By Adrienne Rich
(GOVERNMENT BY THE PEOPLE)
The invitation from the White House came by telephone on July
3, just before the national holiday, a time of public contention about the
relationship of government to the arts. After several years' erosion of
arts funding and hostile propaganda from the religious right and the
Republican Congress, the House vote to end the National Endowment for the
Arts was looming. That vote would break as news on July 10; my refusal of
the National Medal for the Arts would run as a sidebar story in the New
York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.
My "no" came directly out of my work as a poet and essayist and
citizen drawn to the interfold of personal and public experience. I had
recently been thinking and writing about the growing fragmentation of the
social compact, of whatever it was this country had ever meant when it
called itself a democracy: the shredding of the vision of government of
the people, by the people, for the people.
. . . . .
Whatever was "newsworthy" about my refusal was not about a single
individual--not myself, not President Clinton. Nor was it about a single
political party. Both major parties have displayed a crude affinity for
the interests of corporate power while deserting the majority of the
people, especially the most vulnerable.
. . . . .
There is no political leadership in the White House or the Congress
that has spoken to and for the people who, in a very real sense, have felt
abandoned by their government.
. . . . .
And I had for years been feeling both personal and public grief,
fear, hunger and the need to render this, my time, in the language of my
(THE LANGUAGE OF ART)
Art can never be totally legislated by any system, even those that
reward obedience and send dissident artists to hard labor and death; nor
can it, in our specifically compromised system, be really free. It may
push up through cracked macadam, by the merest means, but it needs
breathing space, cultivation, protection to fulfill itself. Just as people
do. New artists, young or old, need education in their art, the tools of
their craft, chances to study examples from the past and meet
practitioners in the present, get the criticism and encouragement of
mentors, learn that they are not alone. As the social compact withers,
fewer and fewer people will be told, yes, you can do this, this also
belongs to you. Like government, art needs the participation of the many
in order not to become the property of a powerful and narrowly
Art is our human birthright, our most powerful means of access to our
own and another's experience and imaginative life. In continually
rediscovering and recovering the humanity of human beings, art is crucial
to the democratic vision. A government tending further and further away
from the search for democracy will see less and less "use" in encouraging
artists, will see art as obscenity or hoax.
In 1987, the late Justice William Brennan spoke of "formal reason
severed from the insights of passion" as a major threat to due-process
principles. "Due process asks whether government has treated someone
fairly, whether individual dignity has been honored, whether the worth of
an individual has been acknowledged. Officials cannot always silence these
questions by pointing to rational action taken according to standard
rules. They must plumb their conduct more deeply, seeking answers in the
more complex equations of human nature and experience."
It is precisely where fear and hatred of art join the pull toward
quantification and abstraction, where the human face is mechanically
deleted, that human dignity disappears from the social equation. Because
it is to those "complex equations of human nature and experience" that art
. . . . .
I wish I didn't feel the necessity to say here that none of this is
about imposing ideology or style or content on artists; it is about the
inseparability of art from acute social crisis in this century and the one
now coming up.
(WHERE THE ARTS GETS FUNDING)
Federal funding for the arts, like the philanthropy of private arts
patrons, can be given and taken away. In the long run, art needs to grow
organically out of a social compost nourishing to everyone, a literate
citizenry, a free, universal, public education complex with art as an
integral element, a society without throwaway people, honoring both human
individuality and the search for a decent, sustainable common life. In
such conditions, art would still be a voice of hunger, desire, discontent,
passion, reminding us that the democratic project is never-ending.
For that to happen, what else would have to change? I hope the
discussion will continue.