On August 3, the Kennedy Center announced the recipients of the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors. The KC Honors are one of the most prestigious artistic prizes in the world, with past recipients ranging from Martha Graham and Tennessee Williams, to Johnny Carson and Georg Solti, to Martha Argerich and the Eagles. Since the award’s inception, the Honors have recognized the lives and work of artists across cultures and disciplines; the only criterion holds that recipients must have made “lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts — whether in music, dance, theater, opera, motion pictures, or television,” according to the Kennedy Center’s 2017 press release. Recipients are honored each year in a reception at the White House, followed by a televised gala during which they are seated alongside the President and First Lady.
To claim that the Kennedy Center Honors have ever been anything but political would be naive. Art is political in its mere existence, be it free from censorship, in defiance of censorship, or in collusion with it. Creation is inherently a political act; any human activity — painting, dancing, banking, coding — is influenced by, and influences, the political systems that surround it. That’s not exactly a revelation. But the Kennedy Center’s very existence is political, given its role as the United States’ national performing arts center, a federally funded “living memorial” to JFK. That art and culture could — in fact, should — contribute to an American nationalism was one of President Kennedy’s recurring talking points. In a 1963 speech at Amherst College, he said:
I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.
It is significant, then, that when the Honors are awarded in the Kennedy Center Opera House on December 3 of this year, the man seated in the President’s chair — the man who will welcome the Honorees into the White House, and sit beside them in the Opera House balcony — will be a man who has repeatedly criticized and silenced artists; threatened to slash federal arts funding; and systematically demeaned, harassed, and in some cases literally endangered people who are women, queer, immigrants, religious minorities, people with disabilities, and people of color — all of whom consume art or create it, and all of whom have without question contributed to American culture as much as any Kennedy Center Honoree.
It is significant, as well, that this year’s Honorees are Carmen de Lavallade, Gloria Estefan, LL Cool J, Norman Lear, and Lionel Richie. That’s four people of color — including one refugee, Estefan, whose family fled from the Cuban Revolution, and who has advocated for refugees’ rights — plus outspoken Trump critic Lear, a Jewish war veteran who spent his career in television amplifying and normalizing the stories of communities of color. De Lavallade, a legendary dancer and choreographer, was one of the first African-American dancers to take the stage at the Metropolitan Opera. LL Cool J is the first rapper to receive the award, amplifying a marginalized art form built on Black narratives; he’s also been vocal about causes affecting marginalized communities that have largely been ignored or dismissed by the Trump administration. And Lionel Richie, while a celebrity friend of the President, once advised Trump to “do everything the opposite of what you said you’re gonna do.”
Lear plans to boycott the Honors White House reception as a statement against the administration’s failure to fund and support the arts, and Estefan hopes to use the platform to share the contributions of immigrant artists to American life. It’s hard to imagine a group of artists whose uncontested artistic excellence — paired with their existence as marginalized voices and bodies, immigrants, advocates, activists — positions them any more staunchly in loud, unabashed dissent from everything the Trump presidency stands for.
And then there was this:
Washington Post arts critic Philip Kennicott responded to the announcement of the Honorees with an opinion article titled “The Kennedy Center Honors abandons the arts for pop culture”. The gist: recent Kennedy Center Honorees represent a “troubling” trend away from the “traditional arts” (classical music, theatre, ballet) and into the realm of “a commercial entertainment culture that has no need of the Kennedy Center, or the honors that bear its name.”
“This year, not one violinist, pianist, conductor or orchestral composer was chosen,” Kennicott complains. “No one from the opera world is represented […] For a cultural center built around an opera house and symphony hall, it’s depressing that this year not one classical musician has made the list and that again, this year, none of the musicians who have made America a force in pioneering the early instruments movement were included.”
It’s depressing? I mean, I love historical performance as much as the next guy, but name one early music maven who has made “lifetime contributions to American culture” — to American culture, not to the culture exercised by a select few who happen to enjoy harpsichords.
Go on — name one. I’ll wait.
Because, as Honors selection committee member Cappy R. McGarr wrote in response to Kennicott’s article, grouping art and artists into categories of traditional versus commercial represents “a false dichotomy.” “Instead,” McGarr writes, “our selection reflects the richness of American contributions across the full spectrum of the arts.”
Who could dare put Katherine Dunham (1983 Honoree) in a box? Pete Seeger (1994)? Yo-Yo Ma (2011)? The Kennedy Center Honors, since their inception, have never attempted to draw a line between commercial and traditional arts, popular and Fine-with-a-capital-F. If Yo-Yo Ma had never soloed with a symphony orchestra, but instead were judged solely on his bluegrass stylings, should his artistry be deemed any lesser?
And let’s consider what is meant when we say “traditional.” Whose tradition? Kennicott’s “traditional” arts were brought to American shores because America lacked a “traditional” (read: European) culture of its own. In lavish theatres and concert halls and opera houses built on stolen Indigenous territory, shrine-like structures which once required that black and white audiences be seated in separate balconies, structures literally built on top of the umarked graves of a city’s most vulnerable inhabitants — in these halls, on these stages, stories unfolded and continue to unfold wherein women are systematically murdered and exotic, suicidal princesses are romanced and inevitably abandoned by heroic white explorers; wherein a storied anti-Semite’s hate speech is glossed over in program notes that favor his “sheerly gorgeous” operas; wherein orchestras and artists known to represent oppressive regimes are welcomed with open arms — stories told again and again by dead white European men whose own cultures and countries bloodily decimated those that existed on American shores in the first place.
Kennicott acknowledges that the 2017 Honorees are “all great talents,” but dismisses them as “corporate entertainment product.” Okay, Mr. Kennicott — call me when classical music no longer relies on corporate sponsorship and private donations. Then we’ll talk.
The fact is, the “corporate entertainment product” who were selected as this year’s Kennedy Center Honorees — selected, no less, by a panel that included, among others, “traditional” artists Julie Andrews, Yo-Yo Ma, and Twyla Tharp — represent genres that embrace audiences classical music has made minimal effort to welcome. And the instant we decide that a particular art form, or artist, or genre, is any less artful, legitimate, or meritorious of Institutional recognition than opera and piano and ballet — in that assessment, amid that fabricated dichotomy, we are exerting the same white supremacy as the legions who voted Donald Trump into office.
Elevating classical music as “traditional,” as better than, helps no one. Leave the Kennedy Center Honorees alone, and go make classical music that makes “lifetime contributions to American culture.” Make classical music important again.
Go on. I’ll wait.
- LL Cool J is rap’s first Kennedy Center honoree. Here are 5 others they could have picked. (Washington Post)
- Mozart in Trump Tower, and the art of getting political on stage (Los Angeles Times)
- The full transcript and audio of JFK’s speech at Amherst College, 1963 (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library)