George Lucas, Joan Didion, Ellsworth Kelly, and More Honored at the White House

President Obama presented the National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal to 20 leading figures Wednesday.
President Obama and George Lucas. Photograph by Sophie Gilbert.
President Obama and George Lucas. Photograph by Sophie Gilbert.

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.

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