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TV Critic’s Corner

An absence makes the arts grow fonder

From left: Kennedy Center Honors recipients Carmen de Lavallade, Norman Lear, Gloria Estefan, LL Cool J, and Lionel Richie at the gala, not attended by President Trump.Scott Suchman/The Kennedy Center

Last year’s Kennedy Center Honors were a heavy affair, and not just because a Frey-free Eagles were among the honorees. Though, yes, that part was pretty heavy.

In addition to celebrating the lifelong contributions of Frey and his Eagles, Mavis Staples, Martha Argerich, Al Pacino, and James Taylor, the annual gala was also a de facto told-ourselves-we-weren’t-gonna-cry farewell for President Obama, who called the arts “central to American life.”

“The Kennedy Center Honors are about folks who spent their lives calling on us to think a little harder, feel a little deeper, express ourselves a little more bravely, and maybe take it easy once in a while,” he said in a nod to Frey at the White House reception earlier that day (after cautioning Joe Walsh not to treat the White House like a hotel room: “We want our security deposit back”). 


This year, expect the vibe to be decidedly different, though just as deferent to recipients Lionel Ritchie, Gloria Estefan, Norman Lear, Carmen de Lavallade, and LL Cool J (the first-ever MC honoree, and the youngest winner). The awards were taped on Dec. 3, but air Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

The White House has demonstrated far less affinity for art that isn’t of Donald Trump (Trump himself has had the NEA in his crosshairs since he started redecorating Washington), and if those inaugural festivities one whole year ago were any indication (the most important 3 Doors Down gig ever!), there’s no love lost.

Thus, the elephant in the room won’t actually be in the room at all. Trump declined the invite back in August, nixed the usual reception, and spared himself the personal humiliation of donning the evening’s ceremonial rainbow bling. In doing so, he also enabled 95-year-old Lear and legendary dancer de Lavallade to attend the ceremony, after each had threatened to boycott should Trump attend.


"I'm thankful he chose not to come," Estefan told reporters on the red carpet. "All it does is overshadow the accomplishments of people who spent a lifetime trying to do something.”

Without giving away too much, this year’s ceremony eschewed the usual late-night style hosting role (last year filled by Stephen Colbert), and reportedly respected an unspoken moratorium on any mention of the president’s name in favor of keeping the focus squarely on the honorees and their work.

It feels like a fitting gesture toward preserving the spirit of the evening, but it also signals an unsettling predicament for the future: What happens when silence is how art responds to those who would silence it? Who has time to celebrate?

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @MBrodeur.