Is the Kennedy Cen­ter aban­don­ing its core val­ues in an at­tempt to grab fleet­ing mass-mar­ket rel­e­vance?

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PHILIP KEN­NI­COTT

The re­cip­i­ents of the first Kennedy Cen­ter Hon­ors in 1978 were be­yond stel­lar. They were le­gends, house­hold names and artists with enor­mous in­flu­ence and still un­fold­ing his­tor­i­cal im­pact. Mar­ian An­der­son’s 1939 per­for­mance on the steps of the Lin­coln Me­mo­rial was a pow­er­ful and dig­ni­fied early step on the march to African Amer­i­can civil rights; Ge­orge Balan­chine was the most im­por­tant chore­og­ra­pher work­ing in the United States, with an un­par­al­leled legacy of work; Richard Rodgers wrote ev­ery beloved song that Ge­orge Gersh­win didn’t; prom­i­nent bal­let stars have called Fred As­taire the great­est dancer of the cen­tury; and Arthur Ruben­stein de­fined the aris­to­cratic pi­ano tra­di­tion for gen­er­a­tions.

The next year, 1979, was just as good, with hon­ors go­ing to Aaron Co­p­land, Ella Fitzger­ald, Henry Fonda, Martha Graham and Ten­nessee Wil­liams. And for the next few years af­ter that, the se­lec­tions of­fered a co­her­ent pic­ture of Amer­i­can cre­ative cul­ture, with the high arts in the lead and the pop­u­lar arts re­spect­fully along for the ride. To­day, how­ever, the choices rarely in­spire much en­thu­si­asm; the hon­orees are re­spected but hardly iconic; the an­nual tele­cast of the cer­e­mony is a su­per­fi­cial spec­ta­cle full of cul­tural sole­cisms; and au­di­ences who care pri­mar­ily about the tra­di­tional arts that are cen­tral to the Kennedy Cen­ter’s daily ac­tiv­ity find lit­tle to in­ter­est them.

This year’s nom­i­nees are con­sis­tent with the longer arc of the Hon­ors, which have tended away from an early fo­cus on the tra­di­tional per­form­ing arts in fa­vor of more pop­u­lar, com­mer­cial or en­ter­tain­ment-driven media. With hon­ors go­ing to the Ea­gles, Ca­role King, Ge­orge Lu­cas, Rita Moreno, Cicely Tyson and Seiji Ozawa, the Hon­ors in­clude only one artist — Ozawa — who is pri­mar­ily de­voted to the fine arts.

One can quib­ble, of course. Cicely Tyson is a great ac­tress with cred­its in the se­ri­ous theater; Ca­role King’s songs de­fine a new “clas­si­cal” tra­di­tion of Amer­i­can song. The Kennedy Cen­ter Hon­ors, which have al­ways been vaguely de­fined, seem de­signed to in­vite quib­bling, with an ex­cep­tion to al­most any rule one can pro­pose when

an­a­lyz­ing the choices. It is a life­time achieve­ment award, ex­cept when it goes to an artist or en­ter­tainer who is still in mid-ca­reer; it hon­ors artis­tic im­pact and ex­cel­lence, ex­cept when it goes to tele­vi­sion celebri­ties with lit­tle or no di­rect par­tic­i­pa­tion in the arts; it cel­e­brates the arts in Amer­ica, though the hon­orees need not be Amer­i­can, and it has of­ten hon­ored peo­ple who have built their ca­reers on for­eign shores. But the elas­tic­ity of how they are de­fined is now sim­ply a smoke screen for hid­ing the ob­vi­ous: They have be­come an allpur­pose celebrity/en­ter­tain­ment/ award.

Those in charge of the Hon­ors, in­clud­ing the cen­ter’s re­cently ar­rived pres­i­dent, Deb­o­rah F. Rut­ter, stress the di­ver­sity of the hon­orees as a pri­mary strength of the award. When this year’s hon­orees were an­nounced, Rut­ter praised them as “artists who defy both con­ven­tion and cat­e­gory.” In an in­ter­view af­ter the an­nounce­ment, Rut­ter said the awards strike a bal­ance be­tween tra­di­tional and newer art forms: “My goal is to deepen the role of the clas­si­cal artis­tic art forms in our so­ci­ety and demon­strate the crit­i­cal role they play,” she said. “But the per­form­ing arts are an evolv­ing, grow­ing ex­pres­sion of hu­man­ity.” New art forms, and new forms of cre­ative ex­pres­sion, only stay new for a while; even­tu­ally they are can­on­ized, along­side all the oth­ers.

But even if you are leery of cul­tural cat­e­gories and dis­tinc­tions, you can’t avoid the ob­vi­ous con­clu­sion look­ing at the Hon­ors over the past 38 years: They re­flect an idea of artis­tic great­ness ba­si­cally de­fined by a large tele­vi­sion au­di­ence. In the early years, when the so-called golden age of tele­vi­sion was still a fresh mem­ory, that au­di­ence was more broadly fa­mil­iar with the high or tra­di­tional arts. To­day, those art forms are a mar­ginal or niche in­ter­est, and most of them face ex­tra­or­di­nary fi­nan­cial chal­lenges; mean­while, the bulk of the hon­orees come with a higher ra­tio of celebrity buzz to tra­di­tional artis­tic ac­com­plish­ment.

And there have been other trends. In the early years, “mak­ers” or “cre­ators” were well rep­re­sented, al­most equally so with per­form­ers or in­ter­preters. But the pres­ence of com­posers, chore­og­ra­phers and play­wrights has faded. There hasn’t been a play­wright hon­ored since 1996 (Ed­ward Al­bee), and the last “clas­si­cal” com­poser hon­ored was the highly jazz-lit­er­ate An­dre Previn, in 1998. This trend away from cre­ators per­sists even as such ma­jor fig­ures as play­wright Au­gust Wil­son and com­posers Philip Glass and Terry Ri­ley go un­ac­knowl­edged.

There also has been a shift among the “do­ers” rep­re­sented to­ward more pop­u­lar art forms. Clas­si­cal in­stru­men­tal soloists were fre­quently rep­re­sented in the first decade but have be­come a rar­ity in re­cent years. And since honor­ing the Who in 2008, rock-and-roll groups have be­come reg­u­lar con­tenders, a sub­tle but sub­stan­tial re­sponse to shifts in gen­er­a­tional taste and pref­er­ence.

There was, of course, a lot of ex­cel­lent low-hang­ing fruit in the early years of the award, when a gen­er­a­tion of artists who had suc­cess­fully strad­dled the pop­u­lar and the tra­di­tional arts was still alive, and in many cases, still pro­duc­tive. Aaron Co­p­land, Leonard Bern­stein, Agnes de Mille and Jerome Rob­bins were all early re­cip­i­ents, and all of them en­joyed ca­reers that crossed bound­aries be­tween more for­mal, tra­di­tional arts and en­ter­tain­ment. Many of the early hon­orees were well­known to tele­vi­sion au­di­ences not be­cause they were tele­vi­sion stars, but be­cause the arts hadn’t yet been ban­ished from the net­work air­waves.

To­day, how­ever, pop cul­tural ca­chet is the main cri­te­rion for win­ning, and fig­ures like Ozawa are in­cluded as to­ken re­minders of the orig­i­nal pur­pose of the award.

Tele­vi­sion has played a key and in­flu­en­tial role in the Hon­ors since they were cre­ated, though it’s not en­tirely clear what that role is. Broad­cast by CBS was part of the orig­i­nal conception of the Hon­ors, which for­mer Kennedy Cen­ter pres­i­dent Michael Kaiser said “cre­ated a na­tional pro­file for the cen­ter.” CBS, which con­tin­ues to broad­cast the event, plays no role in the se­lec­tion of the win­ners, ac­cord­ing to a cen­ter spokes­woman. Money from the net­work cov­ers the cost of pro­duc­ing the show, which in turn plays a huge role in the cen­ter’s an­nual fundrais­ing (it brought in $6 mil­lion last year).

The se­lec­tion process in­cludes in­put from the public, the taste of which is largely de­ter­mined by what they see (and don’t see) on tele­vi­sion. Rut­ter says public nom­i­na­tions come in by the thou­sands. These are sum­ma­rized by cen­ter staff, and these sum­maries are up­dated ev­ery year. “We keep track of all the names over a pe­riod of time,” says Rut­ter. “Just be­cause some­one doesn’t work out in one year, we don’t want to lose track of them [in sub­se­quent years].” In­put from artists, and from pre­vi­ous win­ners, is also con­sid­ered. A spe­cial ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee then makes rec­om­men­da­tions to the cen­ter’s ex­ec­u­tive board — which has 10 vot­ing mem­bers — and the ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee makes the fi­nal de­ter­mi­na­tion. An artist’s avail­abil­ity for theHonors gala is a key fac­tor in de­ter­min­ing whether he or she will be cho­sen in a given year, and in re­cent years, con­cerns about broader cul­tural rep­re­sen­ta­tion have fac­tored into the se­lec­tion of more Latino artists.

But whether di­rectly or in­di­rectly, the large role of tele­vi­sion in the pro­ceed­ings has helped en­sure that the win­ners are cul­tur­ally tele­genic. David Let­ter­man, who won in 2012, was a co­me­dian be­fore he was a nightly pres­ence in Amer­ica’s liv­ing rooms; Oprah Win­frey, who won in 2010, has a side ca­reer as an ac­tress as well. But both of them, and Bill Cosby, who won in 1998, are pri­mar­ily crea­tures of the small screen, and their re­ceipt of the hon­ors— along with hon­ors given to such en­ter­tain­ment fig­ures as Bob Hope and Johnny Car­son — seems more a mat­ter of def­er­ence to out­size celebrity clout than to artis­tic ac­com­plish­ment.

The Hon­ors, this year, are in tran­si­tion. Long­time broad­cast vet­eran Ge­orge Stevens Jr. was let go from the show he had pro­duced since it was cre­ated; a new team, Ricky Kir­sh­ner and Glenn Weiss of White Cherry En­ter­tain­ment (which pro­duces the Tony Awards, among oth­ers), will be in charge this year. Rut­ter says that the tra­di­tion of hav­ing the hon­orees sit in the Opera House box seats while other artists per­form for them will be re­tained, but she won’t say much about how dif­fer­ent the rest of the pro­gram will be. “We are in the de­vel­op­men­tal stage,” she says. “Stay tuned.”

As tele­vi­sion con­sumes an ever larger por­tion of Amer­i­can leisure time, and as par­tic­i­pa­tion in many of the arts regularly pre­sented at the Kennedy Cen­ter shrinks, the Hon­ors des­per­ately need more rad­i­cal rein­ven­tion, a re­turn to their orig­i­nal fo­cus on art forms more cen­tral to the daily mis­sion of the Kennedy Cen­ter. It was still pos­si­ble, in 1978, to be­lieve that tele­vi­sion could have a con­struc­tive role as an evan­ge­list for the arts. To­day, the arts have sim­ply dis­ap­peared from tele­vi­sion, and the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the arts— as a ca­reer, av­o­ca­tion or daily fact of peo­ple’s lives— is al­most equally nonex­is­tent or, worse, a par­ody of re­al­ity. New Yorker clas­si­cal mu­sic critic Alex Ross has even de­fined a term — Pop Tri­umphal­ism — which de­serves com­mon cur­rency. It refers to the un­nec­es­sar­ily hos­tile way in which pop cul­ture treats the high arts, or as Ross says: “It’s not enough for pop cul­ture to dom­i­nate the main­stream; it must col­o­nize the spa­ces oc­cu­pied by older gen­res and ef­fec­tively drive them from the field.”

That, alas, is what the Hon­ors in­creas­ingly honor.

The arts need an award solely de­voted to the arts. The Kennedy Cen­ter’s loose cat­e­gories for what gets hon­ored — once a strength of the award — now ob­scures the ob­vi­ous marginal­iza­tion of the very art forms cen­tral to its mis­sion: sym­phonic mu­sic and opera; se­ri­ous theater and mu­si­cal theater; bal­let and mod­ern dance; cham­ber mu­sic and recitals. Even as award shows pro­lif­er­ate for other media, re­flect­ing the spe­cial and niche tastes of an in­creas­ingly frac­tured Amer­i­can au­di­ence, the Kennedy Cen­ter’s Hon­ors have be­come gen­er­al­ized, and all too of­ten merely to am­plify the cul­tural power of men like Ge­orge Lu­cas or Steven Spiel­berg, who have al­ready tri­umphed in the win­ner-takes-all cul­tural sweep­stakes.

The Hon­ors have lost their way, and it will take far more than tweaks to the tele­vised cer­e­mony to im­prove them. What it will take, in fact, is courage, the courage to de­clare the Hon­ors solely de­voted to the arts that de­fine the Kennedy Cen­ter’s mis­sion. The Hon­ors should re­turn to what they were in the be­gin­ning, pri­mar­ily fo­cused on the live, per­form­ing arts; mak­ers who are not pri­mar­ily en­gaged in pack­ag­ing and repack­ag­ing com­mer­cial, cor­po­rate en­ter­tain­ment prod­ucts; and do­ers who have cul­ti­vated in­di­vid­ual tal­ent, per­spec­tive and vir­tu­os­ity to ex­cep­tional lev­els. Bal­let, opera, theater and dance should drive the event, not tag along in the jump seat.


The Rush­more-like class of ’79 fea­tured Henry Fonda, Martha Graham, Ten­nessee Wil­liams, Ella Fitzger­ald and Aaron Co­p­land.


Chore­og­ra­pher and hon­oree Ge­orge Balan­chine sits with Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter and first lady Ros­alynn Carter at the first Kennedy Cen­ter Hon­ors cer­e­mony in De­cem­ber 1978.


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