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Remarks by the President at the 2011 National Medals of Arts and Humanities Ceremony

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Location: Washington, DC

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you! Hello, everybody. (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you, everybody. Please, please have a seat. Thank you.

Thank you so much for joining us in this celebration of the arts and the humanities. Two outstanding public servants and ambassadors for the arts are here: Rocco Landesman. Where's Rocco? There he is, right here -- Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts. And Jim Leach. Where's Jim? Good to see you, Jim -- the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

We also have two good friends and co-chairs of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities who are here: Margo Lions and George Stevens. And I also want to acknowledge one of our honorees who, unfortunately, could not make it. Ever the artist, André Watts had a concert to give in Salt Lake City. (Laughter.) So give him a big round of applause in his absence. (Applause.)

Michelle and I love this event. This is something we look forward to every single year, because it's a moment when America has a chance to pay tribute to extraordinary men and women who have excelled in the arts and the humanities, and who, along the way, have left an indelible mark on American culture. That's all the honorees we see here today. We honor your talents, we honor your careers, and your remarkable contributions to this country that we love.

Throughout our history, America has advanced not only because of the will of our citizens, not only because of the vision of our leaders or the might of our military. America has also advanced because of paintings and poems, stories and songs; the dramas and the dances that provide us comfort and instilled in us confidence; inspired in us a sense of mutual understanding, and a calling to always strive for a more perfect union.

Emily Dickinson wrote, "I dwell in possibility." "I dwell in possibility." And so does the American spirit. That's who we are as a people. And that's who our honorees are. Each of you have traveled a unique path to get here. And your fields represent the full spectrum of the arts and humanities. With us are actors and poets, authors, singers, philosophers, sculptors, curators, musicians, and historians. We even have an economist, which we don't always get on stage. (Laughter.)

But what connects every one of you is that you dwell in possibilities. You create new possibilities for all of us.
And that's a special trait. And it assigns you a special task. Because in moments of calm, as in moments of crisis; in times of triumph, as in times of tragedy: you help guide our growth as a people. The true power of the arts and the humanities is that you speak to everyone. There is not one of us here who hasn't had their beliefs challenged by a writer's eloquence; or their knowledge deepened by a historian's insights; or their sagging spirits lifted by a singer's voice. Those are some of the most endearing and memorable moments in our lives.

Equal to the impact you have on each of us every day as individuals is the impact you have on us as a society. And we are told we're divided as a people, and then suddenly the arts have this power to bring us together and speak to our common condition.

Recently, I've been reminded of Walt Whitman's famous poem "I Hear America Singing." And it's a poem that with simple eloquence spotlights our diversity and our spirit of rugged individualism -- the messy, energized, dynamic sense of what it is to be an American. And Whitman lifts up the voices of mechanics and carpenters; masons and boatmen; shoemakers, wood-cutters; the mother and the young wife at work, "each singing what belongs to him or her, and to none else."

And it's true that we all have songs in our souls that are only ours. We all have a unique part in the story of America. But that story is bigger than any one of us. And it endures because we are all heirs to a fundamental truth: that out of many, are one -- this incredible multitude.
I hear America singing today. I hear America singing through the artists and the writers that we honor this afternoon; the men and women who are following in the footsteps of Whitman and Hemingway, and Souza and Armstrong, and Eakins and Rockwell. But I also hear America singing through the artists and writers who will be sitting here a few decades from now with another President; the students in Denver who recently wrote a play about teenage homelessness; or the kids in Grand Rapids who designed a mural to bring joy to a struggling community. They're singing what Whitman called "strong melodious songs."

And somewhere in America, the next great writer is wrestling with the first draft of an English paper. (Laughter.) Somewhere the next great actor is mustering up the courage to try out for that school play. Somewhere the next great artist is doodling on their homework. Somewhere the next great thinker is asking their teacher, "why not?" They're out there right now dwelling in possibility.

So as we honor the icons of today, we also have to champion the icons of tomorrow. They need our support; we need them to succeed. We need them to succeed as much as we need engineers and scientists. We also need artists and scholars. We need them to take the mantle from you; to do their part to disrupt our views and to challenge our presumptions, and most of all to stir in us a need to be our better selves.

The arts and the humanities do not just reflect America. They shape America. And as long as I am President, I look forward to making sure they are a priority for this country. (Applause.)

It is now my distinct privilege to present these medals to the award winners who we have here today. And as the citations are read, I'm sure you've gotten extensive instructions from our military aides. (Laughter.)

MILITARY AIDE: The National Medal of Arts recipients:

Will Barnet. (Applause.) The 2011 National Medal of Arts to Will Barnet for his contributions as an American painter, printmaker, and teacher. Widely celebrated for a lifelong exploration of abstraction, expressionism, and geometry that marry sophistication and emotion with beauty and form, Mr. Barnet has been a constant force in the visual arts world. (Applause.)

Rita Dove. (Applause.) The 2011 National Medal of Arts to Rita Dove for her contributions to American letters and her service as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993 to 1995. Through works that blend beauty, lyricism, critique, and politics, Ms. Dove has illuminated American poetry and literature, and cultivated popular interest in the arts. (Applause.)

Al Pacino. (Applause.) The 2011 National Medal of Arts to Al Pacino for his iconic contributions to American film and theater as actor and director. Recognized around the world for his signature intensity of the silver screen, Mr. Pacino stands among America's most accomplished artists. (Applause.)

Emily Rauh Pulitzer. (Applause.) The 2011 National Medal of Arts to Emily Rauh Pulitzer for her contributions as a curator, art collector, and philanthropist. The founder of the Pulitzer Prize for the Arts, Mrs. Pulitzer has broadened the impact of the arts in our national life by bringing great works into the public sphere. (Applause.)

Martin Puryear. (Applause.) The 2011 National Medal of Arts to Martin Puryear for his reflections on history, culture and identity through sculpture. Mr. Puryear's mastery of wood, stone and metal, and his commitment to manual skill offer a stirring counterpoint to an increasingly digital world. (Applause.)

Mel Tillis. (Applause.) The 2011 National Medal of Arts to Mel Tillis for his contributions to country music. With over 1,000 songs and more than 60 albums to his name, Mr. Tillis's unique blend of warmth and humor distinguishes him as one of the most inventive singer-songwriters of his generation. (Applause.)

Accepting on behalf of the USO, United Service Organizations, Sloan Gibson. (Applause.) The 2011 National Medal of Arts to United Service Organizations for lifting the spirits of service members and their families through the arts. The USO continues to support members of our armed forces by bringing iconic American artists to share the sights and sounds of home with troops stationed around the world. (Applause.)

The National Humanities Medal recipients:

Kwame Anthony Appiah. (Applause.) The 2011 National Humanities Medal to Kwame Anthony Appiah for his contributions to philosophy and the pursuit of truth in the contemporary world. Dr. Appiah's writing within and beyond his academic discipline sheds light on the idea of the individual in an era of globalization and evolving group identities. (Applause.)

John Ashbery. (Applause.) The 2011 National Humanities Medal to John Ashbery for his contributions to American letters. One of the New York School of Poets, his work has profoundly influenced generation of writers and garnered awards spanning the Pulitzer Prize to the Grand Prix de Biennales Internationales de Poésie. (Applause.)

Robert Darnton. (Applause.) The 2011 National Humanities Medal to Robert Darnton for his commitment to making knowledge accessible to everyone. An eminent cultural historian and librarian, Dr. Darnton has illuminated the world of Enlightenment and Revolutionary France, and has pursued his vision for a national library of digitized books. (Applause.)

Andrew Delbanco. (Applause.) The 2011 National Humanities Medal to Andrew Delbanco for his insight into the American character, past and present. In writing that spans the literature of Melville and Emerson to contemporary issues in higher education, he has continually informed our understanding of what is means to live in America. (Applause.)

Accepting on behalf of National History Day, Cathy Gorn. (Applause.) The 2011 National Humanities Medal to National History Day for sparking passion for history in students across our country. Every year National History Day inspires more than half a million young Americans to write, perform, research, and document the human story. (Applause.)

Charles Rosen. (Applause.) The 2011 National Humanities Medal to Charles Rosen for his contributions as a pianist and a scholar. Demonstrating a rare ability to join artistry to the history of culture and ideas, his writings on Classical composers and the Romantic tradition highlight how music evolves and remains a vibrant, living art. (Applause.)

Teofilo F. Ruiz. (Applause.) The 2011 National Humanities Medal to Teofilo F. Ruiz for his outstanding scholarship in history. An accomplished teacher and author, Dr. Ruiz has captivated students and scholars by deepening our knowledge of medieval Spain and Europe, and exploring the role terror has played in society for centuries. (Applause.)

Ramón Saldívar. (Applause.) The 2011 National Humanities Medal to Ramón Saldívar for his bold exploration of identity along the border separating the United States and Mexico. In his studies of Chicano literature and the development of the novel in Europe and America, Dr. Saldívar highlights the cultural and literary markings that divide and unite us. (Applause.)

Amartya Sen. (Applause.) The 2011 National Humanities Medal to Amartya Sen for his insights into the causes of poverty, famine, and injustice. By applying philosophical thinking to questions of policy, he has changed how standards of living are measured and increased our understanding of how to fight hunger. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Let's give a big hand to our award winners today. (Applause.)

Well, we are just blessed to have this incredible array of talent and inspiration with us here today. We are so glad we had the opportunity to make this small gesture of appreciation and thanks to all that you have contributed to us.

Each and every day you continue to inform who we are as a people, and we could not be prouder of everything that you've done, and we know you've got a lot more to do, so keep at it.

In the meantime, for everybody who is gathered here today, we have a wonderful reception. So please enjoy. The food is usually pretty good around here. (Laughter.) The music is even better. I think the Marine Band will probably be out there playing a few tunes. And again, we are very thankful to all the honorees here today for everything that you've done for our country. Congratulations. (Applause.)


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