Barack Obama photo

Remarks on Presenting the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal

September 22, 2016

The President. Thank you! Everybody, please have a seat, have a seat. Thank you so much. Everybody, please sit down. I can tell this is a rowdy crowd. Sit down. [Laughter]

Welcome to the White House, everybody. Now, throughout my time here, Michelle and I have tried to make it a priority to promote the arts and the humanities, especially for our young people, and it's because we believe that the arts and the humanities are, in many ways, reflective of our national soul. They're central to who we are as Americans: dreamers and storytellers and innovators and visionaries. They're what helps us make sense of the past, the good and the bad. They're how we chart a course for the future while leaving something of ourselves for the next generation to learn from.

And we are here today to honor the very best of their fields, creators who give every piece of themselves to their craft. As Mel Brooks once said—[laughter]—to her—to his writers on "Blazing Saddles," which is a great film: "Write anything you want, because we'll never be heard from again. We will all be arrested for this movie." [Laughter]

Now, to be fair, Mel also said, a little more eloquently, that "every human being has hundreds of separate people living inside his skin. And the talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, personalities and have them relate to other characters living within him." And that, I think, is what the arts and the humanities do. They lift up our identities and make us see ourselves in each other. And today's honorees each possess a gift for this kind of creative empathy, a gift that allows us to exchange a sense of what's most important and most profound in us and to identify with our collective experience as Americans.

Now, along with Mel, we have an impressive crew with us here today. We've got Terry Gross and a whole bunch of people who Terry Gross has interviewed. [Laughter] We have Jane Chu, our Chair of the National Endowment of the Arts, and Bro Adams, Chair of the National Endowment of the Humanities, who also just has a cool name. [Laughter] Bro. [Laughter] And we thank the Members of Congress who are here for their strong support of the arts and the humanities.

But today the focus is on our recipients. And today's recipients of the National Medals of the Arts and the Humanities are poets, musicians, artists, journalists, professors, historians, and at least one chef. Their paths and their mediums could hardly be more different, and that's what makes them great. They take their piece of this big, bold, diverse, energetic country, they reshape it, and then they share it with us. They open our experience to theirs, and for that, we honor them here today.

We honor poets like Louise Glück, whose probing poems capture the quiet drama of nature and the quiet emotions of everyday people. Throughout her life, fastidious, attentive readers have taught her that there are "ears that receive." As a professor, she strives to be a receiving ear for others, and she's inspired generations of young poets who are her students and readers alike. Once, when asked how she hoped the world would respond to her work, Louise said she wanted William Blake to come down from heaven and say, "You did a very good job." [Laughter] Now, I don't think that's happened. [Laughter] So you will have to settle for us today. [Laughter]

We honor musicians like Philip Glass. Like his own life as a Juilliard-trained New York City cab driver, Philip's work is full of contradictions that cross genres and cultures. When the music he made strayed from neat conventions, audiences didn't know always how to react. I understand that there have been some eggs thrown occasionally. [Laughter] But, as Philip said, "What seems strange or bizarre for any short period of time starts becoming familiar, and whatever artistic rewards or secrets it might have become revealed." So change isn't easy. But over his career of symphonies and operas and film scores, Philip Glass has proven that change can be beautiful.

We honor historians like Isabel Wilkerson, whose masterpiece "The Warmth of Other Suns" made the story of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North and West accessible to a new generation of Americans. To craft this remarkable book, Isabel spent 15 painstaking years trekking between archives and living rooms, interviewing more than 1,200 people who told her their families' stories of heartbreak and endurance and ultimately overcoming, stories they often found too painful to share even with their own children. And through it all, she had to conquer the enormity of her task and prove wrong the doubts of others. And because she did, one of the most important chapters in our history is told in a book any young person can pick up and read.

And that's just a sampling of the extraordinary accomplishments that are represented here today. We honor Rudolfo Anaya, José Andrés, Mel Brooks, Ron Chernow, Sandra Cisneros, Philip Glass, Louise Glück, Berry Gordy, Santiago Jiménez, Moisés Kaufman, Ralph Lemon, Audra McDonald, Terry Gross, James McBride, Louis Menand, the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, Elaine Pagels, the Prison University Project, Luis Valdez, Abraham Verghese, Jack Whitten, Isabel Wilkerson. We also honor Wynton Marsalis, who unfortunately could not make it here today, and Morgan Freeman, who undoubtedly is off playing a Black President again. The—[laughter]. He never lets me have my moment. [Laughter] You know, it's just—he's always, like—[laughter].

All of today's honorees work in an age where the stories we tell and the technologies that we use to tell them are more diverse than ever before and as diverse as the country that we love. "Every human being has hundreds of separate people living inside his skin." It echoes what Whitman once wrote about America, that we are large, containing multitudes. It's what's so great about this country, that there is no single, set way to contribute. All of us belong. All of us have a story to tell. Even when you think your story is too different, too strange, too unique, there's someone out there who's been waiting their whole life to hear you tell your story, because it's just like theirs. What a great gift all of you have given us.

So today we thank you, today's honorees, who have had the bravery to go first and tell their story and make us feel a little bit better about ours.

So with that, let's give out some awards. Let's read the citations. Thank you.

They're very big, by the way. [Laughter]

[At this point, Lt. Cmdr. Richard I. Lawlor, USN, Navy Aide to the President, read the first 10 citations, and the President presented the medals, assisted by Lt. Cmdr. Ginny R. Nadolny, USCG, Coast Guard Aide to the President. The President then spoke to Lt. Cmdr. Lawlor as follows.] The President. Did we skip Audra McDonald?

[The citation for musician and actor Audra McDonald appeared to be misplaced.]

The President. I was thinking of getting—[inaudible]. [Laughter] You're feeling kind of left out. [Laughter]

Audience member. From Fresno. From Fresno, Mr. President.

The President. Huh?

Audience member. From Fresno.

The President. See, you've got a lot of boosters here. [Laughter] I can make up the citation if you want. [Laughter]

Lt. Cmdr. Lawlor. Let's do that. Let's do that, sir. [Laughter]

The President. All right. You don't have it in there?

Lt. Cmdr. Lawlor. No, sir.

[A White House aide brought the citation to the podium.]

The President. Here we go. [Laughter]

Lt. Cmdr. Lawlor. I'm sorry. Audra McDonald. [Applause]

[Lt. Cmdr. Lawlor read the citation. After being presented with her medal, Ms. McDonald returned to her seat.]

Audience member. We love you, Audra!

The President. From Fresno. [Laughter]

Audience members. From Fresno!

[Lt. Cmdr. Lawlor continued reading the citations, and the President presented the medals, assisted by Lt. Cmdr. Nadolny. As he returned to his seat having received his medal, writer and educator Rudolfo Anaya spoke as follows.]

Mr. Anaya. Viva Obama!

The President. This really is a rowdy crowd. [Laughter] Usually, these are much more serious. [Inaudible]

[Lt. Cmdr. Lawlor read the remaining citations, and the President presented the medals, assisted by Lt. Cmdr. Nadolny.]

The President. Those are our honorees. Let's give them a big round of applause again. [Applause] Hey! Well, once again, we thank them for their extraordinary contributions. We look forward to all the work they will be doing in the future.

Just a couple of other comments. One, I think Louise Glück has the coolest outfit—[laughter]—especially those spiked sneakers. I'm glad that Audra is already a good friend of mine. [Laughter] So the fact that they kind of left out the citation, I think she'll forgive me. And I do think Mel Brooks kind of set the tone for this thing—[laughter]—because, historically, this has been a much more staid affair. [Laughter] But somehow, I think my quote of him in the beginning, it threw everything off. [Laughter]

Everybody, have fun. Enjoy the reception. Thank you. God bless you.

NOTE: The President spoke at 11:49 a.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to writer, actor, filmmaker, and playwright Melvin Brooks; Terry Gross, host and co-executive producer, NPR's "Fresh Air" program; Louise Glück, adjunct professor of English and RosenKranz Writer in Residence, Yale University; José Ramón Andrés Puerta, chef/owner, ThinkFoodGroup; historian Ron Chernow; writer Sandra Cisneros; Berry Gordy, Jr., founder, Motown Records; musicians Santiago Jimènez, Jr., and Wynton Marsalis; playwrights and directors Moisés Kaufman and Luis Valdez; choreographer and dancer Ralph Lemon; author, musician, and screenwriter James McBride; Louis Menand, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English, Harvard University; Elaine Pagels, Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion, Princeton University; Abraham Verghese, Linda R. Meier and Joan F. Lane Provostial Professor, Stanford University's School of Medicine; painter Jack Whitten; and actor Morgan Freeman. The transcript released by the Office of the Press Secretary also included the reading of the citations.

Barack Obama, Remarks on Presenting the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Filed Under




Washington, DC

Simple Search of Our Archives