WASHINGTON -- Describing them as teachers, President Barack Obama said Wednesday that two dozen recipients of national medals for contributions to the arts and humanities have created works that will last for American life.

At a White House ceremony, Obama awarded medals to 23 singers, dancers, poets, producers, playwrights, scholars and others, and one performing arts organization.

As applause and cheers rippled across the stately East Room, Obama joked that the audience was doing so "because I've bought their books, I've seen their movies, I buy their records. So we're major contributors here."

Turning more serious, he praised the medal recipients for using their talents "to open up minds and nourish souls, and help us understand what it means to be human, and what it means to be an American."

"We celebrate people like our honorees here today not just because of their talent, but because they create something new. They create a new space and that becomes a lasting contribution to American life," Obama said.

Among those receiving a National Medal of Arts are Herb Alpert, of Malibu, Calif., the musician behind the Tijuana Brass phenomenon and co-founder of A&M records; filmmaker George Lucas, of San Anselmo, Calif., and the Washington Performing Arts Society, of Washington, D.C.

Recipients of the National Humanities Medal include author Joan Didion, sportswriter Frank Deford and Robert B. Silvers, editor and co-founder of The New York Review of Books. All three are from New York.

The other National Medal of Arts recipients are:

_ Lin Arison, of Bal Harbour, Fla., co-founder of the National YoungArts Foundation and the New World Symphony.

_ Joan Myers Brown, of Philadelphia, founder of the Philadelphia Dance Company.

_ Renee Fleming, of New York, soprano known to many as "the people's diva."

_ Ernest J. Gaines, of Oscar, La., author who drew on his childhood in the rural South in his work.

_ Ellsworth Kelly, of Spencertown, N.Y., painter, sculptor and printmaker.

_ Tony Kushner, of New York, playwright.

_ Elaine May, of New York, for contributions to American comedy.

_ Laurie Olin, of Philadelphia, landscape architect.

_ Allen Toussaint, composer, producer and performer born and raised in New Orleans.

The other recipients of the National Humanities Medal are:

_ Edward L. Ayers, of Henrico, Va., historian.

_ William G. Bowen, of Princeton, N.J., former Princeton University president and academic leader.

_ Jill Ker Conway, of Boston, historian and academic leader.

_ Natalie Zemon Davis, of Toronto, historian.

_ Robert Putnam, of Cambridge, Mass., social scientist and Harvard professor.

_ Marilynne Robinson, of Iowa City, Iowa, author.

_ Kay Ryan, of Fairfax, Calif., former poet laureate of the United States.

_ Anna Deavere Smith, of New York, actress and playwright.

_ Camilo José Vergara, of New York, photographer and documentarian.

___

Online:

National Endowment for the Arts: http://www.nea.gov

National Endowment for the Humanities: http://www.neh.gov

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  • Herb Alpert

    President Barack Obama hugs musician Herb Alpert before presenting him with the 2012 National Medal of Arts, Wednesday, July 10, 2013, during a ceremony in the East Room of White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

  • George Lucas

    Director George Lucas walks back to his seat in the East Room of White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 10, 2013, after President Barack Obama presented him with the 2012 National Medal of Arts during a ceremony. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

  • Lin Arison

    President Barack Obama talks with philanthropist and arts education advocate Lin Arison, co-founder of the National YoungArts Foundation and the New World Symphony, as he awards her the 2012 National Medal of Arts during a ceremony in the East Room of White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

  • Robert Putnam

    President Barack Obama awards Robert Putnam the 2012 National Humanities Medal during a ceremony in the East Room of White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 10, 2013. Putnam received the medal for deepening our understanding of community in America. Examining how patterns of engagement divide and unite. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

  • Renée Fleming

    President Barack Obama awards Renée Fleming the 2012 National Medal of Arts for her contributions to American music during a ceremony in the East Room of White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

  • Laurie Olin

    President Barack Obama awards Laurie Olin the 2012 National Medal of Arts for his contributions as a preeminent landscape architect, Wednesday, July 10, 2013, during a ceremony in the East Room of White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

  • Joan Myers Brown

    President Barack Obama stands with Joan Myers Brown as he awards her the 2012 National Medal of Arts, for her contributions as a dancer, choreographer, and artistic director, Wednesday, July 10, 2013, during a ceremony in the East Room of White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

  • Ernest Gaines

    President Barack Obama awards Ernest Gaines the 2012 National Medal of Arts for his contributions as an author and teacher, Wednesday, July 10, 2013, during a ceremony in the East Room of White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

  • Ellsworth Kelly

    President Barack Obama welcomes Ellsworth Kelly to the stage to award him the 2012 National Medal of Arts for his contributions as a painter, sculptor, and printmaker, Wednesday, July 10, 2013, during a ceremony in the East Room of White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

  • Allen Toussaint

    President Barack Obama welcomes Allen Toussaint to the stage to award him the 2012 National Medal of Arts for his contributions as a composer, producer, and performer, Wednesday, July 10, 2013, during a ceremony in the East Room of White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

  • Elaine May

    President Barack Obama awards Elaine May the 2012 National Medal of Arts for her contributions to American comedy, Wednesday, July 10, 2013, during a ceremony in the East Room of White House, Wednesday in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

  • Tony Kushner

    President Barack Obama laughs with Tony Kushner as he awards him the 2012 National Medal of Arts, for his contributions to American theater and film, Wednesday, July 10, 2013, during a ceremony in the East Room of White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

  • Robert B. Silvers

    President Barack Obama stands with Robert B. Silvers as he awards him the 2012 National Humanities Medal for offering critical perspectives on writing, during a ceremony in the East Room of White House, Wednesday, July 10, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

  • Anna Deavere Smith

    President Barack Obama stands with Anna Deavere Smith as he awards her the 2012 National Humanities Medal for her portrayal of authentic American voices, during a ceremony in the East Room of White House, Wednesday, July 10, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

  • Camilo José Vergara

    President Barack Obama awards Camilo José Vergara the 2012 National Humanities Medal for his stark visual representation of American cities, during a ceremony in the East Room of White House, Wednesday, July 10, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

  • Frank Deford

    President Barack Obama laughs with Frank Deford as he awards him the 2012 National Humanities Medal for transforming how we think about sports, during a ceremony in the East Room of White House, Wednesday, July 10, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

  • Joan Didion

    President Barack Obama kisses Joan Didion as he awards her the 2012 National Humanities Medal for her mastery of style in writing, during a ceremony in the East Room of White House, Wednesday, July 10, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

  • Kay Ryan

    President Barack Obama stands with Kay Ryan as he awards her the 2012 National Humanities Medal for her contributions as a poet and educator, during a ceremony in the East Room of White House, Wednesday, July 10, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

  • Marilynne Robinson

    President Barack Obama stands with Marilynne Robinson as he awards her the 2012 National Humanities Medal for her grace and intelligence in writing, during a ceremony in the East Room of White House, Wednesday, July 10, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

  • Frank Deford

    President Barack Obama laughs with Frank Deford as he awards him the 2012 National Humanities Medal for transforming how we think about sports, during a ceremony in the East Room of White House, Wednesday, July 10, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

  • Edward L. Ayers

    President Barack Obama awards Edward L. Ayers the 2012 National Humanities Medal, for his commitment to making our history as widely available and accessible as possible, during a ceremony in the East Room of White House, Wednesday, July 10, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

  • Jill Ker Conway

    President Barack Obama awards Jill Ker Conway the 2012 National Humanities Medal for her contributions as a historian and trailblazing academic leader, during a ceremony in the East Room of White House, Wednesday, July 10, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

  • Natalie Zemon Davis

    President Barack Obama awards Natalie Zemon Davis the 2012 National Humanities Medal for her insights into the study of history and her exacting eloquence in bringing the past into focus, during a ceremony in the East Room of White House, Wednesday, July 10, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster