Skip to main content

Remarks of Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers, Presentation of the 2004 Harvard Arts Medal to Yo-Yo Ma ’76

Cambridge, Mass.

I’ll say something about Yo-Yo in just a moment, but before I do that, I wanted just to remark from my perspective, and I know from many others’, that this is one of the great weekends of the Harvard year. Part of it is the numbers: 3,000 of our students are involved in the arts, and 2,000 performed just in the last two days, the celebration of what goes on here through the year of more than 100 concerts, of more than 70 plays, the countless photography and artistic exhibitions. But it’s way beyond those kinds of numbers.

I commend to everyone here Helen Vendler’s recent Jefferson Lecture, where she talks about the humanities, where she talks about what she believes should be the absolutely central role of the arts within the humanities. For Helen explains in that lecture that “after all, it is by their arts that cultures are principally remembered.” She explains, “The arts are true to the way we are, and were, to the way we actually live and have lived.” And she reminds us of what is also true of our universities: “Just as art is only half itself without us – its audience, its analysts, its scholars – so we are only half ourselves without it.”

ARTS FIRST reminds us of something very, very important as we renew our great University, and that is this: as we narrate the study of criticism of the aesthetic, so we must also cultivate, nurture, and credit the creation of beauty. That is what ARTS FIRST is all about.

It is always true with honors that when we honor someone, we really are, in a sense, honoring ourselves. And truly Yo-Yo Ma honors us with his presence tonight. I would not presume after what you have just heard to talk to you about Yo-Yo Ma, the musician. I would not presume after what you just heard to talk to you about Yo-Yo Ma, the humane teacher. What I would say is this: Yo-Yo Ma brings honor to his alma mater in so many ways, not just through the beauty he promotes, but also through the understanding he brings about. As Yo-Yo has put it:

“We live in a world of increasing awareness and interdependence, and I believe that music can act as a magnet to draw people together. Music is an expressive art that can reach to the very core of one’s identity. By listening to and learning from the voices of an authentic musical tradition, we become increasingly able to advocate for the worlds they represent.”

Yo-Yo, on behalf of this University and your alma mater, Harvard College, I extend our deepest thanks and admiration to you for being the artist, musician, and person that you are. It is a great pleasure to ask John Lithgow to bestow upon you the 2004 Harvard Arts Medal.