I had the great opportunity to attend the ceremony awarding the National Medal of Arts and Humanities in September at the White House. This is the highest honor bestowed on artists, scholars and writers who have labored a lifetime to create seminal works that impacted a nation and world. These were the best of the best in their fields.
The award-winners were selected by the National Councils of the Arts and Humanities (full disclosure, I serve on the Arts Council), part of the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. The selection process included intense discussions about the merit and achievements of numerous artists. This award, especially for those who work in lesser-known fields, recognizes accomplishments that truly rose above and beyond.
A gala dinner the evening before the ceremony allowed for conversations, introductions, selfies and, of course, congratulations. I was not that familiar with the work of some recipients.
▪ Meredith Monk, a composer and singer for groundbreaking vocal techniques
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▪ Everett Fly, a landscape architect who won historical recognition for sites central to African American history
I knew of the work of others, had their books or read their research.
▪ Miriam Colon, actress and trailblazer, who opened doors for generations of Latino performers
▪ Vicki Ruiz, historian, who gave voice to Mexican American women laborers
Others were famous and well known.
▪ Authors Annie Dillard, Larry McMurtry and Stephen King
The next day at the White House, during the presentation ceremony, President Barack Obama’s introductory remarks were light yet sincere in acknowledging the achievements of the honorees. As each received a medal, bowing slightly as the president draped the medal over his or her shoulders, a glow seemed to rise from the individuals. They beamed – and who wouldn’t?
What struck me most was a humility that filled the room, especially during the following reception. The achievements by these artists and writers were not accompanied by egos. Tobias Wolff, an author and educator who examined themes of American identity, grinned as we exchanged a few stories over the shrimp and scallops. Somehow food helps level the field. We all have to eat. Actress Sally Field seemed amazingly shy and genuine. She was willing to make eye contact with us strangers as we shook hands and talked. I believed her famous line, when accepting her Oscar years ago, was heartfelt: “You like me.”
Three individuals moved me with their responses to winning this prestigious award. Ping Chong, whose contributions to theater that explores our understanding of humanity, told me that winning this award was not an end but a beginning. At nearly 70 years old, he was now motivated to do even more.
Ann Hamilton, a visual artist who challenges our understanding of arts in a digital age, stood alone during the White House events, as if inviting others to engage. I had a limited knowledge of her work, yet she allowed me to share in the moment of her success. I asked if this made worthwhile all the hours and days of work and practice, the struggle of being underpaid as an artist and often lacking recognition. She simply grinned. This was a type of confirmation for the work of all struggling artists.
And finally, the one recipient I can call a friend, Alice Waters, understood the meaning of the moment. A recognition that food has meaning. An awakening that others recognized her lifetime work of championing food as part of our healthy lives and the holistic approach to the ethical and edible. An awareness that she has elevated eating to another level of significance. And yet, she allowed us to be a witness. Not about her but about all the efforts of artists and writers – to share in the celebration and recognition. Alice said the award is nothing without others.
At the end of the White House event, only a handful of us remained. The president’s Marine Band performed a final song. Throughout the reception, it had played stunning music, but the final song was a modern score from a movie. Waters stood by the conductor, breaking the typical space between musicians and audience. Hamilton stood near the violins and gently swayed with their bowing. I joined them both. I did not have a medal of honor around my neck. I did not have such skill and talent to achieve what these artists had accomplished. But for a moment, I stood next to them, and they allowed me to hug them. The music soared, rose with a crescendo.
This is what the arts and humanities are all about: meaning, spirit, expression, emotions, significance and inspiration. Throughout the ceremony, I wondered what these artists thought. Did they look back at their careers and the pain, struggle and suffering, yet with the joy and delight of creating art? They allowed some of us to witness this moment with them. I was moved by their presence, their art but most of all, their humility.
Later, I discovered the name of the final song. It was the theme of the film “Cast Away.” It was fitting as the final piece. Arts are so often cast away, unclaimed, exiled to a seemingly deserted island. But, if we are lucky, we can discover the truth and spirit of the arts and humanities, our souls can soar and our spirits may climb.
We lift our heads. We rise. We can fly.
Award-winning author and organic farmer David Mas Masumoto of Del Rey writes about the San Joaquin Valley and its people. He is a member of the National Council on the Arts.