WASHINGTON, D.C. (July 28, 2014) — The White House Office of the Press Secretary released the remarks of President Barack Obama in presenting the National Medal of Arts recipients for 2014 at the White House this week.
Among the many recipients were Maxine Hong Kingston, Billie Tsien and Tod Williams.
Presidential military aides read the citations as the President presented the honors.
““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.”
“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.
So congratulations to all of you. We could not be more appreciative of everything you’ve done,” Obama said. “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.”
“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.
“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. So Lincoln read them another chapter. 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. Certainly not if I’m presenting something like the Emancipation Proclamation. 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.