President Barack Obama paid beautiful lip service to great American artists and arts yesterday, conferring the 2010 National Medal of Arts and Humanities on heroes including Sonny Rollins, age 80. “I speak personally here,” said the president at 3 minutes, 30 seconds into his address, alluding to authors, poets, historians, “because there are people here whose works shaped me. I’ve got these thumbworn editions of these works of arts, and these old records from when they were still vinyl, Sonny, before they went digital, that helped inspire me, or get me through a tough day, or take risks that I might not otherwise have taken, and I think what’s true for me is true for everyone here and true for our country.” Amen to that. Sonny takes his bows at minute 16, after Quincy Jones, before James Taylor.
But the House of Representatives disagrees, cutting the entire $40 million Arts in Education program of the U.S. Department of Education on the heels of cutting the National Endowment for the Arts budget by 26%, largest slashing in 16 years.
Among my personal inspirations in the crowd of honored 20: Joyce Carol Oates, Harper Lee, Jacques Barzun and especially Philip Roth. Not that I disdain Donald Hall, Robert Brustein, Mark di Suvero or Meryl Streep . . .Apologies to Wendell Berry, whom I’ve meant to read but haven’t yet.