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Obama pledges support for arts, humanities as he presents awards

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 13, 2012 - WASHINGTON - Urging the honorees to help mentor a new generation of artists and scholars, President Barack Obama presented arts and humanities awards Monday to 15 people and two groups that he said have "left an indelible mark on American culture."

The seven recipients of the National Medal of Arts included actor Al Pacino, recognized as "an enduring and iconic figure"; poet Rita Dove, whose poems are "equal parts beauty, lyricism, critique, and politics"; and St. Louisan Emily Rauh Pulitzer, who was honored for her "contributions as a curator, art collector and philanthropist."

"The arts and humanities do not just reflect America, they shape America," Obama said in his brief remarks, which quoted poets Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. "As long as I'm president, I look forward to making sure they are a priority for this country."

During the ceremony with Obama in the East Room of the White House, Pulitzer sat between the lively Pacino -- with whom she chatted a bit -- and the sculptor Martin Puryear, whom she has known through art circles. She also talked briefly with First Lady Michelle Obama, who attended the ceremony.

"It was a really lovely occasion," Pulitzer said afterward. She joined the other honorees at a related dinner on Sunday evening and a White House reception after the awards ceremony. It was the first time she had met Obama, who she says gently joked as he gave her the medal: "It's nice to be on the receiving end, isn't it?"

Pulitzer has been a long-time proponent of modern arts and contemporary design, chamber and symphonic music and opera, as well as theater and literature. She views the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts as the culmination of that life's work. (Pulitzer is also a contributor to the Beacon.)

The National Medal of Arts, managed by the National Endowment for the Arts, recognizes individuals and organizations for "their contributions to the creation, growth, and support of the arts" in this country. The National Humanities Medal, which is managed by the National Endowment for the Humanities, honors "individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities, broadened our citizens' engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand Americans' access to important resources in the humanities."

Among the recipients of the National Humanities Medal were poet John Ashbery, cultural historian Robert Darnton, and pianist Charles Rosen. The organizations awarded medals were the United Services Organization (USO) that supports U.S. troops and the National History Day program that encourages students to study history.

In his remarks, Obama -- saying the role of the arts and humanities is just as important as that of science and engineering -- urged the award recipients to help foster a new generation of scholars and artists.

"As we honor the icons of today, we also have to champion the icons of tomorrow," Obama said. "They need our support; we need them to succeed . . . to do their part to disrupt our views and to challenge our presumptions, and most of all to stir in us a need to be our better selves."

Monday's Award Recipients

National Medal of Arts Citations:

Will Barnet for his contributions as an American painter, printmaker, and teacher. His nuanced and graceful depictions of family and personal scenes, for which he is best known, are meticulously constructed of flat planes that reveal a lifelong exploration of abstraction, expressionism, and geometry. For over 80 years, Mr. Barnet has been a constant force in the visual arts world, marrying sophistication and emotion with beauty and form.

Rita Dove for her contributions as an American poet and author. Ms. Dove creates works that are equal parts beauty, lyricism, critique, and politics. Ms. Dove has worked to create popular interest in the literary arts, serving as the United States' youngest Poet Laureate and advocating on behalf of the diversity and vitality of American poetry and literature.

Al Pacino for his contributions as an actor and director to American film and theater. Mr. Pacino is an enduring and iconic figure, who came of age in one of the most exciting decades of American cinema, the 1970s. His signature intensity as an actor was originally honed for the stage, under the tutelage of Lee Strasberg, and he has become one of the most outstanding and accomplished American artists.

Emily Rauh Pulitzer for her contributions as a curator, art collector, and philanthropist. Mrs. Pulitzer has dedicated herself to connecting art and viewers through her generosity in caring for well-established institutions like the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, the Harvard Art Museums, and the Museum of Modern Art; as well as having the vision to create a new destination in St. Louis with the founding of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts.

Martin Puryear for his contributions as an American sculptor. Mr. Puryear transforms mundane and utilitarian materials -- wood, stone, and metal -- into evocative talismans that quietly and powerfully explore issues of history, culture, and identity. His unwavering commitment to manual skill and traditional building methods offer a seductive alternative to our increasingly digital world.

Mel Tillis for his contributions to country music. Mr. Tillis famously overcame a stutter to develop his iconic style, both poetic and down-to-earth. Having written over 1,000 songs and recorded more than 60 albums, Mr. Tillis brought his unique blend of warmth and humor to the great tradition of country music. He remains one of the most inventive artists of the golden generation of singer-songwriters.

United Service Organization for contributions to lifting the spirits of America's troops and their families through the arts. Through hundreds of events each year in 60 locations across 27 states and 14 countries, the USO continues the tradition begun by Bob Hope of bringing iconic American artists to entertain the troops who are protecting America's freedom and culture at home and abroad.

Andre Watts for his contributions as an American pianist and teacher. Having debuted with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic at the age of 16, Mr. Watts has been a perennial favorite with the most celebrated orchestras and conductors around the world. His superb technique and passionate intensity have been the hallmarks of a 45-year career of recitals, broadcasts, and recordings that have broadly shared his interpretations of an extensive repertory from Mozart through Rachmaninoff.

National Humanities Medal Citations:

Kwame Anthony Appiah for seeking eternal truths in the contemporary world. His books and essays within and beyond his academic discipline have shed moral and intellectual light on the individual in an era of globalization and evolving group identities.

John Ashbery for his contributions to American letters. Since his first book was published in 1956, he has been awarded nearly every prize available for poetry, including a Pulitzer Prize and the Grand Prix de Biennales Internationales de Poesie. One of the New York School poets, he has changed how we read poetry and has influenced generations of poets.

Robert Darnton for his determination to make knowledge accessible to everyone. As an author he has illuminated the world of Enlightenment and Revolutionary France, and as a librarian he has endeavored to make his vision for a comprehensive national library of digitized books a reality.

Andrew Delbanco for his insight into the American character, past and present. He has been called "America's best social critic" for his essays on current issues and higher education. As a professor in American studies, he reveals how classics by Melville and Emerson have shaped our history and contemporary life.

National History Day, a program that inspires in American students a passion for history. Each year more than half a million children from across the country compete in this event, conducting research and producing websites, papers, performances, and documentaries to tell the human story.

Charles Rosen for his rare ability to join artistry to the history of culture and ideas. His writings--about Classical composers and the Romantic tradition -- highlight how music evolves and remains a vibrant, living art.

Teofilo Ruiz for his inspired teaching and writing. His erudite studies have deepened our understanding of medieval Spain and Europe, while his long examination of how society has coped with terror has taught important lessons about the dark side of western progress.

Ramon Saldivar for his bold explorations of identity along the border separating the United States and Mexico. Through his studies of Chicano literature and the development of the novel in Europe and America, he beckons us to notice the cultural and literary markings that unite and divide us.

Amartya Sen for his insights into the causes of poverty, famine, and injustice. By applying philosophical thinking to questions of policy, he has changed how standards of living are measured and increased our understanding of how to fight hunger.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.