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Why Adrienne Rich Became the Only Person to Decline the National Medal of Arts

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

Beloved poet, essayist, 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 spectacular letter — one of the bravest and most eloquent acts of political dissent in creative culture, and a superb addition to history’s finest definitions of art — later published in Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (public library).

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 1977 commencement address on claiming an education, then see why Sartre became the first person to decline the Nobel Prize.

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No Kidding: Women Writers and Comedians on the Choice Not to Have Children

“Motherhood Personality Disorder is a complex, interfamilial compulsion fueled by estrogen, culture, religion, and the Family Values Industrial Complex.”

Mother’s Day has come and gone, and with it history’s finest letters of motherly advice. But while most people have a mother or mother-figure to associate with the holiday, far fewer than half are a mother or mother-figure, placing the occasion on a spectrum from irrelevance to alienation and discomfort for them. Those of us who have chosen not to have children harbor particular unease around the implicit cultural value judgment embedded in this holiday — after all, what does it say about a culture when its only national holiday celebrating womanhood celebrates women’s uterine capacity or adoptive aspirations?

In No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood (public library), comedy writer Henriette Mantel rounds up a troupe of female entertainers and authors whose essays explore various facets of what it means to be happily childless — or, as one contributor aptly puts it, “child-free.” Most women desisted from motherhood by their own volition, and some by nature’s, by way of reproductive health issues and painful surgeries, but all share a contentment with the final product of not reproducing. And though some of the essays hang dangerously on the precipice of defensiveness and apologism, perhaps this is due to their authors’ genre rather than gender — great comedy, after all, relies heavily on self-derision.

In the foreword, actress and comedian Jennifer Coolidge, with equal parts heart, humor and humility — a trifecta that recurs across the essays — points her inner radar to a lifelong inability to multitask as a tell-tale sign that motherhood is beyond her abilities:

I knew my limitations at a young age. I was very aware of my inability to multitask by age five. I admitted this to my mother when I came in from playing, spit out my chewing gum, handed it to her, and said, “Mom please hold my gum, I’m going to the bathroom right now, and I can’t handle both.”

Mantel sets the stage in the introduction:

Years ago, I remember watching The Tonight Show with Joan Rivers, who was the guest host. Gloria Steinem, who was about forty years old at the time, was her guest. In her usual obnoxious way, Joan said to Gloria, “You know, my daughter has been the biggest joy in my life and I can’t imagine not having her. Don’t you regret not having children?” Gloria Steinem didn’t miss a beat. She answered, “Well, Joan, if every woman had a child there wouldn’t be anybody here to tell you what it’s like not to have one.” Joan looked at her like that thought had honestly never crossed her mind. It was a true gift for me to be able to pull together writers who are here to tell you “what it’s like not to have one.”

Because, after all, there are many ways to leave meaningful legacy besides childbirth:

[Legendary anthropologist] Margaret Mead suggested that the generative impulse could be expressed in other ways, such as passing ideas on to the younger generation through teaching, writing, or by inspiring example.

Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho pens one of the collection’s finest, most disarmingly witty essays:

Korean children get a lot of fuss made over them, I guess because life was tough in the old country, and it was a big deal if you survived. There’s a big party thrown when you are one hundred days old, followed by another when you make it to one whole year. My parents took a lot of pictures of me at these parties, although I don’t remember a thing as I was really drunk at both. From the pictures I see the cake though—all these big multicolored rice cakes, each pastel stripe a steamed layer of pounded and steamed rice flour, not sweet like birthday cake but a delicious treat all the same. It looks like a chewy Neapolitan ice cream, or a gay pride flag made of carbs. It’s the best and I want it, but I think wanting that cake isn’t enough reason to have a baby.

[…]

Babies scare me more than anything. They’re tiny and fragile and impressionable—and someone else’s! As much as I hate borrowing stuff, that is how much I hate holding other people’s babies. It’s too much responsibility. Of course they are lovely and warm and adorable, and it’s so funny when they decide they like you and hold you in return, but I am frightened of doing something wrong that will alter them forever. Give them a weird look and they might be talking to their therapist about me fifty years later.

[…]

It might not be a fear of kids themselves, as in truth I usually get along with them pretty well. They like my tattoos and my uncomplicated child/adult face. They identify with my orange shoes. I look like I would let them get away with stuff, and I do. My fear of having children is that, frankly, I just don’t want to love anyone that much. I have my own problems with love, and I have processed and played the same games for a lifetime, but what if I had to do that with someone I actually MADE?! (Or went all the way to China and adopted. This is not a joke—I have long thought I would adopt one of those baby girls from China, because really, who’s going to know the difference?)

Comedy and fashion writer Bonnie Datt shares her tragicomic solution to the cultural pressure for childbirth:

“Okay, here’s the truth I can’t have children:” I told my cabdriver somberly. I attempted to look distraught, my lips quivering. And my ploy worked. Finally this man, who’d relentlessly argued that I would change my mind about my decision to not have children, clammed up and began focusing intently on the road. Yes, after years of being told by complete strangers that I didn’t know my own mind, I’d finally learned the secret to get people to stop insisting, “You’ll eventually want to have kids.” I just had to lie about it.

[…]

I should have just told them to butt out, but I was raised in the Midwest, so this rude option never crossed my mind. Thus was born my all-purpose taxicab “confession.”

SNL’s Nora Dunn takes head-on an inconvenient truth about the perilous potential of motherhood:

In the current abortion debate, there is no talk of children. Those who are anti-abortion never mention them. They seem to be the same people who want to cut food stamps and get rid of social programs that might help children and mothers. They never talk about nineteen-year-old fetuses. They don’t talk of war or hunger or about how much it costs to buy shoes and socks and how hard it must be to have children without a washer and dryer. They never seem to take into account who the father is, or who the boyfriends might be. I never wanted to have a baby if I wasn’t positive I could give it a wonderful life and my undivided attention. I didn’t get that from my own mother. When I was little, I didn’t understand that there is no such thing as undivided attention. My feeling was I needed to become a good mother to myself before I invented a child that needed one.

Author Laurie Graff examines the root of the palpable pang she feels when bombarded by images of idyllic family life during her Facebook voyeurism:

That pang is about feeling out of step with the stages of life more than of having missed out on them. This is not to say that I haven’t, for maybe I have, but I have also been too busy to notice. Good, bad; up, down; I continue to stay the course. Still part of the non-civilian us, still in the city, I still continue the pursuit of my dreams. It’s who I am and how I live.

Writer, director, and comedian Debbie Kasper delivers a deadpan quip:

I was always too self-centered and irresponsible to have kids. I know that never stopped many others, but I am a narcissist with a conscience.

In an essay titled “Mother To No One,” writer and crossword-constructor Andrea Carla Michaels illustrates just how deep the bias of our cultural expectations goes with an anecdote wildly amusing on the surface and rather poignant at its heart:

A dozen years ago, when I was approaching forty, my eight-year-old niece Hanna asked me, “Aunt Andrea, are you married?” I said, “No, are you married?!” She seemed alarmed and asked, “Why would I be married?!” and I said to her, “Well, why would I be married?”

She folded her arms and said, “You’re weird.” “Good weird or bad weird?” She grumbled that she hadn’t decided yet.

But it was already so clear to her at eight that people were married and had kids, and if you didn’t, you were “weird.” It’s amazing how young those attitudes start. This “chat” with my niece didn’t prepare me for the now-daily shock of being mistaken for someone’s mother.

I overheard my other ten-year-old niece Alexa patiently explaining things to her six-year-old brother, who was piecing together family relationships. He asked who I was the mother of. Alexa dramatically turned to Ricky and exclaimed, “Aunt Andrea is the mother to no one.”

Playwright Jeanne Dorsey considers the ambivalence of motherhood, reminding us of Hamlet’s great insight:

It is not an experiment in which I will have the chance to participate. Motherhood is not in the cards for me. Is it a loss? How would I know? I’m too busy living. I am blessed with a full, healthy, and interesting life. And then every once in a while, true to my gender, I ask myself: How would I feel if I were someone’s mother? And how would that someone feel about me? I will never know. “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

In an essay titled “The Pathology of Motherhood,” comedian, actor, and TV producer Valri Bromfield playfully proposes the inclusion of Motherhood Personality Disorder in the DSM-5, the next edition of the psychology bible that is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, placing it in the Cluster D category of overly intrusive/dissociative disorders:

Motherhood Personality Disorder, or MPD, is a complex, interfamilial compulsion fueled by estrogen, culture, religion, and the Family Values Industrial Complex.

She lists several of the diagnostic features:

  • Intrusive preoccupation with offspring
  • Episodes of major martyrdom
  • Intermittent cooking and cleaning

She itemizes the three main subtypes:

PARANOID TYPE: This type presents in cases where the expectant mother has seen the film Rosemary’s Baby and clings to the hope that she will give birth to the demon child. (Note: Only diagnose MPD if the delivered baby does not present signs of being the offspring of Satan.)  

DISORGANIZED TYPE: This subtype has the greatest impact on the patient’s family. From the ages of two to sixteen, the offspring must be transported everywhere by grandparents or other guardians, as the mother is habitually preoccupied with behaviors incompatible with child supervision, such as: an inability to find her car keys, sleeping, watching “her show,” or intoxication; or the patient is simply not available, perhaps because she is attending a Zumba Fitness Party or because she flew to Cairo in a manic state earlier that morning.

CATATONIC TYPE: This has been found to be the most adaptive type for the MPD mother with teenagers. The patient lies motionless in bed staring at the ceiling and soiling her clothes, but otherwise does not really give a shit. The patient’s children often take advantage of this particular presentation of symptoms, as it facilitates the use of the family home for underage recreational activities, since, when friends’ parents later ask if the mother had been present at the time, the juveniles can reply honestly in the affirmative.

Under Prognosis, she concludes:

With treatment, MPD patients can hopefully achieve partial remission, eventually replacing their child(ren) with several dogs or cats. While personal hygiene suffers with this intervention, the replacement of obsession objects can allow for the eventual reintroduction of human children and grandchildren, but only under strict supervision.

No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood features contributions by writers, comedians, and politicians like Cheryl Bricker, Cindy Caponera, Jane Gennaro, Judy Morgan, Carol Siskind, Suzy Soro, Amy Stiller, and more.

Thanks, Kaye; public domain images by Nikolas Muray via George Eastman House

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Fail Safe: Debbie Millman’s Advice on Courage and the Creative Life

“Imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time.”

The seasonal trope of the commencement address is upon us as wisdom on life is being dispensed from graduation podiums around the world. After Greil Marcus’s meditation on the essence of art and Neil Gaiman’s counsel on the creative life, here comes a heartening speech by artist, strategist, and interviewer extraordinaire Debbie Millman, delivered to the graduating class at San Jose State University. The talk is based on an essay titled “Fail Safe” from her fantastic 2009 anthology Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design (public library) and which has previously appeared on Literary Jukebox. The essay, which explores such existential skills as living with uncertainty, embracing the unfamiliar, allowing for not knowing, and cultivating what John Keats has famously termed “negative capability,” is reproduced below with the artist’s permission.

If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve. Do what you love, and don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. Start now. Not 20 years from now, not two weeks from now. Now.

Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design is an absolute treasure in its entirety, the kind of read you revisit again and again, only to discover new meaning and new access to yourself each time. It was preceded by How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer and followed by the recent Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, both excellent in very different but invariably stimulating ways.

Images and audio courtesy Debbie Millman

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