Obama on Arts & Humanities: For Inspiration & To “Seem Deep” Reciting Poetry to a Girlfriend

Mar 2, 2011 4:58pm

ABC News' Sunlen Miller reports:

Noting that many of the honorees “helped inspire me, or get me through a tough day or take risk that I might not otherwise have taken,” President Obama today honored 20 people this afternoon with the National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal.

The honorees were varied – including poets, authors, actors, and musicians – from Quincy Jones, to James Taylor, Meryl Streep to Harper Lee. Speaking personally, the president said that honorees have all shaped him.

“I've got these thumb-worn editions of these works of art and these old records where they were still vinyl,” Obama said in the East Room ceremony, “One of the great joys of being President is getting a chance to pay tribute to the artists and authors, the poets and performers, who have touched our hearts and opened our minds — or, in the case of Quincy Jones and James Taylor, set the mood."

The president said that works of art, literature and history speak to the human condition and “affirm our desire for something more and something better.”

"Time and again, the tools of change, and of progress, of revolution, of ferment — they’re not just pickaxes and hammers and screens and software, but they’ve also been brushes and pens and cameras and guitars."

The president said though that the goal doesn’t always have to be so “lofty.”

“The arts and the humanities help us through the hard times and they remind us of what make the good times worthwhile…. sometimes, we just need a break, a chance to laugh or escape from the moment.”

The president said that the work of the honorees will be carried with some forever, because they are so moved.

“We can think of the novels that have chronicled the American experience — from the streets of Newark to the courts of Alabama.  How many young people have come to see the senseless cruelty of racism — and the importance of standing up for what’s right — through the eyes of a girl named Scout?  How many young people have learned to think by reading the exploits of Portnoy and his complaints?"

And it can even help woo a woman, the president said.

"We also remember the art that challenged our assumptions; the scholarship that brought us closer to the events of our history; the poetry that we loved — or at least the poetry that we might recite to a girlfriend to seem deep.  Of course, we still hum the great songs by the musicians in this room — songs that in many cases have been the soundtrack of our lives over decades."

The president said that the strength of a nation "runs deeper than our military might; it runs deeper than our GDP — it’s also about our values and our ideals that each generation is called to uphold, and that each artist helps us better understand."

Meryl Strep and Harper Lee did not attend the event today.  The full list of honorees is below:

2010 National Medal of Arts

  • Robert Brustein
  • Van Cliburn
  • Mark di Suvero
  • Donald Hall
  • Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival
  • Quincy Jones
  • Harper Lee
  • Sonny Rollins
  • Meryl Streep
  • James Taylor

2010 National Humanities Medal

  • Daniel Aaron
  • Bernard Bailyn
  • Jacques Barzun
  • Wendell E. Berry
  • Roberto González Echevarría
  • Stanley Nider Katz
  • Joyce Carol Oates
  • Arnold Rampersad
  • Philip Roth
  • Gordon Wood
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