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Obama honors Meryl Streep, Harper Lee, Philip Roth, Quincy Jones and others with National Medals of Arts and Humanities

President Barack Obama presents a 2010 National Medal of Arts to musician and record producer Quincy Jones, Wednesday, March 2, 2011, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

In a ceremony at the White House on Wednesday, President Obama honored 20 Americans for their contributions to the arts, humanities, and literature -- and praised the fruits of their labor as a "vital ingredient" for democracy.

At event, during which Mr. Obama presented the attending recipients with National Medals of Arts and Humanities, Mr. Obama spoke about his relationship with music and literature, and said certain works had helped to "inspire me or get me through a tough day or take risks that I might not otherwise have taken."

"I think what's true for me is true for everyone here and true for our country," Mr. Obama continued. "The fact is that works of art, literature, works of history, they speak to our condition and they affirm our desire for something more and something better."

"How many young people have come to see the senseless cruelty of racism and the importance of standing up for what's right through the eyes of a girl named Scout?" Mr. Obama mused, referencing the Pulitzer Prize-winning "To Kill a Mockingbird," by 2010 Arts medal recipient Harper Lee. (Lee, who is 84, did not attend the event.)

Citing protest songs of the civil rights movement and the early American writings of Thomas Paine, the president credited the arts and humanities with inspiring social change and progress throughout American history.

"Time and again, the tools of change, and of progress, of revolution, of ferment -- they're not just pickaxes and hammers and screens and software, but they've also been brushes and pens and cameras and guitars," said Mr. Obama.

Among those honored at the event were actress Meryl Streep (who was unable to attend the event), authors Harper Lee and Philip Roth, and musicians Quincy Jones and Sonny Rollins. 

The full list of honorees is as follows: Robert Brustein, Van Cliburn, Mark di Suvero, Donald Hall, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, Quincy Jones, Harper Lee, Sonny Rollins, Meryl Streep, James Taylor, Daniel Aaron, Bernard Bailyn, Jacques Barzun, Wendell E. Berry, Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, Stanley Nider Katz, Joyce Carol Oates, Arnold Rampersad, Philip Roth and Gordon Wood.

Watch video from the event above or view pictures here.