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The Kennedy Center Honors abandons the arts for pop culture

Published 9 months ago in

For years now, the Kennedy Center Honors have been devolving from an award 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 be represented with a single award 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 awards that bear its name, to establish and maintain a connection with their enormous audiences.

This year, not one violinist, pianist, conductor or orchestral composer has chosen. No one from the opera world is represented. Despite de Lavallade’s theatrical credits, theater is mostly absent this year, with no playwrights, actors, directors or designers among the bunch. 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 an award, 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.

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