Pulitzer Prize winning writer Philip Kennicott from the Washington Post recently bemoaned the lack of “traditional arts” represented in the Kennedy Center Honors. Defining opera, ballet, and classical music as traditional and foundational to the organization, he articulated a view that perpetuates classism and racism in the arts. Our country’s history is based in slavery and our economics are capitalistic. Some of our greatest artists both reflect this reality and count among their artistic accomplishments popular culture/mass entertainment spectacles.

Mr. Kennicott’s opinions regarding art deserving of honors reflect white privilege. The Kennedy Center’s recent choices are important and help rectify the view that only ballet, opera, and classical music are worthy representational choices to celebrate. These forms are Anglo-European imports. Furthermore, American ballet, opera and classical music only set themselves apart because of influences from a rich variety of historically marginalized cultures that make great American art American. It is past time to holistically honor the marginalized.

Most pop culture art forms can trace their roots to minstrelsy and vaudeville: arenas where people of color and immigrants could find an audience and support themselves. As vaudeville changed with technology into the commercial forums of records, radio, film, television, VHS, and the internet, artists in the African American and Latino American cultural communities, who were not invited to the “traditional arts” table, found a voice. A hard-fought voice, but a voice none the less.

Carmen de Lavallade should be honored; for she is an amazing artist. However, Mr. Kennicott is only assuaged with this woman of color as a nominee because she practices ballet and concert dance, a “traditional art form” that is foundationally white. Mr. Kenicott’s claim that theatre is not represented amongst the nominees is wrong. Singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan’s life and music are the foundation for On Your Feet! currently running on Broadway. The artistic achievements of all the nominees represents a diverse group of individuals whose art has had significant cultural impact. Lionel Richie’s co-songwriting credit for We Are The World was considered “an artistic triumph that transcends its official nature” by Stephen Holden of The New York Times, exemplary of artistic excellence through a commercial entity. LL Cool J is one of the seminal artists responsible for the hip hop and rap arts moving into mainstream, introducing and educating generations about urban African American culture though music. Norman Lear produced sitcoms as a platform for reckoning social change.

Mr. Kennicott argues this year’s nominees “belong to commercial entertainment culture…that has no need of the Kennedy Center to establish and maintain a connection with their enormous audiences.” But he misses the point. It is about representation. Not just honoring the rare person of color who has worked hard to succeed in the foundationally white “traditional arts,” but valuing and recognizing excellence wherever art may flourish.

While he does admit that the Kennedy Center has always honored a wide range of culture, it is this year’s significant bent towards those in mass entertainment that bothers him:

“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.”

His tone reveals his privilege at the center of his argument. Are the honors only for those who can afford or have been exposed to “traditional arts?” Is art that is created for monetary gain unworthy of recognition? Our entire nation is founded on capitalism that grew through the atrocity of slavery. We cannot separate that American art is now informed by that foundation.

Yes, many of these artists have been recognized by their peers within popular culture or commercial awards shows. It is entirely different to have an organization that honors excellence across all arts in the United States to place value on artists who are marginalized as entertainment or commercial. These arenas are not always artistic, but great art happens within the field. Just as not all opera, ballet, or classical music is artistic, but occasionally great art happens in that field as well.

Representation matters. While teaching a collegiate beginning jazz dance class I had a student who was struggling with the musicality of Dave Grusin’s version of The Elephant Walk. I was hoping to find a connection to music she listened to regularly. She grew embarrassed, but after some prodding admitted that she loved the Banda music she grew up with, which she describes as a contemporary cousin of Mariachi. I have a long list of examples where students devalue artistic merit within their own culture because they believe the pervading myth that Anglo Western European art forms are superior.

Mr. Kennicott negates his entire argument when he lists Gene Kelly, Ella Fitzgerald, and Benny Goodman as artists who would not be likely to earn honors today. Gene Kelly was a dancer and choreographer of movie musicals, Ella Fitzgerald was arguably one of the best known and celebrated female jazz artists of her time, and Benny Goodman was an extremely popular musician in his time. All artists with significant commercial connections.

I agree with you Mr. Kennicott- I think the Kennedy Center should maintain a commitment to true diversity in the arts. They have done that very thing with this group of nominees.  I just think you need to reevaluate what you define as art worthy of honoring.


Written by Heather Castillo

Many thanks to Catherine Scott Burriss and MiRi Park for being my sounding board, asking the right questions, helping me to clarify my objectives, contributing and extensively editing. Gary Busby, thank you for your never ending support, keen eye, and big heart.

One response

  1. Love to see you writing and sharing your ideas online.
    I agree that it is a fantastic thing that pop artists are being recognized for their art and craft. I wonder if the uproar isn’t also about pop artists defying the “system.” When people who “play by the rules” see others succeed who “don’t play by the rules,” it is a blow to the ego. It will cause one to either retaliate or question the nature of one’s values and beliefs.

    To honor the efforts of those within the “Classical arts” world, this is a great opportunity to question: How is their work relevant to the current American culture? What are their goals and who is their audience? This is a healthy process for all artists. And, something we do again and again and again and again and. . .

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