HOT INK AUGUST 7, 1997 REPRINT

h = o = t   +   i = n = k                     [   Rich Letter   ]

Why I Refused the
National Medal for the Arts

(© Los Angeles Times, 1997. Excerpts reprinted by permission of the Times-Mirror Syndicate.)

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 art.


(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 self-interested minority.

     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 addresses itself.

.  .  .   .   .

     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.

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