Pianist and conductor Leon Fleisher faced a dilemma recently when he was awarded one of the Kennedy Center honors.
The event, a deeply moving and gratifying tribute to the performing arts and artists in America, was broadcast to our nation. But what you couldn’t see in that broadcast was how conflicted I felt about being there.
Let me be frank: I was flattered to be included in so distinguished a group and to be recognized for whatever contributions I may have made to American life. I was pleased to be part of an event that raises money for an institution as vital as the Kennedy Center and to be with my family and to see their joy at the ceremony.
What made me unhappy and continues to trouble me was that I was required to attend a White House reception on the afternoon of the gala. I cannot speak for the other honorees, but while I profoundly respect the presidency, I am horrified by many of President Bush’s policies.
In the end, I decided to attend wearing a peace symbol around my neck and a purple ribbon on my lapel, at once showing support for our young men and women in the armed services and calling for their earliest return home. My family did the same, as did a number of fellow attendees who, over the weekend’s various events, asked me for ribbons of their own.
I had no wish to pressure or embarrass the other honorees. I did not want to disappoint my family, and I certainly did not want to embarrass or injure the Kennedy Center, where I have performed for decades and which is named for an American whom I greatly admired. As President John F. Kennedy said, “The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation is close to the center of a nation’s purpose — and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.”
I am glad he decided to attend. After all, the event and the honor were more than just about him, and by his small symbolic act he was, in effect, proving that art rises above politics, even if he wore the peace symbol to commemorate his own beliefs. He may face some backlash from the reactionaries, but I am pretty sure that if the situation had been one where a conservative artist — and yes, there are some — had made a show of snubbing a Democratic president, he or she would have been glorified by the Orcosphere for standing up for their beliefs. And to his credit, Mr. Fleisher did not pull an Eartha Kitt.