what is on offer here tonight: the depth of the blues, the fire of brilliant prose, the truth and release of comedy, the depth of true thought. So all our gratitude and congratulations to the honorees. You’ve helped create the better precincts of the world we inhabit. We cannot thank you enough.

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