Kennedy Center Honors -- Oprah, Paul McCartney, being and doing
What are these Kennedy Center Honors?
It's yet another bewildering American institution, like universal mail delivery or getting rid of the baby weight within weeks. And it occupies a hallowed niche in the midst of the holiday season. It provides an opportunity for American families to gather 'round the television set and watch two people they have actually heard of and three strangers that they think might be involved in the dance world receive bizarre-looking ribbons in the Kennedy Center.
John F. Kennedy said that "a nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers."
Based on this statement, the United States is often gay or British.
Becoming a Kennedy Center Honoree says one of two things about you: you are a noteworthy arts figure who remains vibrant, active, and capable of generating large audiences, or someone was worried that you were about to die. Lindsay Lohan is getting one next year.
Usually, these are an exercise in mismatched dedications. "Who," the organizers seem to ask, "will be the least appropriate artist to perform a tribute to Victor Borge?" Here is... Alec Baldwin? And... Sheryl Crow, whose entire life now consists of inflicting herself on regular concerts and turning them into benefit concerts.
But in some cases, this awkwardness is unavoidable. Some lives exist in dimensions that beggar replication on the narrow Kennedy Center stage, and their tributes are always the most disappointing. Look at Oprah. The least they could have done was hide something under her chair.
The Kennedy Center Honors recognize the peculiar alchemy known as career longevity. But this is becoming more difficult now. Becoming an institution no longer means shoring up a body of work that will resist the ravages of time -- except in the literal Joan Rivers sense. It means, somehow, remaining relevant yourself. And this is in some ways a taller order.
It's harder and harder to hide behind your work. People used to create great things and go home to languish quietly in obscurity. Mark Twain once said something along the lines that America is good at apologizing. That's what these honors were for. "Thank you for the multifarious joys you have bestowed on the public," they said. "Sorry about your childhood and those rough years before your recent revival."
But nowadays it's all about the Big Names. Oprah. Gaga. And if you aren't a Big Name, good luck!
In our era, when people become known not for what they've done but for who they are, the ceremony has gotten more and more bizarre. Our peculiar modern art form, the art of being rather than doing, is not only transforming the way we choose what to see (Oprah's presenting The Color Purple!) but making the individuals who specialize in this very difficult to honor. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it makes for a very strange Kennedy Center Honors performance.
"How do we honor Oprah?" I picture the committee saying. Then I picture a long silence. "She sits in chairs," one of the committee members says, meekly. "Great! That's great, Anthony! We'll have chairs!" "And she likes to talk," someone else suggests. "Wonderful! We'll have people sit in chairs and talk." "Sometimes she reads things," a third person pipes up. "Good thought. We'll have someone read something!" "Oprah's a celebrity," Anthony observes. "Why don't we have another celebrity read whatever the thing is?" "Right," the committee says. "Julia Roberts is a celebrity, isn't she?" "Sure," everyone says. "And then we'll have Jennifer Hudson sing! That seems about right."
And so we wind up with the spectacle that was presented to Oprah this December.
Contrast this to what happened to Paul McCartney. Paul's a big name, all right. But he's famous not because he has a distinctive performance style or because of successful self-branding -- although both things apply. Rather, he's known because he's given us a body of music that will endure for millennia, in spite of the fact that the Glee cast recordings recently beat his Billboard Hot 100 record.
But the trend is moving away from people like him, towards the Oprahs and One-Name Wonders who combine celebrity with art. For now, it's all right. But in forty years when Lady Gaga is receiving one honor, Jon Stewart is receiving another, and I'm taking the other three because they were confused and thought I was involved in the dance world, they'll have even less of an idea what to do.
It's not that today's artists are failing to give us lasting works. It's just that they themselves are so inextricably bound up in these works that it becomes impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.
And that never makes for a very good tribute show.
| December 29, 2010; 2:05 PM ET
Categories: Petri, Reality? Television | Tags: Classic DC, Lady Gaga, art
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