The arts are an essential part of society. The arts are what a society is remembered by. Those were the leitmotifs, sounded again and again, of the Kennedy Center’s Thursday-night gala concert to open a two-week mini-festival commemorating the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of the president whose name the center bears.

Yet the arts have a questionable role at this kind of gala. When your audience includes 300 mayors (in town for the U.S. Conference of Mayors) and 90-some members of the Kennedy family; when your emcees include Terrence McNally, Diane Sawyer and Mike Nichols; and when your performers include Yo-Yo Ma, Herbie Hancock and Paul Simon, the actual art tends to get pushed aside, served up in snippets the size of variety-show acts.  More…