Art and Democracy


Over at our neighbor’s house, Mr. Mead’s PuPu Platter, you will find a new post juxtaposing the respective positions of John McCain and Barack Obama on arts education. The contrasts are striking and instructive.

Mead’s post stirred me to pull out a speech President Kennedy gave at Amherst College in October 1963, just a few weeks before he was assassinated. Kennedy spoke at an event honoring poet Robert Frost, who had died at the beginning of that year. I've often returned to this speech when I’m in arts advocacy mode, and have been moved by its message and its eloquence without fail. The "bring-it-home" section that brings tears every time I read it is this one:
I look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future. I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction."

I implore you to take the time to read and ponder the entire speech. You can also go to the NEA’s site to hear the speech. Here it is in its entirety:

"Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost. He brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society. His sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation. "I have been" he wrote, "one acquainted with the night." And because he knew the midnight as well as the high noon, because he understood the ordeal as well as the triumph of the human spirit, he gave his age strength with which to overcome despair. At bottom, he held a deep faith in the spirit of man, and it is hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, a lover's quarrel with the world. In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role. If Robert Frost was much honored in his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths. Yet in retrospect, we see how the artist's fidelity has strengthened the fibre of our national life.

If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. And as Mr. MacLeish once remarked of poets, there is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style. In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society--in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost's hired man, the fate of having "nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope."

I look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.
I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.
Robert Frost was often skeptical about projects for human improvement, yet I do not think he would disdain this hope. As he wrote during the uncertain days of the Second War:

Take human nature altogether since time began . . .
And it must be a little more in favor of man,
Say a fraction of one percent at the very least . . .
Our hold on this planet wouldn't have so increased.


Because of Mr. Frost's life and work, because of the life and work of this college, our hold on this planet has increased."


John F. Kennedy, October 26, 1963




4 comments:

~Chris McKeen said...

Wow. Having come into political awareness in the Bush era, I'm just not used to hearing a president actually sound inspiring and intellectual.

MightyToyCannon said...

I know I'd like a president is who both inspiring and smart. Rather than denigrating someone for giving a stirring speech (dismissing it as mere "words"), wouldn't it be nice if we could all celebrate the idea of vision and inspiration?

And can you imagine what delight Fox News would have if Barack Obama were to say something like this at tonight's debate: "If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential."

I can almost hear Sarah Palin: "Our opponent likes to say that our Nation falls short of its highest potential but, doggone it, John McCain and I are mavericks who have always been proud of our country."

cynseattle said...

Wow, MTC, thanks for posting this. I've fallen behind this week in reading, but this was worth the wait.

Fascinating, in a week where I've also been watching our production at PCS about Buckminster Fuller, another man whose ideas and philosophies are still resonant. As I'm sitting home tonight filling out my ballot, I don't think I'm being over idealistic in hoping that as I check off the box next to Obama's name that we may be again entering a time when we have leaders we can admire for their intellect and their vision. And yeah, I'd even have a beer with them.

MightyToyCannon said...

Yes indeed, wouldn't it be wunnerful to be led by people who are thoughtful, intelligent and willing to engage in an exchange of ideas. Oh, and give cause for hope and optimism while they're at it.

Beyond the political import of Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama this morning, I was struck by his willingness to say things that won't go down so well in "pro-America" small towns, such as his response to the insinuation that Obama is Muslim:

“Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion 'He's a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists.' This is not the way we should be doing it in America."

And here's another statement from Powell, in response to charges that Obama is a socialist (Lars Larsen called him a Marxist):

"Mr. Obama is now a socialist, because he dares to suggest that maybe we ought to look at the tax structure that we have. Taxes are always a redistribution of money. Most of the taxes that are redistributed go back to those who pay them, in roads and airports and hospitals and schools. And taxes are necessary for the common good. And there's nothing wrong with examining what our tax structure is or who should be paying more or who should be paying less, and for us to say that makes you a socialist is an unfortunate characterization that I don't think is accurate."

Perhaps we're seeing signs of a renaissance of intellectual honesty after living in the dark ages of spin and talking points. Not only from Powell, but from folks like David Brooks and Christopher Buckley, with whom I might often disagree but still respect for their thoughfulness.