Other honorees, selected in a process organized by the National Endowment for the Arts, include arts patron Lin Arison, dance company founder Joan Meyers Brown, soprano Renee Fleming, author Ernest Gaines, visual artist Ellsworth Kelly, landscape architect Laurie Olin, musician and producer Allen Toussaint and the Washington Performing Arts Society.
“Everybody is cheering because I bought their books, I see their movies, I buy their records,” Obama quipped at the ceremony. “We’re major contributors here.”
The National Medal of Arts was established by Congress in 1984. The NEA’s advisory body, the National Council on the Arts, recommends nominees to the president, who selects the recipients. Although the ceremony was apolitical, some of the honorees, like Lucas, Kusher and Alpert, have been contributors and supporters of Obama’s campaigns.
In his remarks, Obama also quipped that Lucas was able to modernize special effects — making spaceships look real.
“I remember when I first saw ‘Star Wars.’ There’s a whole generation that thinks special effects look like they are today, but it used to be you would see the string on the little model spaceships,” Obama said to laughs. He was explaining a reference to Lucas being able to “make it look like those planes in space are actually flying like they are.”
Obama also awarded the National Humanities Medal, administered through the National Endowment for the Humanities, to 12 people, including author Joan Didion, sports writer Frank Deford, writer Marilynne Robinson, actress and writer Anna Deavere Smith and editor Robert B. Silvers.
Recipients at the East Room ceremony appeared on stage with Obama as a citation was read, explaining why they were honors. Lucas, in suit with purple tie, hugged Obama and then a citation was read: “By combining the art of storytelling with boundless imagination and cutting-edge techniques, Mr. Lucas has transported us to new worlds and created some of the most beloved and iconic films of all time.”
Alpert was cited as “the musician behind the Tijuana Brass phenomenon and co-founder of A&M Records, which launched several storied careers.” Kushner, who hugged Obama as he accepted the honor, was recognized for “scripts [that] have moved audiences worldwide, marrying humor to fury, history to fantasy, and the philosophical to the personal.” May’s award noted her “groundbreaking wit and a keen understanding of how humor can illuminate our lives.”
Didion received an extra cheer after she received her honor, was kissed by the president and left the stage, aided by a military escort.