Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at a Luncheon for Recipients of the National Medal of Arts

June 18, 1987

The President. Well, thank you, all of you, for being with us today on this third annual conferring of the National Medal of Art. Thanks also to the National Council on the Arts, for its work and for providing us with a fine list of nominees, and to our Committee on the Arts and Humanities and its Chairman, Andrew Heiskell, for their help in furthering our cultural life. Finally, let me thank the Congress—in particular, Senator Edward Kennedy, who is graciously hosting the reception this evening—for joining with us in supporting the arts and in celebrating the achievements of our best artists and their supporters.

We honor today seven artists and four patrons of the arts. We do this in the bicentennial year of our Constitution. The Constitution is the framework of our liberty and the guarantor of our rights. Its drafting two centuries ago was one of the few truly revolutionary acts in the annals of human government. And the great constitutional philosopher Herbert J. Storing has written that unlike any governing system before it the Constitution was "widely, fully, and vigorously debated in the country at large; and adopted by open and representative procedure." Here in America, that is, the people gave powers to the government, not the other way around.

Yes, here in America government existed from the very first moment to preserve and protect and defend the unalienable rights of man. The Constitution was not just a statement of policy or procedure. It showed the depth of the Founders on learning and grasp of culture, without which they couldn't have produced the Constitution. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Founders viewed the arts as essential elements of the new American nation. George Washington declared in 1781 that both "arts and sciences are essential to the prosperity of the state and to the ornament and happiness of human life." And Thomas Jefferson was himself an artist as well as a politician. And John Adams spoke of his duty to study "politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, and architecture."

Well, today it is John Adams' grandchildren's great-great-grandchildren who have that right. And let us resolve that our schools will teach our children the same respect and appreciation for the arts and humanities that the Founders had. Why do we, as a free people, honor the arts? Well, the answer is both simple and profound. The arts and the humanities teach us who we are and what we can be. They lie at the very core of the culture of which we're a part, and they provide the foundation from which we may reach out to other cultures so that the great heritage that is ours may be enriched by, as well as itself enrich, other enduring traditions. We honor the arts not because we want monuments to our own civilization but because we are a free people. The arts are among our nation's finest creations and the reflection of freedom's light.

The National Medal of Arts is to recognize those among us who make this possible. So now, Nancy, who does such a fine job as honorary chairman of our Committee on the Arts and Humanities, will announce the honorees.

Mrs. Reagan. Romare Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, but grew up in Harlem, where he was influenced by the music and culture of jazz. University-trained in mathematics, in the end, he decided to become an artist. The New York Times wrote of his 1986 "Retrospective," that "Bearden's tapestries are about memory and forgetting, wisdom and laughter, silence and song." Romare Bearden is an exceptional artist, reflecting the American surroundings of his own life. Mr. Bearden. [Applause]

Ella Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia, and received her early music education in the public schools of Yonkers, New York. As a teenager, she won an amateur contest at Harlem's Apollo Theater, and within a year, she had an engagement with the Chick Webb Band. She's toured widely in this country and abroad, teaming with such greats as Louis Armstrong, Count Basic, and Duke Elllington. Ella Fitzgerald is indeed our First Lady of Song.

Howard Nemerov was born in New York City and graduated from Harvard University. He's authored over two dozen books and taught at several universities. His work covers the entire spectrum of American culture and rituals, including poems about trees, water, people, and science. He's also a scholar of Dante, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Blake. A Pulitzer Prize winner, Howard Nemerov is truly a great writer and scholar.

Alwin Nikolais was born in Southington, Connecticut, and received his first commission to choreograph in 1940. He served as director of the Henry Street Playhouse for 22 years, and there he developed his form of abstract theatre. His career has now spanned four decades. Considered by many a revolutionary figure in the art of dance, Alwin Nikolais is an extraordinary part of that extraordinary American art form.

Isamu Noguchi was born in Los Angeles, but received his early education in Japan. He later apprenticed as a Guggenheim fellow with Brancusi, and he collaborated with Martha Graham, designing the sets for "Frontier." His unique sculpture bridges East and West. Committed to the art of our time, and yet an inspired reinventor of much that's ancient, Isamu Noguchi is a great artist and a great symbolic link between America and Japan.

William Schuman was born in New York City. He had his own jazz band and wrote popular songs in high school. And then he turned to symphonic music at 19, after hearing a concert of the New York Philharmonic. Mr. Schuman became president of the Juilliard School, establishing the Juilliard String Quartet and reforming the teaching of music theory. As a composer of 10 symphonies, 5 concertos, and many other works, and as a Pulitzer Prize winner, William Schuman's contribution to the music of America is enormous and lasting.

Robert Penn Warren was born in Guthrie, Kentucky. As a junior at Vanderbilt, he joined John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson, who edited the magazine The Fugitive. Mr. Warren has published 17 books of poetry and 10 novels. A recipient of 3 Pulitzer Prizes, 2 in poetry and i in fiction, Mr. Warren is our first Poet Laureate. His contributions to American letters are nothing short of extraordinary. Mr. Warren was unable to come today but has asked his friend, Mr. John Broderick, Assistant Librarian of the Library of Congress, to accept for him.

J. William Fisher was born in Marshalltown, Iowa, and was a composer in his early days. But he's best known as one who's spent a lifetime helping American opera, has been responsible for over 60 new opera productions throughout the country. He's also funded a theatre complex at Iowa State University, a professorial chair of music at the University of Iowa, and a fine arts and theatre center in his home town of Marshalltown. Bill Fisher, your generosity is in the American tradition, and the art of opera is the better for it.

Dr. Armand Hammer was born in New York City and trained as a physician. He began his business career in the Soviet Union while waiting for his medical internship. After his return in the 1930's, he organized the Hammer Galleries. As a philanthropist—I seem to be having trouble with my words— [laughter] —Dr. Hammer has enriched the collections of many museums, and his humanitarian endeavors have had worldwide impact. Dr. Hammer couldn't be with us today, but he's asked Mr. William McSweeny, president of Occidental International Corporation, to accept for him.

Frances and Sydney Lewis have devoted a lifetime to supporting the arts. Frances was born in New York City, and Sydney in Richmond, Virginia, where they both now live. They've spent 25 years collecting contemporary paintings, sculpture, design, and decorative arts; and they've supported artists from all over the country. Their generosity and a portion of their collection provide the basis for the new wing of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. Frances and Sydney Lewis, you continue the American tradition as great and sensitive volunteers for the arts.

The President. Well, now, Nancy, thank you, and thank all of you. Our honorees today have truly been leaders in writing the history of American freedom. So, all that's left for us to say now to all of you, in addition to congratulations to all of them, and a thank you to them for what they have contributed, and to all of you for being here also. Once again, thank you, and God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 1:34 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at a Luncheon for Recipients of the National Medal of Arts Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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