Why I Refused the National Medal for the Arts
Editor’s Note: Adrienne Rich’s recent refusal of the National Medal for the Arts puzzled many people. The debate over the proper relations between the state and the artist, between the realms of the public and the private, continues unabated. Book Review invited Rich to explain why she refused the presidential honor.
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.
In fact, I was unaware of the timing. 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. “We the people--still an excellent phrase,” said the prize-winning playwright Lorraine Hansberry in 1962, well aware who had been excluded, yet believing the phrase might someday come to embrace us all. 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.
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. Like so many others, I’ve watched the dismantling of our public education, the steep rise in our incarceration rates, the demonization of our young black men, the accusations against our teenage mothers, the selling of health care--public and private--to the highest bidders, the export of subsistence-level jobs in the United States to even lower-wage countries, the use of below-minimum-wage prison labor to break strikes and raise profits, the scapegoating of immigrants, the denial of dignity and minimal security to our working and poor people. At the same time, we’ve witnessed the acquisition of publishing houses, once risk-taking conduits of creativity, by conglomerates driven single-mindedly to fast profits, the acquisition of major communications and media by those same interests, the sacrifice of the arts and public libraries in stripped-down school and civic budgets and, most recently, the evisceration of the National Endowment for the Arts. Piece by piece the democratic process has been losing ground to the accumulation of private wealth.
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.
Hansberry spoke her words about government during the Cuban missile crisis, at a public meeting in New York to abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee. She also said in that speech, “My government is wrong.” She did not say, I abhor all government. She claimed her government as a citizen, African American and female, and she challenged it. (I listened to her words again, on an old vinyl recording, this past Fourth of July.)
In a similar spirit, many of us today might wish to hold government accountable, challenge the agendas of private power and wealth that have displaced historical tendencies toward genuinely representative government in the United States. We might still wish to claim our government, to say, This belongs to us--we, the people, as we are now.
We would have to start asking questions that have been defined as non-questions--or as naive, childish questions. In the recent official White House focus on race, it goes consistently unsaid that the all-embracing enterprise of our early history was the slave trade, which left nothing, no single life, untouched and was, along with the genocide of the native population and the seizure of their lands, the foundation of our national prosperity and power. Promote dialogues on race? Apologize for slavery? We would need to perform an autopsy on capitalism itself.
Marxism has been declared dead. Yet the questions Marx raised are still alive and pulsing, however the language and the labels have been co-opted and abused. What is social wealth? How do the conditions of human labor infiltrate other social relationships? What would it require for people to live and work together in conditions of radical equality? How much inequality will we tolerate in the world’s richest and most powerful nation? Why and how have these and similar questions become discredited in public discourse?
And what about art? Mistrusted, adored, pietized, condemned, dismissed as entertainment, auctioned at Sotheby’s, purchased by investment-seeking celebrities, it dies into the “art object” of a thousand museum basements. It’s also reborn hourly in prisons, women’s shelters, small-town garages, community college workshops, halfway houses--wherever someone picks up a pencil, a wood-burning tool, a copy of “The Tempest,” a tag-sale camera, a whittling knife, a stick of charcoal, a pawnshop horn, a video of “Citizen Kane,” whatever lets you know again that this deeply instinctual yet self-conscious expressive language, this regenerative process, could help you save your life. “If there were no poetry on any day in the world,” the poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “poetry would be invented that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger.” In an essay on the Caribbean poet Aime Cesaire, Clayton Eshleman names this hunger as “the desire, the need, for a more profound and ensouled world.” There is a continuing dynamic between art repressed and art reborn, between the relentless marketing of the superficial and the “spectral and vivid reality that employs all means” (Rukeyser again) to reach through armoring, resistances, resignation, to recall us to desire.
Art is both tough and fragile. It speaks of what we long to hear and what we dread to find. Its source and native impulse, the imagination, may be shackled in early life, yet may find release in conditions offering little else to the spirit. For a recent document on this, look at Phyllis Kornfeld’s “Cellblock Visions: Prison Art in America,” notable for the variety and emotional depth of the artworks reproduced, the words of the inmate artists and for Kornfeld’s unsentimental and lucid text. Having taught art to inmates for 14 years in 18 institutions (including maximum security units), she sees recent incarceration policy overall as rapidly devolving from rehabilitation to dehumanization, including the dismantling of prison arts programs.
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.
In a society tyrannized by the accumulation of wealth as Eastern Europe was tyrannized by its own false gods of concentrated power, recognized artists have, perhaps, a new opportunity to work out our connectedness, as artists, with other people who are beleaguered, suffering, disenfranchised--precariously employed workers, trashed elders, throwaway youth, the “unsuccessful” and the art they too are nonetheless making and seeking.
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.
We have a short-lived model in our history for the place of art in relation to government. During the Depression of the 1930s, under New Deal legislation, thousands of creative and performing artists were paid modest stipends to work in the Federal Writers Project, the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Art Project. Their creativity, in the form of novels, murals, plays, performances, public monuments, the providing of music and theater to new audiences, seeded the art and the consciousness of succeeding decades. By 1939, this funding was discontinued.
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.
July 3, 1997
The National Endowment for the Arts
1100 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 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.
cc: President Clinton