Obama confers arts and humanities medals on big names, including Dylan and Eastwood

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After deliberating for hours on healthcare in Thursday’s summit, President Obama turned to the arts, entertainment, literature and scholarship, conferring the National Medal of Arts -- the nation’s highest award in the field -- on 12 recipients and the National Humanities Medal on eight others.

The two no-shows among the arts medalists in late afternoon ceremonies in the East Room of the White House were the biggest names: Bob Dylan and Clint Eastwood, who were unable to attend and will pick up their medals some other time.

The other arts honorees, continuing in the alphabetical order that put Dylan and Eastwood first and second on the list released by the National Endowment for the Arts, which oversees the annual lifetime achievement awards for ‘contributions to the creation, growth and support of the arts in the United States’:

Milton Glaser, graphic designer; Maya Lin, artist and designer; Rita Moreno, singer, dancer and actress; Jessye Norman, soprano; Joseph P. Riley Jr., arts patron, design advocate; Frank Stella, painter and sculptor; Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor; and John Williams, composer.


Also honored were two organizations, the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Oberlin, Ohio, and the School of American Ballet in New York City.

Glaser designed the ‘I (Heart) New York’ logo; Riley has been mayor of Charleston, S.C., since 1975 and is credited with having ‘drawn on and nurtured the city’s historic and artistic resources to reinvigorate it economically and culturally, setting a national standard for urban revitalization in the process.’

The others are more or less household names, but if you need a quick reminder:

Dylan is Dylan, Eastwood is Eastwood. Lin initially was scorned for her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. (pictured), then vindicated and celebrated when it finally opened and turned out to be one of the most moving and hallowed spots in the capital. Moreno owns an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony and a Grammy, and her turn as Anita in the film version of ‘West Side Story’ made her the first Latina to win an Academy Award. Norman is a top-rank opera and concert singer, with a repertoire of arias and spirituals. Stella made his name with black paintings before moving to a full-color palette and is the only living American artist to have had two retrospectives at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The L.A.-born Tilson Thomas is music director of the San Francisco Symphony and the founder and artistic director of a leading training orchestra, the New World Symphony. Williams is the composer of all the ‘Star Wars’ films, among many other movies.

The Oberlin Conservatory of Music is the oldest continuously operating conservatory in the United States, and the School of American Ballet was founded by choreographer George Balanchine and critic-impresario Lincoln Kirstein and has an alumni list that includes Suzanne Farrell and Chita Rivera.

The humanities medals went to authors and scholars including Elie Wiesel (Obama’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner); Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro; Theodore Sorensen, who was John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter and went on to write about politics and the Kennedy legacy; Philippe de Montebello, longtime former director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; and scholars Annette Gordon-Reed, William H. McNeill and Albert H. Small.

In introducing the recipients Thursday, Obama said, “It’s easy in times like these, with all the talk about what makes us different and what divides us, what keeps us apart, to lose sight of what holds us together. To forget that no matter what our differences, some things speak to all of us…. The arts, the humanities, they appeal to a certain yearning that’s shared by all of us -- a yearning for truth and for beauty, for connection and the simple pleasure of a good story.”

Obama concluded by quoting from a letter that George Washington sent to a bookseller in 1784, shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War:

“Before requesting a few volumes, Washington expressed a belief –- and I quote –- ‘to encourage literature and the arts is a duty which every good citizen owes to his country.’ A duty of every good citizen. So speaks the father of our country. Even then, amid all the concerns of those heady and dangerous days, Washington took time to reflect on the infinite value of what were then called ‘the elegant arts.’ Even then, he foresaw the essential role that the arts and the humanities would play in the formation of our country’s character. And if Washington were with us today, I think he would agree that all of you have fulfilled your duties; that all of you are good citizens; that all of you have enriched the legacy of the United States of America.”

-- Mike Boehm