WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama honored Kentucky author Wendell Berry among 20 artists, scholars and writers in a salute to the arts and humanities that embraced both celebrity and quiet achievement.
In addition to Berry, recognized for his achievements as a poet, novelist, farmer, and conservationist, recipients included James Taylor, Quincy Jones and Joyce Carol Oates.
The president and first lady Michelle Obama filled the East Room of the White House on Wednesday with an array of talent that transcended generations and reached into the worlds of letters and music, history and dance, criticism and film.
"One of the great joys of being president is getting a chance to pay tribute to the artists and authors, poets and performers who have touched our hearts and opened our minds," Obama said, adding with a knowing look, "or in the case of Quincy Jones and James Taylor, set the mood."
The president bestowed 10 National Medal of Arts and 10 National Humanities Medals.
Multiple Oscar winner Meryl Streep and Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, were unable to attend.
"I speak personally here because there are people here whose books or poetry or works of history shaped me," Obama said. Nodding conspiratorially toward arts medalist and jazz artist Sonny Rollins seated before him, he said: "I've got these thumb-worn editions of these works of art and these old records where they were still vinyl, Sonny, before they went digital, that helped inspire me or get me through a tough day or take risks that I might not otherwise have taken."
In his salute, Obama noted that the honorees had contributed to the intellectual growth of the nation and provided it with diversion — a chance to laugh or escape from the pressures of the moment.
"We also remember the art that challenged our assumptions; the scholarship that brought us closer to the events of our history; the poetry that we loved — or at least the poetry that we might recite to a girlfriend to seem deep," he said. "Of course, we still hum the great songs by the musicians in this room — songs that in many cases have been the soundtrack of our lives over decades."
■ James Taylor, musician
■ Harper Lee, author
■ Sonny Rollins, musician
■ Meryl Streep, Oscar-winning actress
■ Van Cliburn, world-renowned pianist
■ Quincy Jones, musician, composer, record producer and arranger
■ Mark di Suvero, abstract expressionist sculptor.
■ Donald Hall, poet laureate of the United States from 2006 to 2007
■ Robert Brustein, theater critic, producer, playwright and founder of Yale Repertory Theatre and American Repertory Theatre
■ Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, the longest-running American dance festival, based in the Berkshires in Massachusettshumanities
■ Joyce Carol Oates, author
■ Wendell Berry, author
■ Daniel Aaron, founding president of Library of America
■ Bernard Bailyn, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian
■ Jacques Barzun, scholar and a leader in the field of cultural history
■ Roberto González Echevarria, scholar and literary critic
■ Stanley Nider Katz, president of American Council of Learned Societies
■ Arnold Rampersad, biographer and literary critic
■ Philip Roth, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of 24 novels
■ Gordon Wood, scholar, historian and Pulitzer Prize winner.