This is the speech I gave in April when Westchester Arts gave me their prize for being an artist, a prize I was certain my mother [(92) and in the audience] would be amused by. (In photo from L. to R.: LuPicard, Ben Cheever (me) and John Nonna.)
“I’m too polite to ask what you’re being honored for,” my mother said, when I invited her to come today. “That’s good,” I said, “because I’m not at all sure myself. I wonder if these people know who I am.” And I thought this, too, until I saw today’s program and noticed that my remarks had been restricted to a single minute. “Well then,” I thought, “maybe they do know who I am.”
I certainly know who some of you are. I know Steve Apkon and how he dreamed up a film center out of thin air, way back when it didn’t look like a good idea. I didn’t think it was a good idea. And now that institution has deepened and enriched the artistic life of this county. My beloved wife, Janet Maslin is a central part of the triumph that is the Jacob Burns Film Center. And speaking of film, Susan Todd is here. What Susan Todd and Andy Young do with a camera, that’s art. Terry Bazes is here. Terry wrote a splendid novel titled Lizard World. That’s art. Sheila Schwartz is here. She’s written a terrific play, which I just saw in New York, and which leaves me hungry for her next piece of writing. Sheila’s married to Dick Schwartz. Dick was Chairman of the New York State Council for the Arts, the country’s largest arts council. Then and now, he has supported the arts in conventional ways, but also in unconventional ways, serving as a powerful force for the enrichment of the culture in which we live. Lucy Waletsky’s here. Lucy’s all about keeping the parks open. Parks are where we go, when we need God to show us His art. Lu Picard and Barbara Jenkel are here from East Coast Assistance Dogs. Want to see art? Watch what these people do with dogs and children.
Nowadays people like to assert that art is what you put in the budget after the mortgage is paid off, the kitchen remodeled. This displays a stunning ignorance of history. Man was making art long before man was making budgets, long before he was making a living at all. The cave paintings in France are 17,000 years old.
When the wicked catch civilization by the throat, the artists are the first ones they go after. Hitler killed artists. Stalin killed artists. Stalin couldn’t kill them all though, and it was under Soviet rule, that thousands of people used to line up to hear a poet read. Clive James wrote that “Art proves its value by still mattering to people who have been deprived of every other freedom: indeed instead of mattering less, it matters more.”