- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

NEW YORK (AP) - Richard Price and T. Coraghessan Boyle, authors, nonconformists and now inductees into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, remember the first time they even knew the country had an established cultural pantheon.

Price, whose novels include “Clockers” and “Lush Life,” received an “Academy Award” for literature in 1999 and wondered if the “Academy” wasn’t some kind of beach club or country club. “I thought maybe I get discounts at local restaurants. I had no idea,” he joked during a recent interview.

Boyle, author of “Drop City,” “World’s End” and other fiction, was on a book tour in 1993 when he learned that he had won the academy’s Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award, given for “recent prose that merits recognition.”

“I didn’t know what it was all about, but my editor and agent thought it was important enough to pull me off the tour to go to the ceremony,” Boyle said.

“I’ll never forget it. John Updike, white-haired and beaming with his lovely wife. Kurt Vonnegut gave a fiery, denunciatory speech about something or the other. And I got to sit down next to Allen Ginsberg and exchange what was no doubt witty repartee. That was pretty heady for a young pup.”

The academy is announcing Monday that nine artists have been voted in (openings occur when a member dies). Besides Price and Boyle, inductees include poets Jorie Graham and Yusef Komunyakaa, artist Judy Pfaff, architect Tod Williams and composers Stephen Hartke, Frederic Rzewski and Augusta Read Thomas.

Upon the official ceremony in May, they will enter a 250-member club that has included Henry Adams, Mark Twain and Mark Rothko, and currently features Edward Albee, Philip Glass and Toni Morrison. Artists are encouraged to serve on committees that award prizes, but there is no responsibility beyond agreeing to join.

Founded more than a century ago, and with a mission “to foster and sustain an interest in Literature, Music, and the Fine Arts,” the academy was long a reclusive institution and remains _ even among some artists _ a bit like a distant god, known mostly at those moments when it chooses to show its face.

Academy president J.D. McClatchy, who in January began a three-year term, plans to change that.

“I want to try and put the academy out in the world a little more,” said McClatchy, a poet and elected academy member whose books include “Hazmat” and “Ten Commandments.”

“I’ve been writing letters to Congress, to the White House, asking for more support for the arts. We’re about to issue a series of letters on copyright issues,” McClatchy said. “We’re going to try to bring the academy a little more into the 21st century and bring it into the community, especially the very young. It’s a wide open field in America and the academy is eager to address that and help it flourish.”

The academy shares at least one concern with the public: the economy. The academy’s endowment has dropped sharply and prize money being awarded this year has been cut 14 percent, with some honors being delayed and others offering smaller cash awards.

“It’s a great challenge, but I still want to be able to expand and find new ways to get artists’ work seen more widely,” McClatchy said.

Within the academy, the commitment to tradition, to “excellence,” is steady, McClatchy said. Commercial success is no barrier, but the kind of artists allowed in suggest that the walls between “high” and “low” art are in little danger of falling.

“It’s an academy. It’s not called the `Society of Arts and Letters.’ It’s in the nature of an academy to be exclusive,” McClatchy said.

The academy has three categories: art, music and literature, with members nominating and voting for future choices. The academy’s body is far more diverse than it was decades ago. No longer are blacks, modernists, abstract painters and photographers excluded. Rebels the academy once would have scorned _ Vonnegut, Amiri Baraka and Lawrence Ferlinghetti _ have been admitted. The first photographer, Cindy Sherman, was elected in 2005.

“For a long time, we just couldn’t get a photographer in. We kept saying `This is ridiculous, just nominate somebody,’” McClatchy said. “Some people might not include her (Sherman) among the greatest living American photographers, but it was a strong, interesting choice.”

Other kinds of artists must wait. The academy has welcomed popular writers such as Garrison Keillor and Isabel Allende, but not “genre” writers. No science fiction, crime or horror authors have been voted in, not Elmore Leonard or James Ellroy, not even Ray Bradbury or Stephen King, both of whom have received honorary National Book Award medals.

“There’s probably an element of snobbism,” McClatchy said, adding that other members may not share his taste for “thrillers, detective stuff, hard-boiled noir stuff.”

“I don’t know, but it may simply be unfamiliarity, that people here don’t sit around reading science fiction. They’re rereading Flaubert, or they’re rereading Richard Price. There’s a man who has raised the underworld to Parnassus.”

Blues, jazz and other kinds of American music have influenced the writings of Baraka, Komunyakaa and other members. But virtually all the artists in the music category, including the three new inductees, are classical composers, with a handful of exceptions such as jazz great Ornette Coleman and Broadway’s Stephen Sondheim.

“It’s the same with any organization _ like votes for like,” explained opera composer and longtime academy member Jack Beeson. “I remember when we were talking about whether to let in more jazz and popular musicians and (fellow composer) Ned Rorem said, `They already have their awards and academies. They don’t need this.’”

No rock star is in, and McClatchy expects that none likely will be soon, not even Bob Dylan, the first rocker to win a Pulitzer Prize.

McClatchy said the academy votes for “composers” and Dylan is a “performer.” He then acknowledged that Dylan is (very much) a composer, but added: “There are a lot of writers who aren’t members.”

Boyle, enough of a rock fan to write liner notes for a Doors anthology, said that “of course” Dylan should be in, but cautioned: “I’m not much of a company man so I don’t expect to have that much to do with it.

“I don’t go to parties, and I don’t kiss up to anybody,” he said. “But this is a thrill, getting in the academy. Some great heroes of mine, like Peter Matthiessen, are in the academy. How wonderful it will be to be in the same room with them.”


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