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On Tuesday, May 29, President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 13 recipients. Among this year’s selection, which included former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and astronaut John Glenn, were two individuals whose contributions have been primarily in the arts: singer/songwriter Bob Dylan and novelist Toni Morrison. According to the White House, “the Medal of Freedom is the Nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” The inclusion of artists among the familiar and unsurprising array of politicians, world leaders, and social activists reminds us of the remarkable esteem and grand contributions of artists as a whole to the cultural interests of the nation.
Obama said during Tuesday’s ceremony, “I remember reading ‘Song of Solomon’ when I was a kid and not just trying to figure out how to write, but also how to be, and how to think. And I remember in college listening to Bob Dylan, and my world opening up because he captured something about this country that was so vital.” Obama’s words are an eloquent insight into the profundity of art on both the microscopic and macroscopic level. While the powerful prose and lyrical painting of an author such as Toni Morrison provide the type of intellectual self-exploration and emotional stimulation inherent to many other art forms, the politically minded songs of Bob Dylan act as a medium between one’s self and the greater collective conscious of a society. Obama’s words also show us just how universal the impact of music, literature, and the arts can be—for it is not unlikely that the reactions the President of the United States had to such works were all that different from those of any other American, regardless of age or background.
Awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to artists is no new practice. Past recipients included contributors to a variety of artistic fields, including artists Georgia O’Keeffe and Norman Rockwell, dancer Chita Rivera, architect Buckminster Fuller, poets T.S. Eliot and Maya Angelou, and musicians ranging from Duke Ellington and Yo-Yo Ma to B.B. King and Aretha Franklin—just to name a few. It is also important to note that these distinctions have been awarded by a broad spectrum of our nation’s leaders. In fact, since the award took its current form in 1963, nearly every president has given recognition to at least one member of the artistic community. This is regardless of the president’s party affiliation or agenda. Again, we see just how important the artist’s role is in cultivating our nation’s well-being and how the movement to support the arts is ultimately a bipartisan one.
To continue giving artists the same recognition they deserve, join the Americans for the Arts Action Fund today, for the next generation of Presidential Medal of Freedom-winning artists truly need our support.
Bob Dylan being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.
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