The Kennedy Center Honors, awarded at the beginning of December are being televised on Tuesday, December 29, 2015 by CBS at 9 PM eastern time. The list of winners for 2015 are: Carole King, George Lucas, Rita Moreno, Seiji Ozawa, and Cicely Tyson.
The stated qualification of the Kennedy Center Honors is that it is: “Awarded for Lifetime Contributions to American Culture through the Performing Arts.’ Not entertainment but arts. There are many awards for entertainment, The Academy Awards, The Grammy , The Emmy, The People’s Choice, and the list seems to go on forever. There are very few awards for lifetime achievement in the arts, which should make the Kennedy Center Honors a special occasion.
When the awards were first announced, CBS signed up to carry the event.
CBS vice president for specials Bernie Sofronski stated: "George [Stevens] came to us with this. What turned us on is that this is the only show of its kind ....We see this as a national honoring of people who have contributed to society, not someone who happens to have a pop record hit at the moment...[emphasis added] Our intention is not to do just another award show.A general poll asking people chosen at random to identify each of the winners might reveal some interesting results. I suspect that few would identify Cicely Tyson and almost no one would be able to identify Seiji Ozawa.
For the record, Ozawa was the distinguished conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 20 years and in 1994 had the new Tanglewood concert hall "Seiji Ozawa Hall" named in honor of his 20th season with the orchestra. He was music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 1965 to 1969 and of the San Francisco Symphony from 1970 to 1977. In fact, there isn’t a significant orchestra in the world he hasn’t conducted. In addition, he has championed and introduced to the world many younger composers. The list is too long; check the Wikipedia article for the full Monty. That is Art with a capital “A.”
If he has achieved all of these things, why is he not better known? Why are The United States’ leading artists, performing and otherwise, completely unknown?
It starts with leadership. And what better place to look than the White House? In fact, the President and the first family will be seated in box with the honorees. Watch the award ceremony and something rather amazing happens. When the award is to a popular entertainer and the people performing are pop icons, President Obama cannot contain himself. He is jumping around in his seat, snapping his fingers, and mouthing the words. When it comes time for the one honoree from the real arts, he complete disappears. The camera pans across the honorees and the first family. President Obama is seated to our far right. The camera always stops short of the President’s seat.
Always: In 2012 when the token artist was the international [Russia > England > USA] American citizen ballerina Natalia Markarova, in 2013 the African-American and international opera diva Martina Arroyo, in 2014 the world famous American ballerina Patricia McBride who spent nearly 30 years dancing with the New York City Ballet and had roles and original ballets created for her by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins’-- where was the President of the USA? AWOL! It couldn’t be a coincidence. Not year after year. Actually he is just doing the “Meurkan Thang.” He is not unique in this.
Of interest in this matter, CBS television has been running promotions for the Tuesday evening program for several days in advance. They picture and name all the honorees and picture many of the guest performers along with the evening’s host Steven Colbert. Absent from this promotion is Seiji Qzawa. Why? They know their audience. Nobody in the U.S.A. knows or cares about a symphony conductor.
A few months ago PBS ran a program from their “American Masters” series titled “American Ballet Theater: A history.” The narrator for the program was Jennifer Homans, author of the ground breaking and award winning book: “Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet.” She said that ballet is sophistication, style, eloquence, and beauty – in short, everything that America hates. So there is the bitter truth.
It has not always been this way. In the wake of World War II many young Americans discovered Europe and were amazed. When the fighting was finished, there were museums, opera, plays, ballet, tons and tons of books, and a attitude that didn’t take the received wisdom of the smallest village for some universal truth. Eyes were opened. The GI Bill opened some of the best colleges and universities in the land to a generation who had never seen or thought of college.
The roots were already there. In the 1930's and 40's there radio programs: The NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanni was considered by many to be the best in the world. [Imagine a television network today creating and underwriting such an organization.] The Orchestra performed on radio and gave concerts on Sunday afternoon in Carnegie Hall with admission prices comparable to a movie ticket. There were also broadcasts of the Chicago, Philadelphia, and other orchestra – national wide in prime time.
With the advent of television we soon had The Bell Telephone Hour, The Voice of Firestone, Producer's Showcase ( Ford & Magnavox as sponsors), and CBS televised the first live performances from the Metropolitan Opera.
For drama television gave us Westinghouse Studio One, Kraft Television Theater, and Playhouse 90. The last gave us a first look at plays that were to go to Broadway and movie screens: Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty,” J.P. Miller’s “Days Of Wine And Roses” [ TV title: "The Lost Weekend"], “Requiem," "The Miracle Worker” and “Judgment At Nuremberg.” All became Academy Award winning films.
The Kennedy Center itself was first proposed in the U. S. Congress in 1958 and signified championed by John F Kennedy. At his inauguration, he invited Robert Frost to read a poem at the ceremony. It served as notice that the Arts were now an official part of the country. Once in the White House he had a formal dinner for all the American winners of the Noble prize – arts and science. He persuaded Pablo Casals to play a recital at the White House. Never in his life, had Casals ever played to a private audience. He agreed because of his admiration for the new President and the tone that he was setting for the nation.
President Kennedy was chagrined that Washington D. C. stood alone as the only capital city of a major nation without a performing arts center. All modern nations have capitals with great performing arts centers as well as great museums. He made it a goal to change that. His actions were heralded as a great step forward for the nation. Andre Malraux, author of Man's Fate (La Condition Humaine) and France’s Culture Minister agreed to loan the Mona Lisa for display in Washington and New York. France is not in the habit of loaning out the Mona Lisa.
What happened? Well. President Kennedy was killed, television discovered that people would watch just about anything – including the people next door or across town, if they were called Reality Stars. Actually it’s a long story. But we now have no serious arts leadership in the nation.
As someone remarked; “In the ‘70's we thought the idea of popular culture was really cool. We didn’t realize that all too soon it would be the only culture that remained.”
The immediate question: Will President Obama ‘take a powder’ again when Seiji Ozawa is honored or will he show some leadership for the arts?