F rance honors its great artists, and others who have made a lasting impact on French society, by awarding them the French Legion of Honor, an accolade first bestowed by Napoleon Bonaparte that has gone to the likes of Salvador Dali, J.K. Rowling and Jerry Lewis.
It’s much the same in Britain, which has an honors system that involves lordships, knighthoods and an assortment of medals. Laurence Olivier was a lord, Paul McCartney is a knight, and Petula Clark can put “CBE” after her name because she was named a commander of the British Empire in 1998.
Aside from a succession of awards shows and an assortment of halls of fame, here in the United States, the National Medal of the Arts goes to esteemed artists and patrons across genres, and the performing arts are highlighted through the Kennedy Center Honors. Handed out every year at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., usually with the president and first lady in attendance, the ribbons that honor lifetime achievement have gone to a succession of undeniably worthy recipients: Fred Astaire, Tennessee Williams, Roy Acuff, Agnes DeMille, Paul Newman, Frank Sinatra, and on and on. While many of those honored have been household names, some have not, and what better way to introduce them to a wider public that might have its curiosity stoked about what they do?
Last week, the 2017 class of Kennedy Center honorees was unveiled, and most of the resulting headlines were about LL Cool J being the first rap artist to make the cut, and 95-year-old television trailblazer Norman Lear saying he would skip the White House reception beforehand because of his dislike of President Trump.
But Philip Kennicott, a critic of art and architecture for The Washington Post, made a crucial point in the wake of last week’s announcement: The Kennedy Center appears to be abandoning the arts in favor of popular culture.
It must be noted the line between the two can be permeable. Bob Dylan has been a popular artist for 50-odd years now, but he is also scrutinized in classrooms and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last year. Nevertheless, Kennicott convincingly argues that, with the nominations of Lear and LL Cool J, along with fellow 2017 recipients Gloria Estefan and Lionel Richie, “the Kennedy Center Honors has been devolving from an event that recognizes stellar achievement across a diverse and rich tradition of American arts into an entertainment-driven event that rewards star power and pop-culture cachet.”
He notes no one from the worlds of opera, classical music or ballet were honored this year. Carmen de Lavallande, an 86-year-old choreographer, will be the sole representative of the traditional arts. A whole range of artists who have made significant contributions but who have never taken an album to No. 1 on the Billboard charts, from playwright Tony Kushner to composer Philip Glass, and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, have gone without Kennedy Center Honors.
Granted, there are a lot of aspiring composers, playwrights and ballerinas out there, and the few who are able to eke out a living in the arts should be counted lucky, whether they get laurels or not. And there are a lot of other things to fret about in this life than an awards presentation.
But are the Kennedy Center Honors an indication of who we have become as a people – more interested in celebrity and, as Kennicott puts it, “winner-takes-all success” than substance and merit?
We can only hope not.