For years now, the Kennedy Center Honors have 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. Representatives of the wide range of traditional arts, including classical music, opera and ballet, have been slowly edged out until, it seemed, they were lucky to have a single medal among the five given out each year. This year even that toehold looks precarious. Of the five artists to receive the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors, only dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade falls into the tradition of the arts on which the Kennedy Center was founded and built its reputation. The other honorees — television producer Norman Lear, singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan, music mogul Lionel Richie and hip-hop star LL Cool J — are all great talents, but belong to a commercial entertainment culture that has no need of the Kennedy Center, or the honors that bear its name, to establish and maintain a connection with their enormous audiences.Yep. We are moving in a direction that, while it seems inevitable, is one that also seems to be wrong.
Sam Shepard died this week without ever achieving the favor won in recent years by the Eagles, David Letterman and Oprah Winfrey. Not one artist who has taken up the legacy of Aaron Copland or Tennessee Williams or Virgil Thomson (all honored in the early years of the Kennedy Center) is included. Majors figures in American musical life, such as composers Philip Glass and John Adams, still await Honors, as do opera stars Kathleen Battle, Samuel Ramey and Frederica von Stade. For a cultural center built around an opera house and symphony hall, it’s depressing that this year not one classical musician has made the list and that again, this year, none of the musicians who have made America a force in pioneering the early instruments movement were included.I can't help thinking that this is the foregone result of relativism. After all, if there are no objective aesthetic criteria and everyone's aesthetic taste is equally good, then the most popular artists are the best artists. I think it likely that a lot of the people involved in these choices actually know how shallow they are, so this is all an exercise in political cynicism.
The Honors have always included a range of what is often called high and popular culture, but they have never been so slavishly focused on mass entertainment, and they have never entirely forsaken the arts that were foundational to the creation of the institution. Audiences who seek a rich diet of culture — not just corporate entertainment product — should be alarmed and must become vocal about maintaining the center’s commitment to true diversity in the arts.More power to the writer of the piece, Philip Kennicott, and I hope he doesn't get fired for expressing an incorrect view.
I'm not sure if this tactic would be at all effective, but if any classical musicians in the future are tapped for an award I suggest they decline. And perhaps all the ones already honored might simply return them. After all, if symbolism is important, then symbolism is important.