At the White House Tuesday evening, Joe Biden bestowed the National Medal of Arts upon several famous and successful entertainers, including Bruce Springsteen, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Mindy Kaling. I personally enjoy all their work quite a bit. Yet the question must be asked: Why is this a job for the president of the United States?
Generally speaking, the government steps in to perform functions that the private sector won’t do, or at least not sufficiently. We need the government to supply national defense, infrastructure, a safety net, scientific research, and so on because the marketplace does not have a strong incentive to satisfy these needs.
But bestowing awards on celebrities is something the private sector supplies at robust levels. It feels like hardly a week goes by without some entertainers going on television to give awards to other entertainers. As wonderful as we can all agree Bruce Springsteen’s music may be, it does not suffer from any dearth of adulation for which government has an obvious role to compensate.
Hollywood has created and sustained a gigantic business in giving out awards, which provide cheap content and big audiences that advertisers are happy to support. There is no need in this sector to create a public option.
What’s more, the National Medal of Arts is not even the only tool the executive branch has to recognize popular entertainers. Last fall, Biden gave Elton John the National Humanities Medal. And President Obama once granted the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song to Paul McCartney. So there are no fewer than three presidential-medal categories for which classic rockers are apparently eligible.
You might defend this practice by noting that it’s not terribly different from the practice of inviting championship sports teams to the White House. The difference is that unlike sports, which has a limited number of defined champions, bestowing medals on entertainers involves picking winners.
And the selection of entertainers for presidential awards has, in recent years, carried more than a whiff of partisanship. Springsteen, Louis-Dreyfus, and Mindy Kaling have all worked and raised money to elect Democrats, as did designer Vera Wang, another Medal of Arts honoree, who “collaborated to create clothing in support of Joe Biden’s bid for the presidency” in 2020.
Of Tuesday’s medal winners, only one, Gladys Knight, has not made high-profile efforts to put in office the man who awarded them. Biden, of course, is hardly alone in using these medals to reward supporters. Donald Trump handed the National Medal of Arts to the likes of Toby Keith and Jon Voight.
The practice of using the presidency to grant official state recognition upon beloved (or favored) entertainers is something of an American analogue to the British practice of bestowing knighthood upon the rich and famous. But this borrowing of the trappings of monarchy, while fulfilling some deep American craving to replicate the nonsensical pageantry of the British monarchy we once revolted against, is also un-republican.
The president is supposed to be simply a public servant, holding no social rank higher than that of any other American. We hire him to do a job for us, not to shape our culture or to cultivate our taste. The handing out of presidential awards to people who don’t need more of them seems to be one small example of the way in which the culture of celebrity has infected public life. It’s not, by a long shot, the worst aspect of our government. But it is awfully strange that nobody thinks to question its purpose.