Friday, December 27, 2002

The separation of art and state, courtesy of poet Adrienne Rich

I was surfing up poetry tonight, remembering old friends--not friends whom I knew, but friends whose poetry wrapped around me as a teenager, helped me stand on weak legs, helped me feel my feelings without declaring myself completely insane. One of those was Adrienne Rich. I came upon this site, and noted the following letter, written by Ms. Rich to President Clinton's White House at her refusal to accept the National Medal for the Arts in 1997:

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July 3, 1997
Jane Alexander
The National Endowment for the Arts, 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington 20506

Dear Jane Alexander,

I just spoke with a young man from your office, who informed me that I had been chosen to be one of twelve recipients of the National Medal for the Arts at a ceremony at the White House in the fall. I told him at once that I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration. I want to clarify to you what I meant by my refusal.

Anyone familiar with my work from the early Sixties on knows that I believe in art's social presence--as breaker of official silences, as voice for those whose voices are disregarded, and as a human birthright. In my lifetime I have seen the space for the arts opened by movements for social justice, the power of art to break despair. Over the past two decades I have witnessed the increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice in our country.

There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I do know that art--in my own case the art of poetry--means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage. The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A President cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored. I know you have been engaged in a serious and disheartening struggle to save government funding for the arts, against those whose fear and suspicion of art is nakedly repressive. In the end, I don't think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope. My concern for my country is inextricable from my concerns as an artist. I could not participate in a ritual which would feel so hypocritical to me.

Sincerely,
Adrienne Rich

cc: President Clinton

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I admire her decision and her reasoning as much as I have always admired her poetry. I didn't hear about this at the time, probably because I was finishing up a complicated pregnancy, but I'm glad I found it tonight. Thought it might be of interest.

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