The people honored at the White House Wednesday for their contributions to the arts and humanities ranged from a Tony-winning playwright to a National Book Award winner to the creator of Star Wars, but despite their diverse backgrounds, they all have one thing in common, according to the President. “They’re teachers, whether they know it or not,” President Obama said, praising the 20 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal recipients for their commitment to illuminating the “untold stories of history.”
Those given oversize medals included film producer George Lucas, playwright Tony Kushner, soprano Renée Fleming, musician Allen Toussaint, artist Ellsworth Kelly, and writer Joan Didion, a tiny figure in a beige dress and blue cape next to the President and the Marine who helped her to the stage. Didion, the President said, “rightfully has earned distinction as one of the most celebrated writers of her generation.”
Also honored was the Washington Performing Arts Society, cited for “bringing world-class performances to our nation’s capital” in its role as a producing institution, and sportswriter Frank Deford. “I grew up reading Sports Illustrated, and I think it was very good for me,” the President said, also joking that before Star Wars irrevocably changed the nature of special effects in film, movies mostly featured spaceships made out of models hanging from pieces of string.
The President has been criticized for failing to appoint a new chairman to the National Endowment for the Arts, the agency that bestows the awards alongside the National Endowment for the Humanities, but he affirmed his belief that arts and humanities stimulate the human imagination, which he said is “still the most powerful tool we have as a people.” Quoting Robert F. Kennedy, he likened them to “ripples of hope like stones in a lake.”
See the full list of honorees and their citations.