Brain Pickings

The Letter with Which Adrienne Rich Became the Only Person to Decline the National Medal of Arts

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“I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope.”

Beloved poet and reconstructionist Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929 — March 27, 2012) is celebrated as one of the most influential literary voices of the twentieth century, her essays and poems having catapulted into the forefront of collective conscience controversial issues like sexual identity and the oppression of women and lesbians. In 1997, to protest the growing monopoly of power and the government’s proposed plan to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, she became the first and only person to date to decline the prestigious National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed upon an individual artist on behalf of the people of the United States, awarded to such luminaries as Maya Angelou, John Updike, Ray Bradbury, and Bob Dylan.

In this 1997 broadcast from the radio show Democracy Now, Rich reads her letter declining the medal, adding to history’s finest definitions of art in what’s one of the bravest and most eloquent acts of political dissent in creative culture. It can be found in Voices of a People’s History of the United States (public library). Full transcript below.

July 3, 1997

Jane Alexander
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.

Sincerely,
Adrienne Rich
cc: President Clinton

Complement with Rich on love, loss, happiness, and creativity and her indispensable 1978 poetry collection The Dream of a Common Language.

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