Biden Presents 2021 National Humanities, Arts Medals

The White House

East Room

4:50 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT: Hello, hello! (Applause.) Thank you, thank you, thank you. Please — please have a seat.

And, you know, I’m going to say, starting off — and say, “Good evening.” I think they thought we’d take longer in the other room. (Laughter.) Good afternoon/evening — close.

Vice President Harris, the Second Gentleman, former President Selina Meyer. (Laughter.)

Welcome to the White House — a sacred place for many reasons. It’s a residence for the First Family, but it’s really the People’s House — and it really is. A place to work, a national park, a museum, as well as an — art and artifacts capturing the soul of our nation for many years.

This past — this — and like this portrait of George Washington painted by Gilbert Stuart, it’s the only object still here since the White House was opened in 1800. That’s the only object still here.

And I want you to know an Irishman designed the White House. (Laughter.) True — true story. (Laughter.)

Rescued by Dolley Madison after the British torched this very space, a life-size portrait of our Founding Father, who, in the midst of a war of independence, wrote a letter to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which had recently made him a member.

General Washington wrote, and I quote, “The arts and sciences [are] essential to the prosperity of the State and…the ornament and happiness of human life.”

He knew the greatness of a nation was measured not only by the strength of its army and the vastness of its geography, the size of its economy, it was also measured in the vitality of its culture — and the culture forged in the freedom of expression to speak and to think freely.

Freedoms that must always be defended for democracy is a covenant — a covenant we have with each other. And I don’t know how many times in graduate school and undergraduate school I learned that democracy has to be fought for for every generation. We learned that this year. It has to be fought.

Democracy is a choice. It’s a choice we make to choose union over disunion, progress over chaos, and literally truth over lies; a choice to remember history, not erase it, no matter how hard it is that people try to sometimes erase it.

And that’s what great nations do: They face reality. We’re a nation — a great nation in large part because of the power of the arts and humanities that’s stamped into the DNA of America.

And today, Jill and I, Kamala and Doug, and all of you — we continue the legacy by awarding two of our nation’s highest honors to 23 extraordinary Americans: the National Medal of Arts to honor outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth support, and availability of the arts in the United States; and the National Humanities Medal to honor those who have — whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens’ engagement with history, literature, philosophy, and so many other subjects.

And, by the way, I’m married to an English professor. (Laughter.) And we know good writing and love a great — of a great read, including the incredible writers here today.

The work of our honorees is as diverse as the nation that celebrates with them today. But — but common threads weave them together in many ways in the very fabric of America: the pursuit of excellence, the drive to create, the yearning to connect, and the boldness to be truthtellers, bridge builders, and change seekers.

Above all, you’re masters of your craft. You’re masters of your craft.

The National Medal of the Arts recipients include renowned painters like Judy Baca and — who has made a canvas out of our — out of communities all across America, especially her beloved Los Angeles. Her groundbreaking murals depict the strength and scope of human nature and tell the forgotten stories — tell the forgotten stories, bringing public space to life and tell the — and tell a fuller story of who we are as Americans.

A student — you know, and, Antonio, you studied diplomacy. When I heard that, I thought maybe we’d make you Secretary of State. (Laughter.) But today he’s one of Puerto Rico’s greatest cultural ambassadors. His work challenges and unites people across languages, classes, and generations. His — his creations span genres — painting, writing, sculpture, theater design. Always daring to try something new while building on what came before.

And my friend, President Julia Louis-Dreyfus. (Laughter.) I know where you are. (Laughter.) She’s over here going, “I’m over here.” No, I want to — I’m going to talk with Julia later about whether she liked being VP or President better. I got to figure that one out. (Laughter.)

I have absolutely no talent at all. None. And you won. (Laughter.) I don’t know how the hell that happened. Eleven Emmy’s. Twenty-six nominations. Honored numerous times by the Screen Actors Guild, Producers Guild, Critics’ Choice. She embraces life’s absurdity with absolute wit and handles real-life turns with absolute grace. A mom, a cancer survivor, a pioneer for women in comedy, she is an American original. Good to see you.

Following her example, including Mindy Kaling. You know, from Massachusetts, but as we all know, Scranton, Pennsylvania, made her who she is. (Laughter.) Or as we say in Scranton, “Scran-en,” Pennsylvania. (Laughter.)

The first woman of color to create, write, and star in a primetime sitcom, she empowers a new generation to tell their stories with their own irreverence and sincerity. The daughter of Indian immigrants —

We know about that, right? Our Vice President is a daughter of Indian immigrants — a mother who was a great scientist.

Above all, she’s hardworking and an adoring mom, just like her own mom was. And, Mindy, we know your mom is always with you in your spirit. We know that.

Over 50 years ago, the Billie Holiday Theatre opened in Brooklyn. Black writers and actors from Samuel L. Jackson to Debbie Allen to Smokey Robinson debuted there in New York at that theater. Today Billie still stages first-rate theater productions, nurturing new generations of Black playwrights, performers as a culture of the cornerstone of our nation. And it’s really — it’s an incredible place.

The same is true with the International Association of the Black — Blacks in Dance. Founded more than three decades ago to build solidarity for this vital art form, it connects dances to teach, performances to venues, educators to resources — driven by the mission of preserving dance from the African diaspora for future generations.

When it comes to fashion, here’s what I know. As I said today when I said, “Every time I open the closet, I see her,” when I got introduced to Vera. (Laughter.) And Ji- — and Jill turned to me and said, “What are you saying that for?” (Laughter.) It’s all those labels. (Laughter.) “Vera Wang.”

Where is Vera? There you are. (Laughter.) You knew what I meant to begin with, didn’t you? At the — well, I guess I could have said it a little better. “When I open the closet, I see you all the time.” But at any rate — (laughter) —

You’re one of the greats, Vera. You really are. And I know your dresses always look beautiful on my wife, God love her. (Laughter.) Your designs are timeless. Her vision, her influence in industry. Her business became an empire. A name that’s synonymous with artistry, excellence: Vera Wang.

Ladies and gentlemen, Fred Eychaner. Supporting the arts is a calling. For decades, he’s been a top patron of dance companies, art museums, historic preservation — especially in his beloved Chicago.

By the way, I sat for — every time I sat here for eight years as Vice President, it always started “Chicago.” (Laughter.) Chicago.

He’s also been a champion for the LGBTQ community at its core of our national values of freedom, justice — and justice for all.

Because he never seeks the spotlight, few know how much he has enriched their lives. But now, the nation is going to know whether you like it or not. It’s happening. (Laughter.)

The contribution of Joan Shi- — Shi- —

MS. SHIGEKAWA: Shigekawa.

THE PRESIDENT: Shigekawa. Thank you. (Laughter.) I have trouble pronouncing. You can call me “Bid-en.” (Laughter.)

Shigekawa. Your contributions to art in America is legendary and is lasting. And the head of the National Endowment for the Arts, she’s lifted rural and urban artists, created programs for military families, and helped measure how the art grows the economy — arts grow the economy. And she proves that art makes our country stronger.

He couldn’t be with us today because he’s touring, but he’s still — we still honor a son of Puerto Rico and Spanish Harlem, José Feliciano. I can pronounce it. That’s my generation. (Applause.)

José was — came from a small family — one of 11 brothers. (Laughter.) Blind since birth, he picked up a guitar at age 9. A pioneering art- — artist bridging cultures and styles, winning Grammys, and opening doors for generations of Latino artists and the heart of our nation.

Last Deme- — December, Gladys Knight, who — I’m crazy about her music; I don’t want to hurt her reputation — sat in this room to receive the Kennedy Center Honor. Later that night, Jill and I, and Kamala and Doug, and a theater full of fans showed our appreciation for the “Empress of Soul.” The “Empress of Soul.”

A few weeks later, we invited Gladys back to the White House to perform at a summit with leaders from 50 African nations, as I honored the African nation presidents and prime ministers. But what better way to show who we are as a nation than to give Gladys Knight an opportunity to sing for the nation?

Gladys, as I said before, you’re truly one of the best things ever to happen, in terms of music. I’m a fan. (Applause.)

And speaking of good things in music, “The Boss” is here. (Applause.) “The Boss” is here. As they in South Philly and North Wilmington, a “Joi-sey” boy. (Laughter.)

I just want you to know, Bruce, there was a lawsuit that was between the governor of Delaware and the governor of New Jersey, and it’s now a matter of law. We owe — we own — Delaware owns the Delaware River to the high-water mark in New Jersey. (Laughter.) So, for all I know, I can claim you as part of Delaware before — (laughter) —

Bruce Springsteen — a poet, troubadour, a chronicler of American life and resilience and hope and dreams. Recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom along with 20 Grammys, an Oscar, a Tony, and an unyielding love from millions of fans across generations.

The New Jersey kid is back on tour, approaching — catch this — 3,000 concerts around the world. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. (Laughter.)

Since his first performance as a teenager at the local Elks Lodge — and I know where it is — Freehold, New Jersey. Just across the river. (Laughter and applause.) I’ve been to Freehold. And I married a “Joi-sey” girl. (Laughter.) Okay?

Bruce, some people are just “Born to Run,” man. (Laughter.)

Last fall, during a White House event called “A Night When Hope and History Rhyme,” I awarded the National Humanities Medal to Sir Elton John on the occasion of his final tour in Washington. Today, we add to that distinguished list of award- — him be- — receiving this award as well.

The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Amy Tan’s books capture the courage, the pain, and the joy — and the joy — of the immigra- — of the immigrant experience, and how their legacy and memory fulfill the promise of America for all Americans.

Colson Whitehead, one of the first and only novelists to win the Pulitzer Prize for back-to-back works. How in the hell did you do that? (Applause.) That’s — where is he? Pretty good, man. (Laughter.) I’m kind of looking for back-to-back myself. (Laughter and applause.) But I — but I may have to do it in “The Underground Railroad” — (laughter) — with the “Nickel Boys.” Incredible, man. That’s pretty damn impressive. (Laughter.)

From coming-of-age, to crime, to science fiction, to even zombies, he’s one of America’s great storytellers, bringing fresh perspective to the legacy of the original sin of slavery, elevating our nation’s consciousness around truth and justice.

You know, to understand the giants of history, we need, sometimes, to write about them. That’s Walter Isaacson. Walter, you’re the best, pal. Walter’s biographies on Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and more make real some of the most complex minds in our nation’s history. By better understanding figures like these, we better understand ourselves and our nation and the notion of possibilities. Anything is possible here. Anything is possible in America.

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