President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities
The Institute for Peace, Washington, DC
Wednesday, September 9, 2015 – Remarks as prepared

The National Humanities Medal honors an individual or organization whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the human experience, broadened citizens’ engagement with history and literature or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to cultural resources. President Obama will present the medals to 10 distinguished honorees on September 10, 2015:

Honorees: The Clemente Course in the Humanities | Annie Dillard, author | Everett L. Fly, architect and preservationist | Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, philosopher and novelist | Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, historian | Jhumpa Lahiri, short story writer and novelist | Fedwa Malti-Douglas, scholar | Larry McMurtry, novelist | Vicki Lynn Ruiz, historian | Alice Waters, author and food activist

Good evening, everyone.

Thank you, George, for that most generous introduction—and thank you, all, for the warm welcome. I’m honored—humbled, frankly—to join such a group of extraordinary visionaries and luminaries; singular players in the symphony of American history.

I see scholars and poets, professors and authors, individuals whose inspired writing graces my conference table, my coffee table, and my bed-side table. I see composers and musicians, performers and presenters, whose creative genius provides the setting, the staging, the soundtrack of our lives. I see actors and activists, who inform and transform the way I see the world, and who inspire me every day in my work at the Ford Foundation.

For as long as I can remember, the arts and humanities have infused energy and meaning into my own life—just as they do in our collective life, as a nation.

As a child in a small town Texas, I pored over the glossy pages of art magazines and books that my grandmother, a maid for a wealthy Houston family, brought me from their home. The things they discarded became my treasures. Page after page, hour after hour, my mind visited worlds from which I otherwise would have been excluded.

In many ways, because of the arts, my economic situation never limited my expectations for myself. The arts broadened my horizons—my very sense of the possible.

As a student at the University of Texas, I first read the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, and I was transported to this magical place—to Harlem—through the provocative prose of Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, and James Baldwin.

And when I moved to New York in the 1980s, I fell in love with the city’s museums and galleries and its jewels of culture—the likes of which I had never experienced before.

I found a passion for the performing arts—for Alvin Ailey and others—and for Joseph Papp’s Public Theater and documentary film.

This was also when I fell in love with an art dealer—and was introduced to an entirely new world of collectors, and curators, and critics.

My point is: I am a fervent believer in the transformational, uplifting power of artistic expression. If not for my exposure to the arts and humanities, I would not be standing here. I am enormously grateful tonight because my story has been made possible because of your stories, and the stories of artists and humanists who came before you.

I sometimes despair that our culture has bought into the notion that if something cannot be measured, then it somehow does not matter. But your work is all the proof I need to dispel this insidious idea.

Certainly, NEA data tells us that the arts contribute $700 billion to the U.S. economy—some 4 percent of our GDP. But the larger impact of your work is unquantifiable. Statistics cannot begin to tell the story of what you have done—and continue to do—and how much it matters to our democracy and our humanity.

From the basement of a community center to the Edible Schoolyard, you give us food for thought, and teach us what it means to find sustenance—mind, body, and soul.

You help us to, and I quote: “unearth the lives of thousands of [the] little known and […] completely unknown,” and work to preserve the places and spaces where their histories happened.

You humanize the marginalized, and restore dignity to us all, whether by sharing the story of a woman seeking justice in the cotton mill where she works or documenting the actual stories of Mexican women working in canneries Southern California.

You take these stories From the Shadows, and carve for them places in our hearts.

You break barriers—at schools, on stages, and on screen. You challenge the status quo and inspire our Righteous Discontent.

You blaze trails for the next Puerto Rican to study at the Actor’s Studio; for the next young black man to transfix us from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera; and for the next generation to raise its voice with authentic confidence.

Indeed, you support students and other artists and scholars, and in more ways than one you provide Medicine for the Soul.

Your foundation carries on the legacy of an unconventional American heiress, a woman who had a prescient interest in the art and culture of the Muslim world, who moved comfortably from Newport to Newark. Today, in her honor you provide millions annually for artists to do the unconventional.

Through your advocacy and space for artists, you provide and promote opportunities for artists to present their talents, and for communities to benefit.

You explore the complexities of our global reality, and effortlessly transport us to The Streets of Laredo, and The Dark Tower, and Timber Creek.

You put Plato in the Googleplex, and creativity, philosophy, and humanity back at the center of our modern, technology-crazed lives.

You declare, “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art,” while continuing to bore to the heart of what is most important.

You obscure—with bright colors, or cloth, or video, or voice—in order to reveal, to call our attention to the things we would rather ignore.

You pioneer new thinking and ideas, like handseeing—to help us grasp the essential ways that we communicate and interact with one another.

You affirm the Politics of Quiet, and the importance of being heard.

You remind us that what some may call the Undesirable Elements in our societies, are beautiful, and interesting, and valuable.

You are not only Interpreters of Maladies, but interrogators of them.

You are investigators of culture and culpability, the found and forgotten, the domestic, and, yes, (Stephen King) even the demonic.

With thoughtful, honest prose, you’ve taught us that This Boy’s Life can teach us about this boy’s life. And that your story is our story.

You invite us in to vast continents and neglected corners of human experience, which heretofore have been—and in many ways still are—the victims of staggering, systemic exclusion from our mainstream public discourse: The black experience; the Latina experience; the immigrant experience; the female experience.

Your work is a reminder not that (and apologies to Sally) “You like me.” But that you are like me. That we each are like one another. That we share something, whether you’re from East Texas or Eatonville, Florida; Chinatown or Cooperstown; Denver or Detroit.

And it’s this connection among all people—those essential things that we share—that make, for me, the alarming disparities we face as a nation all the more personal.

You see, I am convinced that inequality, in all of its forms, is among the greatest threats of our time.

While we often talk about widening economic inequality, there is also a kind of inequality that is harmful to our democratic ethos: the idea that market thinking must be elevated above all other forms of thinking, and that one’s value only matters in relation to capital. And that the arts and humanities must be justified in market terms alone.

But you know better than anyone else that the arts and humanities create markets of empathy, which is why Earl Shorris called the work of The Clemente Course in the Humanities: “in itself a redistribution of wealth”—a wealth of human experience, and knowledge, and insight, and understanding.

It’s why, at the Ford Foundation, when we talk about supporting visionaries on the front lines of social change—we include artists and humanists who push us to think radically and deal with inconvenient reality.

Throughout our history, we have seen artists, humanists, and cultural leaders, and their ideas, play an integral part in building a wide range of social movements, from the civil rights movement to the Arab Spring. I was at the new Whitney Museum and saw a quote that reminded me of this.

The printmaker Mabel Dwight once said of the Federal Art Project, the soul of the New Deal: “Art has turned militant. It forms unions, carries banners, sits down uninvited, and gets underfoot. Social justice is its battle cry.” Indeed.

And each of you medal recipients has contributed in some way to the larger American project of social justice.

In 1965, upon signing the act that created the NEA and NEH, President Johnson remarked: “Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves, and to others, the inner vision which guides us as a Nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.”

This is why the work you do is so important. You demand that America fulfill its promise and purpose. You hold up the mirror to our society and you challenge us as a nation to be, as Langston Hughes said: “The land that never has been yet—And yet must be—the land where every man is free.”

When young people today in small towns in Texas—or on the Southside of Chicago, or Ferguson, Missouri—are denied an opportunity to connect with art in schools, their imaginations are starved of the fuel to fully fire. Their horizons are pulled in and closed off; their dreams curtailed; their sense of the possible is diminished.

We owe ourselves better. And we have it within ourselves as a nation to be better.

Let’s be what we “never have been yet—And yet must be.

Let’s be an America that protects and promotes the arts—even when schools and cities (to say nothing of the House and Senate) are willing to sacrifice them in name of “belt-tightening.”

Let’s be an America that preserves affordable housing for artists—even when the neighborhoods they’ve revitalized start to price them out.

Let’s be an America with cultural institutions whose boards, staff and programming reflect the diversity of our country.

Let’s be an America in which everyone—the young and the young-at-heart—has access to the art that glorifies and challenges, that instigates and infuriates, that heals and renews, and that moves our hearts and minds.

So thank you recipients of the 2014 Medal for all the work you do: pushing our country’s consciousness, pushing humanity forward, and advancing hope: Hope for the future of this country—hope for the future of all American dreams.

You—and your courageous work—is the reason I remain radically optimistic about our future. Congratulations, and thank you for the honor of sharing in this very special celebration with you tonight.