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Remarks by the President at the Presentation of the 2013 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal

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Location: Washington, DC

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

Well, welcome to the White House. It has been 200 years since Dolley Madison saved the portrait of George Washington that hangs in this room from an advancing British army. So I guess you could say that the White House has always supported the arts. (Laughter.) I'm glad to say that Michelle has never had to save any paintings that I know of from Bo or otherwise. (Laughter.) But we do believe in celebrating extraordinarily talented Americans and their achievements in the arts and in the humanities.

So I want to thank Jane Chu and Bro Adams, the chairs of the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities, for their outstanding work. And I want to thank members of Congress, including a great champion of the arts, Nancy Pelosi, for joining us this afternoon. (Applause.)

The late, great Maya Angelou once said, "A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song." Each of the men and women that we honor today has a song --- literally, in some cases. For others, it's a talent, or a drive, or a passion that they just had to share with the world.

To our honorees: Like most creative and brainy people, you did not cultivate your song for accolades or applause. If there were no medal for your work, I expect you'd still be out there designing buildings and making movies and digging through archives and asking tough questions in interviews.

But we do honor you today -- because your accomplishments have enriched our lives and reveal something about ourselves and about our country. And we can never take for granted the flash of insight that comes from watching a great documentary or reading a great memoir or novel, or seeing an extraordinary piece of architecture. We can't forget the wonder we feel when we stand before an incredible work of art, or the world of memories we find unlocked with a simple movement or a single note.

The moments you help create --- moments of understanding or awe or joy or sorrow --- they add texture to our lives. They are not incidental to the American experience; they are central to it -- they are essential to it. So we not only congratulate you this afternoon, we thank you for an extraordinary lifetime of achievement.

I'll just close by telling a tale of something that took place in this house, back in 1862. President Lincoln called together a meeting of his Cabinet to present them with the Emancipation Proclamation. But that was not the first item on his agenda. This is a little-known story. Instead, he began reading out loud from a story from the humorist, Artemus Ward. It was a story called, "High-Handed Outrage at Utica." According to one often-repeated account, after he finished a chapter, Lincoln laughed and laughed. His Cabinet did not. (Laughter.) So Lincoln read them another chapter. (Laughter.) And they still sat there in stony silence. Finally, he put the book down, and said, "Gentlemen, why don't you laugh? You need this medicine as much as I do."

To be clear, I probably will not be trying this in my Cabinet meetings. (Laughter.) Certainly not if I'm presenting something like the Emancipation Proclamation. (Laughter.) But what Lincoln understood is that the arts and the humanities aren't just there to be consumed and enjoyed whenever we have a free moment in our lives. We rely on them constantly. We need them. Like medicine, they help us live.

So, once again, I want to thank tonight's honorees for creating work that I'm sure would have met President Lincoln's high standards. In this complicated world, and in these challenging times, you've shared a song with us and enhanced the character of our country, and for that we are extraordinarily grateful.

It is now my privilege to present these medals to each of the recipients after their citation is read.

So, our outstanding military aides, please. (Applause.)

MILITARY AIDE: The National Medal of Arts recipients:

Julia Alvarez. The 2013 National Medal of Arts to Julia Alvarez -- (applause) -- for her extraordinary storytelling. In poetry and in prose, Ms. Alvarez explores themes of identity, family and cultural divides. She illustrates the complexity of navigating two worlds and reveals the human capacity for strength in the face of oppression. (Applause.)

Accepting on behalf of Brooklyn Academy of Music, Karen Brooks Hopkins. (Applause.) The 2013 National Medal of Arts to Brooklyn Academy of Music for innovative contributions to the performing and visual arts. For over 150 years, BAM has showcased the works of both established visionaries and emerging artists who take risks and push boundaries. (Applause.)

Joan Harris. (Applause.) The 2013 National Medal of Arts to Joan Harris for supporting creative expression in Chicago and across our country. Her decades of leadership and generosity have enriched our cultural life and helped countless artists, dancers, singers and musicians bring their talents to center stage. (Applause.)

Bill T. Jones. (Applause.) The 2013 National Medal of Arts to Bill T. Jones for his contributions as a dancer and choreographer. Renowned for provocative performances that blend an eclectic mix of modern and traditional dance, Mr. Jones creates works that challenge us to confront tough subjects and inspire us to greater heights. (Applause.)

John Kander. (Applause.) The 2013 National Medal of Arts to John Kander for his contributions as a composer. For more than half a century, Mr. Kander has enlivened Broadway, television and film through songs that evoke romanticism and wonder, and capture moral dilemmas that persist across generations. (Applause.)

Jeffrey Katzenberg. (Applause.) The 2013 National Medal of Arts to Jeffrey Katzenberg for lighting up our screens and opening our hearts through animation and cinema. Mr. Katzenberg has embraced new technology to develop the art of storytelling and transform the way we experience film. (Applause.)

Maxine Hong Kingston. (Applause.) The 2013 National Medal of Arts to Maxine Hong Kingston for her contributions as a writer. Her novels and non-fiction have examined how the past influences our present, and her voice has strengthened our understanding of Asian American identity, helping shape our national conversation about culture, gender and race. (Applause.)

Albert Maysles. (Applause.) The 2013 National Medal of Arts to Albert Maysles for rethinking and remaking documentary film in America. One of the pioneers of direct cinema, he has offered authentic depictions of people and communities across the globe for nearly 60 years. By capturing raw emotions and representations, his work reflects the unfiltered truths of our shared humanity. (Applause.)

Linda Ronstadt. (Applause.) The 2013 National Medal of Arts to Linda Ronstadt for her one-of-a-kind voice and her decades of remarkable music. Drawing from a broad range of influences, Ms. Ronstadt defied expectations to conquer American radio waves and help pave the way for generations of women artists. (Applause.)

Billie Tsien and Tod Williams. (Applause.) The 2013 National Medal of Arts to Billie Tsien and Tod Williams for their contributions to architecture and arts education. Whether public or private, their deliberate and inspired designs have a profound effect on the lives of those who interact with them, and their teaching and spirit of service have inspired young people to pursue their passions. (Applause.)

James Turrell. (Applause.) The 2013 National Medal of Arts to James Turrell for his groundbreaking visual art. Capturing the powers of light and space, Mr. Turrell builds experiences that force us to question reality, challenging our perceptions not only of art, but also of the world around us. (Applause.)

National Humanities Medal Recipients:

M. H. Abrams. (Applause.) The 2013 National Humanities Medal to M. H. Abrams for broadening the study of literature. As a scholar, writer and critic, Dr. Abrams has expanded our perception of the romantic tradition and explored the modern concept of artistic self-expression in Western culture, influencing and inspiring generations of students. (Applause.)

Accepting on behalf of American Antiquarian Society, Ellen Dunlap. (Applause.) The 2013 National Humanities Medal to American Antiquarian Society for safeguarding the American story. For more than two centuries, the Society has amassed an unparalleled collection of historic American documents, served as a research center for scholars and students alike, and connected generations of Americans to their cultural heritage. (Applause.)

David Brion Davis. (Applause.) The 2013 National Humanities Medal to David Brion Davis for reshaping our understanding of history. Dr. Davis has shed light on the contradiction of a Union founded on liberty, yet existing half-slave and half-free. And his examinations of slavery and abolitionism drive us to keep making moral progress in our time. (Applause.)

William Theodore de Bary. (Applause.) The 2013 National Humanities Medal to William Theodore De Bary for enlightening our view of the world. As a scholar of East Asian Studies, Dr. de Bary has fostered a global conversation based on the common values and experiences shared by all cultures, helping to bridge differences and build trust. (Applause.)

Darlene Clark Hine. (Applause.) The 2013 National Humanities Medal to Darlene Clark Hine for enriching our understanding of the African American experience. Through prolific scholarship and leadership, Dr. Hine has examined race, class and gender, and has shown how the struggles and successes of African American women have shaped the nation we are today. (Applause.)

John Paul Jones. (Applause.) The 2013 National Humanities Medal to John Paul Jones for honoring nature and indigenous traditions in architecture. As the creative mind behind diverse and cherished institutions around the world, Mr. Jones has designed spaces worthy of the cultures they reflect, the communities they serve, and the environments they inhabit. (Applause.)

Stanley Nelson. (Applause.) The 2013 National Humanities Medal to Stanley Nelson for documenting the stories of African Americans through film. By using his camera to tell both well-known and lesser-known narratives, Mr. Nelson has exposed injustices and highlighted triumphs, revealing new depths of our nation's history. (Applause.)

Diane Rehm. (Applause.) The 2013 National Humanities Medal to Diane Rehm for illuminating the people and stories behind the headlines. In probing interviews with everyone from pundits to poets to Presidents, Ms. Rehm's keen insights and boundless curiosity have deepened our understanding of our culture and ourselves. (Applause.)

Anne Firor Scott. (Applause.) The 2013 National Humanities Medal to Anne Firor Scott for pioneering the study of women in the American South. Dr. Scott's exploration of the previously unexamined lives of Southern women of different races, classes and political ideologies has established women's history as vital to our conception of Southern history. (Applause.)

Krista Tippett. (Applause.) The 2013 National Humanities Medal to Krista Tippett for thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence. On the air and in print, Ms. Tippett avoids easy answers, embracing complexity and inviting people of every background to join her conversation about faith, ethics and moral wisdom. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: I think now is a good time for everybody to stand up and give these outstanding winners -- or recipients a big round of applause. (Applause.)

So congratulations to all of you. We could not be more appreciative of everything you've done. I was mentioning, as people were coming up, I've been personally touched by all sorts of these folks. I was mentioning to Maxine that when I was first writing my first book and trying to teach myself how to write, "The Woman Warrior" was one of the books I read. After the book was done, Diane was one of the few interviews that was granted. (Laughter.) I told Linda Ronstadt I had a little crush on her back in the day. (Laughter.) And I know all of you have been touched similarly by these amazing people.

So we are very grateful to you. On behalf of Michelle and myself, as we're taking pictures with the recipients and their families, please continue to enjoy the reception here.

Thank you very much, everybody. (Applause.)


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