Cathy Chester | An Empowered Spirit

What’s Happening To The Kennedy Center Honors?

I didn’t see the first Kennedy Center Honors broadcast in 1978. Hosted by Walter Cronkite, the first five honorees receiving this prestigious award were artists who were awarded, to quote President Kennedy, for their “contribution to the human spirit.”

Kennedy Center Honors

President George W. Bush and Laura Bush with honorees (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.” ~President Kennedy

Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, George Balanchine, Richard Rogers and Arthur Rubinstein. All luminaries in the world of the creative arts who were honored for their lifetime of excellence and unparalleled achievements.

Kennedy Center Honors

John F. Kennedy, photograph in the Oval Office. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for our victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.” ~President Kennedy 

The following year the same honor was awarded to Aaron Copland, Ella Fitzgerald, Henry Fonda, Martha Graham and Tennessee Williams. When I think of these five legends sitting together in that familiar top tier row it takes my breath away.

As I got older I’d look forward to the week between Christmas and New Year’s when the Honors were broadcast on CBS. As a devotee of the arts, it thrilled me to watch these tributes that were always conducted in such a dignified manner. No Red Carpet or, “What are you wearing?” Only thoughtfully curated tributes with short biographies detailing the recipients’ astonishing careers. Chic. Fun. Impeccable.

“I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty.” ~President Kennedy

I began losing respect for the Honors’ choices a few years ago. While I admire Steve Martin as an artist, his artistic resume was not deserving of a Kennedy Center Honor. Not yet anyway.

The tide seemed to be turning toward pop, something the original CBS vice president clearly didn’t want.

“Our intention is not to do just another award show. We’re going to make an effort in terms of a real special.” ~Bernie Sofronski, CBS Vice President, 1978

Now get ready. Here comes an opinion that’s probably going to get me into a lot of trouble.

I don’t think Oprah Winfrey was an appropriate choice for this award.

Oprah has done so much for so many. She recreated the talk show by making it more positive and intimate.She reignited a passion for reading books, and her philanthropy is legendary. She’s had a few marvelous film roles such “The Color Purple”, “Lincoln” and “The Butler.” She may be Oscar or Emmy worthy, but I don’t think she was the right candidate for a Kennedy Center Honor.

David Letterman and Lily Tomlin. Wonderfully gifted performers that I’ve enjoyed over the years. But, in my opinion, their careers don’t warrant a Kennedy Center Honor.

A recent article in The New Yorker titled “The Kennedy Center Honors Goes Pop”, the author Alex Ross wrote:

“As in previous years, the selection demonstrates the degree to which the awards have diverged from their original mission—to pay tribute to luminaries of theatre, dance, classical music, and show business—and instead become one more temple of celebrity culture, magnifying the fame of already familiar faces. Of the five honorees, (Patricia) McBride is the only one whose career has unfolded on the kinds of stages that are included in the Kennedy Center complex.”

This year I agree with the choice of Tom Hanks. At age 58 he’s still young, but his acting is superb, from “Forrest Gump” to “Philadelphia” to “Saving Private Ryan.” He seems so purely American, a throwback to honorees Henry Fonda and James Stewart.

After posting The New Yorker article on Facebook, adding how disappointed I was with a few of this year’s honorees, I found not everyone agreed with me. I willingly admitted I’m not knowledgeable enough to make an informed choice of artists in ballet, opera or classical music.

I was happy when my (almost) 87 year old father came to my rescue. He is more than qualified to offer an informed choice:

“Martha Argerich (born1941) is an Argentine-born pianist and– to this 87 years young who has heard them all since 1940– the finest and most accomplished on the piano since Vladmir Horowitz–and on a par with him. She concertizes throughout the U.S. and was married to and had children by an American. If the standard for honors is to make a substantial contribution to American performing arts, then Martha Argerich well qualifies. (Listen to her in her prime on youtube in the Rachmaninoff piano Concerto #3–especially the last movement.” ~My Dad

There are many other deserving artists who’ve been passed over. Faithful readers of this blog know I’ve long admired Alan Alda, who more than qualifies for an Honor. An actor, director, screenwriter and author, he’s won six Emmy and Golden Globe Awards, was nominated for an Academy and Grammy Award, won several Directors Guild Awards, and has appeared in eleven Broadway plays. At age 78, I’d say he’s Honor worthy.

Whether you agree or disagree with me, the bottom line is that President Kennedy was right about America and the arts. The contributions to the human spirit are what lifts a nation in good times and bad. I am thankful that all of these dedicated and creative giants have walked, and do walk, among us.

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26 thoughts on “What’s Happening To The Kennedy Center Honors?

  1. Kathy Radigan

    I love you but I have to disagree with you and the New Yorker here. There will always be artists we wish were being honored, and many we feel have been overlooked. And thank God for that. We have so many talented individuals on this planet that have shared their talents with us and influenced new generations of artists.

    I do feel that the people who have been chosen this year and in the past are worthy of the award.

    They have all made huge contributions to the arts. Lilly Tomlin’s career has spanned decades and has included stand up, stage/Broadway, albums, books, and television. I adore Alan Alda and would have loved to see him up there with her, not instead of.

    Thanks for letting me share my feelings on the subject and thank you for your thoughtful piece.
    Kathy Radigan recently posted…Bringing Baby HomeMy Profile

    1. Post author

      Thanks for sharing your opinion, Rena. I’m sure you are in the majority about Oprah!

      As I just said to Sharon I enjoy discussing the arts, because no matter who the artist is they give us a reason to be delighted by their gifts. In this crazy world, that means everything.

  2. Sharon Greenthal

    I respectfully disagree with your opinion of Steve Martin. He is the definition of a renaissance man who has been an influence in comedy, has starred in many memorable films, including “Parenthood,” has written best-selling books and then starred in the films about those books, and he’s a brilliant musician and composer. He’s also a patron of the arts and collects works by and promotes contemporary artists (can you tell I’m a fan 🙂 ).

    As we talked about earlier this week, I think much of your (and to an extent, my) dismay about some of the nominees comes from the fact that they are now our contemporaries, whereas in 1978 they were our elders and mythical to us. As talented as Fred Astaire was, when you consider his career he didn’t do nearly as much as Steve Martin has done (and does) to contribute to our culture. He was a mediocre actor, an ok singer, but an incredible dancer.
    Sharon Greenthal recently posted…L’Oreal Age Perfect Cell Renewal – Get Your Discount CouponMy Profile

    1. Post author

      Thanks for your respectful answer, Sharon. And while we disagree, what I enjoy is a constructive discussion about the arts. Because in this crazy world we live in what we need more than ever (or perhaps the same as ever!) are these gifted artists giving us a reason to pause and enjoy their work.

      I think that’s something we can all agree on.

  3. Mary

    You have certainly made me think about the Kennedy Center Honors in a way I never have before. I think it is very difficult for us, the public, to know fully what a person in the arts has contributed. We always hear about the publicized works, but not always non-publicized life time contributions that an individual has made. As a viewer I can only trust the selection committee and their process.

    Maybe we can make some suggestions to the committee for next year! : }

  4. Donna

    I always enjoy a lively conversation about the arts since I know nothing about them. my idea of comedy is stepping on a rake. I love classical music but never know what I am listening to. I do think Alan Alda epitomizes the renaissance man. Although I am pleased Oprah brought back reading (?) the books she recommended were so depressing I would have to watch her show for therapy.

  5. Helene Cohen Bludman

    I agree with you in part, Cathy. I have to say that I echo what Sharon said about Steve Martin. He is truly a Renaissance man. In addition to his stunning career, he is an excellent writer (as Sharon noted) and writes brilliantly in The New Yorker. His art collection is world renowned. So I would say he is deserving.

    1. Post author

      So we’ll just agree to disagree! And that’s okay, because art is in the eye of the beholder, and part of the beauty of art is being able to discuss our different perspectives. So thanks for sharing your views, Helene!

  6. Lisa at GrandmasBriefs

    I have to disagree, respectfully and nicely. 😀 I think they all have made huge contributions to lifting our spirits, making the world a warmer space. Perhaps not each one for each of us, but all of them for many.

    I will, though, consider more closely (and watch more closely) the honors going forward, to see if I do indeed feel this way going forward.

    Cheers to opening this thoughtful dialogue.
    Lisa at GrandmasBriefs recently posted…Santa’s triple treatMy Profile

    1. Post author

      Thanks, Lisa. I love discussing art, and each of us have our own unique perspectives on it. Although we disagree it’s so nice to be able to chat about something so non-violent or negative, but something that lifts us all. Yay!

    1. Post author

      Then we, too, can agree to disagree. Because these artists may be multitalented but are they deserving because of their celebrity? If we give an award to Oprah should we also give one to Phil Donahue? For Steve Martin should we give one to Chevy Chase or Andrea Martin? It’s the caliber I disagree with, and the shorter time they’ve been around compared to other 70 and 80 year old artists. I can’t see Oprah and Martin sitting next to Henry Fonda or George Balanchine. So, as I said, let’s agree to disagee, Jennifer.

    1. Post author

      Thank you for your comment about my father, Angela.

      As far as Oprah we’ll have to agree to disagree because there are many African Americans who “did a lot to bring African Americans to the forefront in the arts and theater.” In ballet, opera, music, theatre, etc. Their lives were long and accomplished, and so were deserving of this award – and many never received one.

      Harry Belafonte, Chuck Berry, Sidney Poitier and Jessye Norman come to mind – all recipients – who were so deserving and also happened to be African American. Plus they were a lot older when they received their award.

      So, again, I’ll respectfully agree to disagree about it.

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