President Obama Awards National Medal of the Arts to Tony Kushner, Elaine May & More

Earlier today, President Barack Obama presented the National Medal of Arts in conjunction with the National Humanities Medals. The medals were presented by the President during an East Room ceremony at the White House. The National Medal of Arts is a White House initiative managed by the National Endowment for the Arts. Each year, the NEA organizes and oversees the National Medal of Arts nomination process and notifies the artists of their selection to receive a medal, the nation's highest honor for artistic excellence.

This year's recipients were: Herb Alpert, Musician and Producer; Lin Arison, Arts Patron; Joan Myers; Renée Fleming, Soprano; Ernest Gaines, Author; Ellsworth Kelly, Visual Artist; Tony Kushner, Playwright; George Lucas, Director and Producer; Elaine May, Writer, Director, and Performer; Laurie Olin, Landscape Architect; Allen Toussaint, Musician and Producer.

The full speech is below:

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you so much. (Applause.) Thank you. (Applause.) Hey! Thank you. Everybody, please have a seat. See, everybody is cheering because I've bought their books, I've seen their movies, I buy their records. (Laughter.) So we're major contributors here.

Well, hello, everybody, and welcome to the White House. Thank you for joining us to celebrate the recipients of the 2012 -- because I guess this is retrospective -- National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medals.

One of the special privileges of this office is getting a chance to honor individuals who've played an important role in my life as well as in the nation's life. And that's what today is all about -- celebrating some extraordinary men and women who've used their talents in the arts and the humanities to open up minds and nourish souls, and help us understand what it means to be human, and what it means to be an American.

I want to give some special thanks to the people who help to preserve and to support that cultural legacy -- the Acting Chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Joan Shigekawa. Give Joan a big round of applause. (Applause.) Where is she? There she is. And her predecessor, the irrepressible Rocco Landesman -- (applause) -- as well as the Acting Chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Carole Watson. (Applause.) Both organizations do an incredible job lifting up some of today's best artists and scholars, and helping to cultivate the next generation of talent and intellect.

And I'd like to also acknowledge the co-chairs of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, George Stevens, Jr. -- where's George? There he is. (Applause.) As well as Margo Lion -- where's Margo? Good to see you. (Applause.) As well as members of Congress who are here today, all of whom support the arts.

But we are primarily here to acknowledge these incredible individuals. And, frankly, this is just fun for me because I feel like I know you all because I've enjoyed your performances; your writings have fundamentally changed me -- I think for the better, Marilynne. I believe that.

At first glance, this is a pretty diverse group. We've got incredible singers and dancers; we have poets and producers; musicians, playwrights, scholars. They come from all across the country, all around the world. And yet, for all their differences, today's honorees have one thing in common -- and that is they are teachers. Whether they realize it or not, they've taught us about ourselves and about our world.

American philosopher Will Durant once wrote, "The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance." And that's an extraordinary skill -- to tell the untold stories of history; to reveal the sculpture that's waiting there in a block of stone; to transform written music into song; to make it look like those planes in space are actually flying like they are. (Laughter.) I'm just saying, I remember when I first saw Star Wars. (Laughter.) There's a whole generation that thinks special effects always look like they do today. (Laughter.) But it used to be you'd see, like, the string -- (laughter) -- on the little model spaceships. Anyway, I'm being led astray. (Laughter.)

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