It was a star-studded night in the nation's capital Sunday as politics were set aside to salute this year's Kennedy Center Honorees: Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep, singer and actress Barabara Cook, singer and songwriter Neil Diamond, jazz saxophonist and composer Sonny Rollins, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

On the 40th annniversary of the awards, Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein emphasized the role of the honorees in shaping the Americans' collective imagination. “This year, the Kennedy Center celebrates its 40th anniversary by selecting five extraordinary individuals whose collective artistry has contributed significantly to the cultural life of our nation and the world,” Rubenstein said.

Seated with President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, the five artists were honored with tributes throughout the evening from friends and colleagues including Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Bill Cosby, Smokey Robinson, Glenn Close and Stephen Colbert. The 34th annual celebration also brought out politicians such as potential GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.

In an eloquent speech at the White House, President Obama praised the honorees for expanding the limits of what is possible. “By expressing themselves, they help us learn something about ourselves. They make us laugh, they move us to tears, they bring us together and they push the boundaries of what we think is possible,” Obama said. “Each of them has been blessed with an extraordinary gift, tonight we thank them for sharing that gift with us.”

The Kennedy Center Honors were created in 1978 to honor lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts including dance, music, theater, opera, motion pictures and television. CBS will broadcast the evening's ceremony, hosted by Caroline Kennedy as a living memorial to her father, John F. Kennedy, on December 27.

Watch a video of President Obama's speech here: