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George Lucas, Renee Fleming, Joan Didion Get Arts Medal

National Medal of Arts Ceremony
Joan Didion, author, with President Obama to accept a National Humanities Medal. Didion's book "The Year of Magical Thinking" became a Broadway play. Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

“I remember when I first saw ‘Star Wars,’” said President Barack Obama before giving filmmaker George Lucas the National Medal of Arts and a hug. “There’s a whole generation that thinks special effects always looked like they do today.”

In a White House ceremony yesterday, the president bestowed 12 National Medals of Arts and 12 National Humanities Medals on artists and academics, including Renee Fleming, Tony Kushner and Ellsworth Kelly.

“I’m surprised she hasn’t already gotten this award,” the president said of author Joan Didion, who received the humanities medal.

“Today’s honorees have one thing in common, and that is that they are teachers,” the president said. “Whether they realize it or not, they’ve taught us about ourselves and the world.”

During the ceremony, Michelle Obama beamed from the crowd in an off-the-shoulder purple dress. Among others in the East Room were opera patron Jacqueline Mars of Mars Inc., George Stevens Jr., the producer of the Kennedy Center Honors, and Rocco Landesman, the Broadway producer and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, the organization that selects the National Medal of Arts honorees.

The National Humanities Medal honorees are chosen by the National Endowment for the Humanities in consultation with the president.

Kennedy Quoted

Author Max Kennedy attended with his wife, Victoria, a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Kennedy was delighted to hear the president quote his father, the late Robert Kennedy, in his remarks.

The other recipients of the National Medal of Arts were Herb Alpert, Lin Arison, Joan Myers Brown, Ernest Gaines, Elaine May, Laurie Olin, Allen Toussaint, and the Washington Performing Arts Society.

The other National Humanities Medal honorees were Edward L. Ayers, William G. Bowen, Jill Ker Conway, Natalie Zemon Davis, Frank Deford, Robert Putnam, Marilynne Robinson, Kay Ryan, Robert Silvers, Anna Deavere Smith, and Camilo Jose Vergara.

(Stephanie Green is a writer and photographer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include Jason Harper on cars, Rich Jaroslovsky on technology.

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