Remarks by the President at the National Medals of the Arts and Humanities Awards Ceremony
3:51 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, everybody. Please have a seat, have a seat. (Applause.) I always do pretty good with writers and scientists. (Laughter.) That’s sort of my crew.
Hello, everybody. On behalf of Michelle and myself, welcome to the White House for one of our favorite events of the year -- love this event -- when truly extraordinary artists and innovators and thinkers are recognized for their brilliance while the rest of us look on and feel totally inadequate. (Laughter.)
I want to start by thanking a few members of our audience who help sustain the arts and the humanities in America. We have members of Congress here. We have National Endowment for the Arts Chairman, Jane Chu. Where’s Jane? There she is. (Applause.) The National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman, Bro Adams, is here. (Applause.) And the co-chairs of the Presidential Committee on Arts and Humanities, George Stevens and Margo Lion. (Applause.)
One of our great poets, Emily Dickinson, once said that “truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it.” The truth is so rare, it is delightful to tell it -- and that’s especially true in Washington. (Laughter.) The men and women that we honor today, recipients of the National Medals for the Arts and the Humanities, are here not only because they’ve shared rare truths, often about their own experience, but because they’ve told rare truths about the common experiences that we have as Americans and as human beings.
They span mediums and methods. We have artists, actors, writers, musicians, historians, a landscape architect, and a chef. Without them there would be no Edible Schoolyard, no Jhumpa Lahiri novels, no really scary things like Carrie and Misery. (Laughter.)
They are versatile -- poets and opera singers who were also master teachers at liberal arts colleges and Detroit public schools; philosophers who wrote novels. They are visual artists who work filling pages that spilled over to screens, three-dimensional gallery floors, and most of a New York City block.
And they all have one thing in common: They do what they do because of some urgent inner force, some need to express the truth that they experience, that “rare truth.” And as a result, they help us understand ourselves in ways that we might not otherwise recognize. They deepen and broaden our great American story and the human story.
So we celebrate writers like Larry McMurtry, who grew up on a Texas ranch without books but went on to pen a multitude of memoirs and essays, more than 30 novels, and co-wrote screenplays for films like Brokeback Mountain. He wrote about the Texas he knew from his own life, and then the old West as he heard it through the stories of his grandfather’s -- on his grandfather’s porch. And in “Lonesome Dove,” the story of two ex-Texas Rangers in the 19th century, readers found out something essential about their own souls, even if they’d never been out West or been on a ranch.
We celebrate historians like Everett Fly, who studied to become both a building and landscape architect, and who got his start studying forgotten African American towns and communities. Deep in the stacks of the National Archives, he encountered a map of a Freedman’s village that is now Arlington National Cemetery, which inspired him to research further. “Once I got to the National Archives and saw all of those records,” Everett says, “I knew I just had to keep on working.” And because he kept on working, we have come to know some 1,300 African American and Native American towns and structures across our country.
We celebrate incomparable musicians like Meredith Monk, who has been making music with the instrument of her voice for 50 years. Her singular blend of harmonies, yowls, rasps have punctuated concert halls and films, as well as the performances of her fellow recipients here today. I’ve been in fashion and out of fashion, she says -- I can relate to that. (Laughter.) I just keep on trucking along. “It’s an inner necessity to work, and that’s not going to change. I need to create.” I need to create.
I suspect those are words that every honoree here has felt throughout their lives. And as individuals, as a nation, we are beneficiaries of that need. Fifty years ago this month, right here at the White House, President Johnson signed the Arts and Humanities Bill into law and created the NEA and the NEH. At the time, he said, “In countless American towns there live thousands of obscure and unknown talents. What this bill really does is to bring active support to this great national asset.”
Half a century later -- because of their raw talent, their passion, their need to create, but also because our country invests in the arts and the humanities as great national assets -- some of those once obscure and unknown talents are rightly being recognized. That’s what we celebrate here today -- our fellow citizens, from all walks of life, who share their gifts with all of us, who make our lives and our world more beautiful, and richer, and fuller, and I think most importantly, help us understand each other a little bit better. They help us connect.
And, as Emily Dickinson would say, that is the truth. It’s delightful to tell. Or, in the words of one of the recipients today, we like you. We really like you. (Laughter.)
Now, it is my privilege to present these medals to each of our recipients as their citations are read by my military aide. And I’m going to stand right here. (Applause.)
MILITARY AIDE: John Baldessari. (Applause.) The 2014 National Medal of Arts to John Baldessari for his contributions as a visual artist. His ambitious work combines photography, painting and text to push the boundaries of image, making him one of the most influential conceptual artists of our time. (Applause.)
Ping Chong. (Applause.) The 2014 National Medal of Arts to Ping Chong for his contributions as a theater director, choreographer, and video and installation artist. Mr. Chong’s innovative performances explore race, history, technology and art to challenge our understanding of humanity in the modern world. (Applause.)
Miriam Colón. (Applause.) The 2014 National Medal of Arts to Miriam Colón for her contributions as an actress. Ms. Colón has been a trailblazer in film, television and theater, and helped open doors for generations of Hispanic actors. (Applause.)
Accepting on behalf of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Ed Henry. (Applause.) The 2014 National Medal of Arts to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation for supporting creative expression across the country. With generosity and a bold commitment to artistic risk, this foundation has helped artists, musicians, dancers and actors share their talents, enriching the cultural life of our nation. (Applause.)
Sally Field. (Applause.) The 2014 National Medal of Arts to Sally Field for her contributions as an actress and filmmaker. The dignity, empathy and fearlessness of her performances have touched audiences around the world, and she has deployed those same rich qualities off screen in her advocacy for women, LGBT rights and public health. (Applause.)
Ann Hamilton. (Applause.) The 2014 National Medal of Arts to Ann Hamilton for her contributions as a visual artist. Ms. Hamilton uses time as process and material, and her work demonstrates the importance of experiencing the arts firsthand in the digital age. (Applause.)
Stephen King. (Applause.) The 2014 National Medal of Arts to Stephen King for his contributions as an author. One of the most popular and prolific writers of our time, Mr. King combines his remarkable storytelling with his sharp analysis of human nature. For decades, his works of horror, suspense, science fiction and fantasy have terrified and delighted audiences around the world. (Laughter and applause.)
Meredith Monk. The 2014 National Medal of Arts to Meredith Monk for her contributions as a composer, singer and performer. Renowned for her groundbreaking vocal techniques, Ms. Monk has reimagined the instrument of voice with her innovative work. (Applause.)
George Shirley. (Applause.) The 2014 National Medal of Arts to George Shirley for his contributions as a tenor. The first African American tenor to sing in a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera, Mr. Shirley has captivated audiences for more than 50 years with his masterful performances. As a pioneer and as a teacher, Mr. Shirley has paved the way for generations of aspiring African American opera singers. (Applause.)
Accepting on behalf of the University Musical Society, Kenneth Fischer. (Applause.) The 2014 National Medal of Arts to the University Musical Society for presenting the performing arts to communities in Michigan. For over a century, the Society has brought world-class orchestras, dance ensembles, jazz performers and theater companies to Michigan while supporting the study and creation of new works. (Applause.)
Tobias Wolff. (Applause.) The 2014 National Medal of Arts to Tobias Wolff for his contributions as an author and educator. His raw works of fiction examine themes of American identity and individual morality. With wit and compassion, Mr. Wolff’s work reflects the truths of our human experience. (Applause.)
The National Humanities Medal recipients.
Accepting on behalf of The Clemente Course in the Humanities, Marina van Zuylen. (Applause.) The 2014 National Humanities Medal to the Clemente Course in the Humanities for improving the lives of disadvantaged adults. The Clemente Course has brought free humanities education to thousands of men and women, enriching their lives and broadening their horizons. (Applause.)
Annie Dillard. (Applause.) The 2014 National Humanities Medal to Annie Dillard for her profound reflections on human life and nature. In poetry and in prose, Ms. Dillard has invited us to stand humbly before the stark beauty of creation. (Applause.)
Everett L. Fly. (Applause.) The 2014 National Humanities Medal to Everett L. Fly for preserving the integrity of African American places and landmarks. A landscape architect, Mr. Fly has worked tirelessly to win historical recognition for Eatonville, Florida; Nicodemus, Kansas and other sites central to African American history, preserving an important part of our broader American heritage. (Applause.)
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. (Applause.) The 2014 National Humanities Medal to Rebecca Newberger Goldstein for bringing philosophy into conversation with culture. In scholarship, Dr. Goldstein has elucidated the ideas of Spinoza and Gödel, while in fiction, she deploys wit and drama to help us understand the great human conflict between thought and feeling. (Applause.)
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. (Applause.) The 2014 National Humanities Medal to Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham for illuminating the African American journey. In her writings and edited volumes, Dr. Higginbotham has traced the course of African American history, and deepened our understanding of the American story. (Applause.)
Jhumpa Lahiri. (Applause.) The 2014 National Humanities Medal to Jhumpa Lahiri for enlarging the human story. In her works of fiction, Dr. Lahiri has illuminated the Indian American experience in beautifully wrought narratives of estrangement and belonging. (Applause.)
Fedwa Malti-Douglas. (Applause.) The 2014 National Humanities Medal to Fedwa Malti-Douglas for her studies of Arabic letters. Dr. Douglas has mapped the discourse of gender and letters in the Arab Middle East and applied her insights to American culture. (Applause.)
Larry McMurtry. (Applause.) The 2014 National Humanities Medal to Larry McMurtry for his books, essays, and screenplays. Mr. McMurtry’s work evokes the character and drama of the American West with stories that examine quintessentially American lives. (Applause.)
Vicki Lynn Ruiz. (Applause.) The 2014 National Humanities Medal to Vicki Lynn Ruiz for her contributions as a historian. In monographs and edited volumes, Dr. Ruiz has pioneered the history of 20th-century Latinas in a distinguished career that began with collecting oral testimony from Mexicana and Mexican American women who worked in U.S. canning factories. (Applause.)
Alice Waters. (Applause.) The 2014 National Humanities Medal to Alice Waters for celebrating the bonds between the ethical and the edible. As a chef, author and advocate, Ms. Waters champions a holistic approach to eating and health, and celebrates integrating gardening, cooking and education, sparking inspiration in a new generation. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Let’s give one more big round of applause to our outstanding recipients. (Applause.)
So obviously, we are extraordinarily honored to be able to just provide this moment of recognition to just some outstanding artists and writers and historians, actresses. We are grateful for the joy that you’ve brought us, and I’m grateful that I’ve gotten promises for at least a couple of signed books. (Laughter.) I think Alice said she’s going to cook me something. (Laughter.) Nothing unethical, just a little bit of -- (laughter) -- but I want everybody to enjoy the White House. We’re not kicking you out right away. (Laughter.) I think that there’s a wonderful reception to be had here.
And once again, on behalf of Michelle and myself, let me just say thank you to all of you for everything that you’ve done for us. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
4:18 P.M. EDT