Public Papers

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


Thank you all for coming to the White House. And I'm sure glad we're doing this indoors -- [laughter] -- instead of out. But may I salute Secretary Lujan, a member of our Cabinet. Mr. Frohnmayer, my dear friend who heads this arts effort, and does it most effectively, I might say. Senator Hatch was to be -- right back here, Orrin Hatch. And then, in front of him, Chairman -- our distinguished Senator Claiborne Pell. And Congressman Yates was coming and he is over -- modestly in the back row, along with another Congressman, Ralph Regula there -- but more than welcome. Both champions of the arts, bringing good judgment and balance to the questions that concern us all. So, I salute them.

And let me just say how pleased we are to see here the members of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities -- so many corporate patrons without whom the arts would not flourish as much as they do -- and then, of course, especially today, the family and the friends of the honored recipients.

We're delighted to welcome you to this historic East Room. This afternoon, we honor with the National Medal of the Arts a group of men and women whose creative efforts really do capture America's vigor and spirit.

Our artists draw on inspirations and cultures from around the world, but then reinterpret them in distinctive ways, creative ways, American ways. And their passion and their genius and their courage add new dimension to our lives. They remind us of a truth expressed long ago by William Blake, who wrote: ``Nations are destroyed or flourish in proportion as their poetry, painting, and music are destroyed or flourish.''

And fortunately for us, art in America is alive and well. In all its forms, it captures the exhilarating feeling of being an American -- daring everything, dreaming everything, reaching for everything. And more importantly, it inspires Americans to dare more, dream more, and reach further.

Today, we honor several. The honorees express vital emotions and truths. Pearl Primus weaves together dance and anthropology; calls forth the joy and excitement and spiritual vigor of our African and Caribbean heritage. Pietro Belluschi's innovative architectural designs -- they evoke the grandeur of this land, particularly the Pacific Northwest. His works evoke scenes as various as soaring mountain summits and quiet forest floors checkered by slanting sunbeams.

Roy Acuff keeps alive the undying tradition of authentic country music -- and I confess, I love that music. And he has helped make country music -- really he's the father of it, you might say. I don't want to date Roy, but -- [laughter] -- the father, and really has made it what it is today -- a music for all Americans, an art form that doesn't hold back one single thing. And it captures the joys and the aches and the frustrations that most of us feel, but few of us can express.

In a world where people too often try to reduce life's imponderables to black-and-white entries on a spreadsheet, our award winners provide color and depth and perspective.

Teacher and painter Richard Diebenkorn does not blink from the challenge of expressing himself as he sees fit. In his studio or his classroom, he teaches the importance -- the necessity -- of personal integrity. Honi Coles -- Charles ``Honi'' Coles' exuberant dance captures the sheer vitality and the joy of the American spirit. And it shows that you can't be fully American without breaking into a sweat and having fun from time to time. [Laughter]

We often talk of a new world characterized by competition and enterprise, but our kids will not enjoy full lives if they don't experience and appreciate art. A life without art is flat and dull and gray. And it contains none of the highs and lows that give meaning to daily affairs.

Some of our honorees have devoted their careers to ensuring that all Americans enjoy the enriching influence of art.

Maurice Abravanel keeps symphony music popular by conducting and teaching with his Santa Fe Opera. John Crosby gives young American singers the opportunity to train and perform here in their own country. And Isaac Stern -- Barbara demanded to sit next to Isaac Stern -- [laughter] -- expresses the nobility that lies within us all with his heart and that magnificent violin. And just this year, in the middle of a threatened Scud attack -- Scud missile attack in Tel Aviv -- he returned to the stage and continued playing. Isaac Stern does more than play an instrument; he inspires us with his virtuosity, his courage, and his commitment to humanity.

We also want to recognize benefactors who, through vision and steadfast commitment, keep art alive. American art thrives because of arts administrators like our own J. Carter Brown, who has molded the National Gallery into a museum really for the entire nation. Volunteers enhance our arts: men and women like R. Philip Hanes, Jr., whose generous patronage has guided the regional and national growth of the Arts Council movement. It is unlikely, but Philip will not want to claim that he and I were classmates at college many years ago, but I claim it -- proudly, as a matter of fact. [Laughter]

We owe a debt to passionate stewards of the arts such as the famed Kitty Carlisle Hart, a distinguished performer committed to making quality art available to all Americans. And artists can continue to develop and flourish, as I mentioned earlier, because of corporate sponsors like Texaco, which has set a standard in corporate philanthropy through its half-century of generous support for the arts.

As we honor these beacons of excellence, I'm reminded of something that President Kennedy once said: ``In serving his vision, the artist best serves his nation.'' And you honorees have all served our nation brilliantly. Thank you. Congratulations. It's a joy to have you here.

And now, I'd simply like to ask John Frohnmayer to assist me in presenting to you these symbols of our nation's gratitude and high esteem.

Note: The President spoke at 12:03 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his remarks he referred to Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan, Jr., and John E. Frohnmayer, Chairman of the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities.