Patti Smith to Receive Washington University International Humanities Prize

Internationally renowned singer, writer, performer and visual artist Patti Smith will receive the International Humanities Prize on Tuesday, November 17, 2020, in recognition of her contributions to the arts and humanities over her 45-year career.

Patti Smith performing at the Provinssirock festival, Seinäjoki, Finland, June 16, 2007. Photo by Beni Köhler (CC-BY-SA).

In fall 2020, the Center for the Humanities will award the 2020 Washington University International Humanities Prize and Medal to internationally renowned artist Patti Smith. Recipients receive a $25,000 prize thanks to a gift from David and Phyllis Wilson Grossman. Smith will spend time with the Washington University community and participate in a free public event.

“Patti Smith’s tremendous accomplishments and impact as one of the most influential artists of our generation have been so deeply rooted in all that is foundational to the humanities, such as a critical understanding of art, music, literature, and history, as well as deeply reflective of some of the most pressing and difficult social and cultural conditions of our contemporary moment, from gender and social inequality to the environment and climate change,” said Ignacio Infante, acting director of the Center for the Humanities and an associate professor of Spanish and comparative literature. “We are thrilled about the impact that her visit to campus will have on the St. Louis community, and the opportunity to highlight the many intersections between Patti Smith’s groundbreaking work and the exciting academic and artistic initiatives established by and for our community through the Center for the Humanities, Arts and Sciences and the rest of Washington University at large.”

Smith’s 1975 album, Horses, “did much to invent punk as it elevated the marriage of rock and poetry,” said William J. Maxwell, professor of English and of African and African-American Studies. During her 45-year career as a singer-songwriter, she has found massive popular success with songs such as “Because the Night” and “People Have the Power.” Her literary career has earned similar acclaim, with her 2010 memoir, Just Kids, about her decades-long relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, earning the National Book Award. Her most recent memoir, Year of the Monkey, was published in 2019.

Smith was selected by a subcommittee of the humanities center’s executive committee, Arts and Sciences faculty, University Libraries and members of the St. Louis community. On Smith’s selection, committee member Maxwell said, “We chose Patti Smith for the Washington University International Humanities Prize because of this rare combination: Her unbending faith in the power of art to remake our vision of the world and her remarkably flexible pursuit of this power in different media — in rock music, performance art, poetry, memoir, journalism and photography, among others. Her work in all of these modes has never failed to uncover rhymes between high and popular culture, between vernacular Americana and French modernism, between the dynamics of contemporary fandom and traditional artistic apprenticeship.”

Smith has recorded 11 studio albums since 1975 and has published 25 books, including works of poetry, memoir and fiction. Her rock performance and spoken word recordings have been nominated four times for Grammy awards. She is also an accomplished photographer and artist, her work having been exhibited internationally, including at the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. “The award recognizes the almost impossibly wide range of Smith’s entire body of work,” Maxwell said. “If there’s another artist who has won the National Book Award, a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and official recognition from the French Ministry of Culture as a Commander in the Ordre des Artes et des Lettres, the news has failed to reach us.”

Patti Smith’s album Horses helped launch the punk-poetry sound of New York City in the 1970s and since then has frequently been cited as one of the most influential albums of the rock era. Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe created the cover’s striking image. Smith wrote about her decades-long relationship with Mapplethorpe in her memoir Just Kids, which won the 2010 National Book Award.

The International Humanities Prize and Medal are awarded biennially to a person who has contributed significantly to the humanities either through a supremely well-crafted work or an entire body of work that has dramatically changed how we see or understand a particular place, event, person, idea or field of expression, or through courageously persevering in a humanities pursuit in an atmosphere of persecution. Past winners are Orhan Pamuk (2006), Michael Pollan (2008), Francine Prose (2010), Ken Burns (2012), Marjorie Perloff (2014), Bill T. Jones (2016) and Sir David Adjaye (2018).

The ceremony will take place Tuesday, November 17, 2020. Because of anticipated high demand, this free event will be ticketed. The humanities center will share more details as additional plans unfold.