Public Papers

Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the National Medal of the Arts


First, a greeting to the members of the President's Cabinet that are here today. I want to welcome all of you. And I'm very happy to have John Frohnmayer here. As a matter of fact, I'm very happy to have him heading the National Endowment for the Arts. And, of course, Barbara, awake now, after -- [laughter] -- a kind of rather hectic trip. And I want to welcome the new Chairman of our Committee on the Arts and Humanities, Don Hall, whom I have not seen, but is here someplace -- right over here. Don, thank you for undertaking this.

And thanks, especially, to our honored guests, the artists and the patrons of a special American tradition who grace us with their presence here today. Welcome to the White House. Welcome to the sixth annual presentation of the National Medal of the Arts.

Last year -- I'll never forget it -- this luncheon was held a week before Thanksgiving and was delayed when I got held up in the Rose Garden doing a photo opportunity with the national turkey. [Laughter] We awarded medals that day to some of the artistic giants of our time: Alfred Eisenstaedt and John Updike, Katherine Dunham, Dizzy Gillespie, among others. And with all that assembled talent, guess which one was pictured standing next to the President on the news that night? The national turkey. [Laughter] So, we've done a little better on the scheduling this year, Helsinki notwithstanding.

The people we honor today who have earned a collection of awards with names that have become the world's touchstones of excellence -- names like Grammy and Oscar and Tony and the Pulitzer Prize and the Kennedy Center Honors -- a collection of awards that would just about fill its own Smithsonian. But where most of these awards were aimed at honoring individual works, today we gather to salute the full body of their work -- their contributions to the arts, to the Nation, and really to life in the 20th century. Embracing an era that reaches back as far as George Abbott's birth in 1887 and representing many generations of American talent, our artists stand alongside the artists who helped define America, no longer just another sprawling industrial nation but one of the cultural giants of the world.

Most had humble beginnings. I think of Jessica Tandy, sewing her own costumes in a backroom theater in Soho. B.B. King, touring backstreet bars and dancehalls -- somebody had to do that -- and on the road for over 20 years before most Americans would ever even hear his name. Even their hometown names read like the very tapestry of America itself: Forestville, New York; Centralia, Washington; Itta Bena, Mississippi; Brooklyn; and Atlantic City. Three were foreign-born, drawn here by freedom and opportunity, seeking not to enrich themselves but to enrich our culture. And today, they are Americans all, striving in the creation of beauty.

Taken together, today's honorees represent an apparently inexhaustible reserve of creativity, one that's often defied categorization. But there are at least two characteristics, I believe, that can apply to each. Each is a trailblazer, an authentic pioneer who literally helped to shape his or her art form. And each is an artist who pressed the very limits of his or her particular art form, often crossing over to combine distinct mediums in new and very different ways. Sometimes that cross-fertilization is self-evident, such as with the multidisciplinary approach of landscape architect Ian McHarg; with New York legends like George Abbott and Beverly Sills, who've thrilled audiences with their performances onstage and with their leadership behind the scenes; or with the love and magic of Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, whose creations seem to float effortlessly from stage to screen and back again.

I probably shouldn't do this, but I might tell you of a frustration -- not an overwhelming frustration but a frustration that I have. I think Barbara Bush is secretly in love with Hume Cronyn. [Laughter] There they go again.

But you also see it in painter Jasper Johns' collaborative efforts with choreographer Merce Cunningham; and the visual arts, where Frederick Douglass was brought to new life beneath the brush of Jacob Lawrence; and in the cries and hollers and work songs of field hands who labored in another time, once again heard rising on the wind through the guitar of B.B. King.

Speaking at Wellesley College back in June, Barbara urged young Americans to go out and seek their own true colors. And that's, of course, exactly what our honorees have done. You've created sights and sounds and characters, crafted anew within the human imagination, and in doing so, enriched the colors on the canvas of our national life. And that's why America continues to need and want and appreciate your creativity, your talent, and your diversity. Indeed, it is your efforts in the arts and humanities and the realm of the spirit that distinguish America as a world leader rather than as merely a world power.

And I'm proud that as a people and as a nation we continue to support the arts, both through public agencies and through private champions of the arts -- patrons like our old friends Harris and Carol Masterson from Houston, Texas; a Southwestern Bell company in the forefront of all of this, St. Louis; and Washington's own David Lloyd Kreeger. We salute you for the joy you have given to Americans of many ages.

Thank you. Congratulations to all of you. And now I'd like to ask John Frohnmayer to assist me in presenting the awards. Well done, each and every one of you. Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at noon in the East Room at the White House.