Obama Honors the Arts … and 'Star Wars'

Awarding the national medals for arts and humanities, President Obama today highlighted the cultural importance of the literary work of Joan Didion, the rhythm and blues of Allen Toussaint, and, of course, the cool special effects of "Star Wars."

Recalling the first time he saw "Star Wars," the president joked how Medal of Arts recipient filmmaker George Lucas transformed special effects to "make it look like those planes in space are actually flying."

"I remember when I first saw 'Star Wars,'" he said, chuckling. "There's a whole generation that thinks special effects always look like they do today. But it used to be you'd see, like, the string on the little model spaceships."

"I'm being led astray," he told the audience at the formal White House ceremony.

With his remarks back on track, the president praised the 24 honorees for their outstanding contributions to the nation's arts and humanities.

"At first glance, this is a pretty diverse group," he said. "We've got incredible singers and dancers; we have poets and producers; musicians, playwrights, scholars. They come from all across the country, all around the world. And yet, for all their differences, today's honorees have one thing in common - and, that is, they are teachers. Whether they realize it or not, they've taught us about ourselves and about our world."

"Because the arts and the humanities aren't just a source of entertainment, they challenge us to think and to question and to discover, to seek that inward significance - and that helps us grow and to change and to reach new heights, and to understand each other at a time when the world is constantly crying for the capacity to bridge that gap and speak to people who aren't like us," he said.

Here is a full list of honorees:

2012 National Medal of Arts

  • Herb Alpert
  • Lin Arison
  • Joan Myers Brown
  • Renée Fleming
  • Ernest Gaines
  • Ellsworth Kelly
  • Tony Kushner
  • George Lucas
  • Elaine May
  • Laurie Olin
  • Allen Toussaint
  • Washington Performing Arts Society, Washington, D.C.

2012 National Humanities Medal

  • Edward L. Ayers
  • William G. Bowen
  • Jill Ker Conway
  • Natalie Zemon Davis
  • Frank Deford
  • Joan Didion
  • Robert Putnam
  • Marilynne Robinson
  • Kay Ryan
  • Robert B. Silvers
  • Anna Deavere Smith
  • Camilo José Vergara
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