I had the great opportunity to attend the ceremony awarding the National Medal of Arts and Humanities in September at the White House. This is the highest honor bestowed on artists, scholars and writers who have labored to create seminal works that impacted a nation and world. These are the best of the best in their fields.
The awardees were selected by the National Councils of the Arts and Humanities, on which I serve. It’s part of the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. The selection process included intense discussions about the merit and achievements of numerous artists. This award, especially for those who work in lesser-known fields, would recognize their accomplishments that truly rose above and beyond.
A gala dinner the evening before the ceremony allowed for conversations, introductions, selfies and congratulations. I was not that familiar with the work of some recipients: Meredith Monk, a composer and singer known for her groundbreaking vocal techniques; Everett Fly, a landscape architect who won historical recognition for preserving sites central to African American history.
I knew of the work of others, had their books or read their research: Miriam Colon, an actress and trailblazer who opened doors for generations of Latino performers; Vicki Ruiz, a historian who gave voice to Mexican American women laborers; and others who were famous, author Annie Dillard, writer Larry McMurtry, author Stephen King.
The next day at the White House, President Barack Obama’s introductory remarks were light but sincere. As he draped the medals over their shoulders, a glow seemed to rise from the awardees. They beamed. Who wouldn’t?
What struck me the most was a humility that filled the room. Ego did not seem to accompany these artists’ achievements. Tobias Wolff, an author and educator who examined themes of American identity, grinned as we exchanged a few stories over shrimp and scallops. Food helps level the field; we all have to eat.
Sally Field seemed amazingly shy and genuine. She made eye contact with us strangers as we shook hands and talked. I believed her line, when accepting her Oscar years ago, was indeed heartfelt: “You like me.”
Three individuals moved me with their response to winning this prestigious award. Ping Chong, whose contributions to theater explore our understanding of humanity, told me that winning this award was not an end but a beginning. At nearly 70, he was motivated to do more.
Ann Hamilton, a visual artist who challenges our understanding of arts in a digital age, stood alone during the White House events, as if inviting others to engage.
I had a limited knowledge of her work. Yet she allowed me to share in the moment of her success. I asked if this made all the hours and days of work and practice and the struggle of being underpaid and lack of recognition somehow all worthwhile. She grinned. It was a type of confirmation, for the work of all struggling artists.
The one recipient I can call a friend, Alice Waters, understood the meaning of the moment. A recognition that food has meaning. An awakening that others recognized her lifetime work of championing food as part of our healthy life and the holistic approach to the ethical and edible. An awareness that she has elevated eating to another level of significance.
She allowed us to be a witness. Not for her but for all the efforts of artists and writers to share in the celebration and recognition. Alice said the award is nothing without others.
At the end of the White House event, a handful of us remained. The United States Marine Band performed a final song. They had played stunning music, but their final song was a modern score from a movie. Alice stood by the conductor, breaking the typical space between musicians and audience. Ann Hamilton stood near the violins and gently swayed with their bowing. I joined them.
Did they look at their careers and the pain, struggle and suffering yet with the joy and delight of creating art?
I did not have a medal of honor around my neck. I did not have such skill and talent to achieve what these artists had accomplished. But for a moment, I stood next to them and they allowed me to hug them. The music soared.
This is what the arts and humanities are about: meaning, spirit, expression, emotions, significance and inspiration. Throughout the ceremony, I wondered what these artists thought. Did they look back at their careers and the pain, struggle and suffering yet with the joy and delight of creating art? They allowed some of us to witness their moment. I was moved by their presence, their art, but most of all, their humility.
Later, I discovered the name of the final song. It was the theme from the film “Cast Away,” fitting as the final piece. Arts are so often cast away, unclaimed, exiled. But if we are lucky, we can discover the truth and spirit of the arts and humanities and our souls can soar and our spirits may climb. We lift our heads. We rise. We can fly.
David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and award-winning author of books, including “Epitaph for a Peach.” His most recent piece, “The arts and our precious heritage,” appeared on Sept. 20.