SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. I accept the nomination. (Laughter.) Tried that, been there. (Laughter.)
It is great to be here with all of you and especially indoors as it begins to snow out there. Those of you who I met earlier who’ve come up here from Palm Beach have an obligation to take some of us back with you. (Laughter.)
I want you to know also that this is a place where we like to do firsts. But Ellen, I’m telling you truthfully, that is the first time I’ve ever heard wisdom from a Chinese fortune cookie. (Laughter.) Joke yes, good idea yes.
It is a pleasure for me to welcome our terrific ambassador from China, who is a good friend of mine personally and very persuasive and important and influential in the city, and we thank you for coming here and being with us today. Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.
Former ambassadors who are here, likewise. I want to recognize my very good friend and former colleague, Senator Chris Dodd, who is here. It’s good to be with you, Chris.
It’s really special to gather here in the Ben Franklin Room where we hold special events. We do a lot of things in this room, but most importantly, this is our premier place to bring people. It’s where we do the Kennedy Center Honors and it’s where we now have the privilege of honoring seven highly accomplished men and women who enrich our lives with art and thereby contribute immeasurably, really, to America’s cultural diplomacy. And nobody should ever underestimate the power, the importance of cultural diplomacy. And when I say cultural, it’s in every form of culture. It’s in our music, it’s in our visual arts, it’s in our literature; and in every respect it has an impact on people. I’ve met people – I know Chris did when he was in the Senate – you visit somewhere, you meet with people in civil society or you meet with dissidents in a country or you meet with even former leaders – Vaclav Havel, others who themselves are in the arts, so to speak, even as they are engaged in politics.
And the impact of words, of dreams, of aspirations, of people’s visions and hopes is so powerful, beyond measure. From Latin America we’ve had some of the most powerful voices, from Russia, from other countries over the course of time.
So this is special. I can tell you personally a long time ago, about the time of the discovery of fire, I had some aspirations to be an artist myself. I mean way back. As a kid, I played bass guitar in a rock-n’-roll band, and the best thing I could do to describe our sound was to say “loud.” (Laughter.) But we had fun. And I fooled around when I was an undergraduate at college with filmmaking, and my images were too blurry and my pans were too fast, but boy did I have fun. And I finally discovered that what I really wanted to do was what I’m doing today.
I still take my guitar with me on the airplane and entertain only myself, I assure you. (Laughter.) But it’s fun, and my appreciation for the craft and the skill of the artist has just plain and simply grown immeasurably over these years, and particularly as Secretary of State. As I travel the world as Secretary and I’m privileged to go into our many missions around the world, I always get to see the art that you helped to place there, whether it’s in the residence or in the embassy or consulate itself. In Kyiv, I saw Susanna Starr’s embroidered doilies on display. At Villa Taverna, in Rome, I saw the marvelous Calder sculpture that’s out in the garden and sat there really with Prime Minister Netanyahu, with others negotiating and talking even as we looked across over at this extraordinary display. In Rabat, there is Kendall Buster’s sweeping Pattern Flow that descends gracefully from the ceiling in this weightless beauty.
And when I get to see these exhibits one after the other, one of the things that comes home to me very quickly is the breadth, the diversity of our presentation. And that is as it ought to be because it really reflects the diversity of our country. It’s who we are. And that’s what our art is supposed to reflect.
Whenever people of another country look at us, they in fact, whether it’s our art per se or culture as a whole, they see, I think, a part of themselves, and in some cases, they also get an opportunity to imagine things that they don’t have, whether it’s human rights or freedoms or opportunities. American culture is a mosaic of everything from Armenian to Zimbabwean, everything in between. And when all of our traditions come together, they absolutely do create a universal language. That is really an indispensable asset for the American brand and for our diplomacy. Art in Embassies is the principal lens through which the world is able to view the dynamism of our culture and artists.
AIE was commissioned in 1963 under the very premise that American fine art could reach out to people thousands of miles away, people who speak different languages, practice different customs, worship different gods or perhaps not even any at all. So the first director, Nancy Kefauver, used her position to bring color and light to embassies from Kuala Lumpur to Moscow. She sent Mark Rothko’s oil paintings to New Delhi, placed Andy Warhol’s acrylic Flowers in Madrid and Nepal, and she shipped Reginald Marsh’s harbor scenes to Copenhagen. Her goal, she said, was to show all the world what America stands for, and in her words, to make sure that it was more than “our Cokes and Frigidaires.” 1963.
Folks, AIE was born when artists were giving new meaning to beliefs about freedom of expression and individual liberty, beliefs that people held in their hearts then even in the long shadow of the Berlin Wall and which we were all too graphically reminded of in terms of its cost in Paris a few days ago. There are many ways to trumpet the virtues of an open society, but none as subtle, as compelling, or as elegant as well-chosen art.
So today we honor our artists. We honor them because of the mirror they hold up to who we are and what we hope to be, and because they have the ability to astonish and to surprise, to inspire and to make us think in new and hopefully liberating ways. Art enriches life; and when you consider the concrete barriers and other architectural handicaps which many of our embassies are saddled with, that enrichment is the counter to all of that; it lifts not only morale of our visitors, but believe me, also of our employees. And for that we are extremely grateful.
All this goes to underscore what everybody in this room really knows very well: Art can be a transformational force across the globe. It is. And if we need any further evidence, we have only to contemplate the careers of the artists whom we recognize this afternoon. And now, it’s my privilege to be able to offer a word of appreciation for each of our awardees while Ellen and Virginia Shore, our Chief Curator, will give out the medals as I say a word about each of them. And I want every one of you at the end of that to receive them appropriately.
Many of us know Sam Gilliam as the legendary Washington Color School painter. But around here, he is a patron and passionate believer in AIE. Today, Sam has paintings in over twenty countries including Morocco, Cyprus, and South Korea. And for his longtime support of our mission, Sam is the first to receive the Medal of Arts Lifetime Achievement Award. Congratulations, my friend. (Applause.)
Xu Bing once said that “art should serve the people,” which is exactly what the two spectacular editions of his Monkeys Grasping the Moon sculpture do each day in Washington’s Sackler Gallery and our Embassy in Beijing. For his efforts to link Chinese, American, and many other cultures through art, we thank and congratulate Xu Bing. (Applause.) Keep it up, thank you. And Xu, Xu Bing, flew all the way from Beijing yesterday, literally arrived here in time to do this, and we’re very grateful. Thank you. You honor us by being here. Appreciate it, thank you.
When Mark Bradford looks at a city, he sees more than the rest of us do with our untrained eyes; he invariably looks everywhere and he sees art everywhere. Mark’s collages and installations – some scavenged, all beautiful – have hung in our embassies in Stockholm and Berlin. And each tells a different story about the American experience of class, gender, and race in an urban environment. Mark, we join in saying congratulations and thank you for your extraordinary work. (Applause.)
Julie Mehretu’s acrylic paintings are made with the accumulation of thousands of strokes and numerous layers of paint. The effect is a complex, dynamic body of work which we are proud to display at our embassies in Madrid and Julie’s own birthplace of Addis Ababa. Julie, thank you for your creativity and for what you’ve lent to us. We appreciate it. (Applause.)
Pedro Reyes’ sculpture depicting the inner ear displayed at our consulate – is displayed at our consulate in Tijuana. And it is a poignant reminder that people everywhere need to listen to one another. Pedro once said that art is supposed to make people talk – not about the work itself but “about the discussions that are yet to come.” Pedro, for convincing us to listen harder and to hear more when we do, we say congratulations and thank you. (Applause.)
Kehinde Wiley has redefined the art of portraiture by using highly naturalistic technique not only to depict, but to celebrate and lift up the world’s people in all their magnificent variety. For his work in the Dominican Republic, Britain, and Jamaica, I congratulate Kehinde and thank him for his commitment. And you’ve got to get me one of those coats, too. (Laughter and applause.)
And Maya Lin’s work explores the environment in a way that only a brilliant artist can. In our Beijing Embassy, we are pleased to display her Pin-River installation, which is a rendering of the entire topography of the Yangtze River using 30,000 metal pins. And as a veteran of the conflict in Vietnam, let me also acknowledge the quiet eloquence of her renowned design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I know I am not alone. When you reach out and touch that wall or visit it, it’s a remarkable place, and we are so grateful to you for your contributions to our country, to our relations with other countries, and for the art that you produce. Thank you, Maya. (Applause.)
So let me ask everybody if you would all join together. I want you to rise and pay tribute to everybody and say congratulations to our artists and patriots in the truest sense. Thank you for your commitment to the ideals of our nation and for letting us use your work to forge greater understanding around the world. We are so grateful. (Applause.)