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Jasper Johns is first studio artist in 34 years to receive Presidential Medal of Freedom

February 14, 2011 |  6:45 am

JasperJohnsFlagEliEdytheBroadColl

If a fundamental aim of contemporary visual art is to get out ahead of conventional wisdom and mass opinion and keep the public off-balance, here's some evidence that its most illustrious practitioners have been doing their job: when President Obama presents Jasper Johns with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Tuesday at the White House, it will be the first time in 34 years that a painter or sculptor has won the nation's highest civilian honor.

Obama joins John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford as the only presidents who have given a medal to a painter or sculptor. Actually, Ford didn't precisely give a medal to Alexander Calder, the only sculptor honored to date. When he tried in 1976, Calder refused it in protest of U.S. treatment of Vietnam-era draft evaders and deserters; the two had a history that went beyond that. Ford gave Calder the medal  -- posthumously -- in 1977.

JasperJohnsBrynneShawThePlainDealer2004 When it comes to honoring people in the art forms that Culture Monster covers -- art/photography, architecture, classical music/opera, jazz, theater and dance -- Obama, halfway through his term, is setting a vigorous pace. Johns and Yo-Yo Ma, who is also among this year's 15 recipients, bring Obama's artist-honoree total to four, on track for eight in a single term.

The White House has announced that it will stream the ceremony live on its website at 10:30 a.m. Pacific/1:30 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday.

Obama will have to pick it up, though, to beat Gerald Ford's batting average. In 2 1/2 years in office, the man who was ridiculed for playing too much football without a helmet honored seven artists plus arts philanthropist-politician Nelson Rockefeller.

Ronald Reagan, not surprisingly given his Hollywood background, also averaged two medals per year conferred on arts recipients -- 16 in his eight years in office.

The champ, honoring seven artists in his lone opportunity, was John F. Kennedy. In 1963, JFK inaugurated the medal as it is now conceived (Harry Truman had established a precursor in 1945 to honor civilian service during wartime). Actually, it was Lyndon Johnson who presided over the ceremony that December, because Kennedy had been assassinated two weeks earlier. Johnson then awarded seven medals to artists on his own initiative in five-plus years in office.

RitaMorenoGeoBushShaunHeasleyReutersKennedy, through his surrogate, dealt out nearly a full artistic house, missing only dance as he honored an architect (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe), a photographer (Edward Steichen), a singer (Marian Anderson), two instrumentalists (Pablo Casals and Rudolf Serkin), a man of the theater (playwright Thornton Wilder) and a visual artist (Andrew Wyeth).

The presidential artistic dunce cap is worn by Bill Clinton, who was so caught up in governmental wonkery that he failed to honor an arts figure in eight years, unless you want to count businessman/arts philanthropist David Rockefeller, brother of Nelson.

Richard Nixon gave medals to just two artists in five and a half years in office.

Jimmy Carter honored five artists and George H.W. Bush three in their four years in office; George W. Bush (pictured in 2004 with honoree Rita Moreno) gave four artists medals in eight years.

Below you'll find a list of the 57 Medal of Freedom honorees in the arts by categories, followed by a list of presidents and their arts honorees. Note that the lists include some actors, among them James Cagney, James Stewart and Gregory Peck, who are best known for their screen roles, but who also had significant achievements on stage.

By artistic discipline

Architecture (3)

R. Buckminster Fuller
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
I.M. Pei

Arts Criticism (1)
Lewis Mumford

Classical music/opera (15)
Aaron Copland
Leontyne Price
Arthur Rubinstein
Rudolf Serkin
Mstislav Rostropovich
Pablo Casals
Isaac Stern
Vladimir Horowitz
Van Cliburn
Yo-Yo Ma
Arthur Fiedler
Eugene Ormandy
Marian Anderson
Beverly Sills
Placido Domingo

Dance (4)
George Balanchine
Lucia Chase
Martha Graham
Chita Rivera

Impresario/producer (2)
Lincoln Kirstein
Roger L. Stevens

Jazz (5)
Count Basie
Eubie Blake
Duke Ellington
Ella Fitzgerald
Mabel Mercer
 

Arts philanthropy (3)
Catherine Shouse
David Rockefeller
Nelson Rockefeller

Photography (2)
Ansel Adams
Edward Steichen

Theater (16)

Irving Berlin
Meredith Willson
Pearl Bailey
Thornton Wilder
Tennessee Williams
James Cagney
Danny Kaye
Alfred Lunt
Lynn Fontanne
Gregory Peck
James Stewart
Helen Hayes
Audrey Hepburn
Sidney Poitier
Rita Moreno
Carol Burnett

Painting/Sculpture (6)
Alexander Calder
Jasper Johns
Willem de Kooning
Georgie O'Keeffe
Norman Rockwell
Andrew Wyeth

*With an asterisk: Medalists who had noteworthy visual or performing arts achievements but won mainly for other reasons (6)
Clare Booth Luce (journalist/stateswoman/playwright)
Archibald MacLeish (poet/playwright/diplomat/Librarian of Congress)                   T.S. Eliot (poet/playwright)
Vaclav Havel (statesman/playwright)
Luis Ferre (Puerto Rican statesman/musician/arts philanthropist)
Roger Tory Peterson (ornithologist/illustrator)

By president

John F. Kennedy (7)
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Rudolf Serkin
Pablo Casals
Marian Anderson
Andrew Wyeth
Thornton Wilder
Edward Steichen

Lyndon Johnson (7)
Aaron Copland
Willem de Kooning
Lewis Mumford
Alfred Lunt
Lynn Fontanne
Gregory Peck                                                                                                 Leontyne Price

Richard Nixon (2)
Duke Ellington
Eugene Ormandy

Gerald Ford (8)
Martha Graham
Arthur Rubinstein
Irving Berlin
Arthur Fiedler
Alexander Calder
Georgia O’Keeffe
Norman Rockwell
Nelson Rockefeller


Jimmy Carter (5)
Ansel Adams
Lucia Chase
Beverly Sills
Tennessee Williams                                                                                           Eubie Blake

Ronald Reagan (16)
Buckminster Fuller
George Balanchine
Lincoln Kirstein
I.M. Pei
Count Basie
Mstislav Rostropovich
Vladimir Horowitz
Meredith Willson
Pearl Bailey
Mabel Mercer
Catherine Shouse
Roger L. Stevens
Danny Kaye
Helen Hayes
James Stewart                                                                                                   James Cagney

George H.W. Bush (3)
Isaac Stern
Ella Fitzgerald
Audrey Hepburn

Bill Clinton (1)                                                                                               David Rockefeller

George W. Bush (4)RitaMoreno                                                                                                                                        Van Cliburn
Placido Domingo
Carol Burnett

Barack Obama (4)
Chita Rivera
Yo-Yo Ma
Jasper Johns
Sidney Poitier

RELATED

ChitaRiveraMedalFreedom Jasper Johns, Yo-Yo Ma to receive Presidential Medal of Freedom from Obama

Chita Rivera, Sidney Poitier receive Presidential Medal of Freedom

-- Mike Boehm

Photos: "Flag," Jasper Johns (detail of encaustic and collage on three panels); Jasper Johns in 2005; George W. Bush escorts Rita Moreno before 2004 Medal of Freedom ceremony. Credits: The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection/LACMA (Johns Flag); Brynne Shaw/The Plain Dealer (Johns 2005); Shaun Heasley/Reuters (Bush and Moreno)

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