I see little of more importance … than full recognition of the place of the artist.” —JFK
Only one 2020 presidential candidate, Andrew Yang, mentioned the arts with any consistency. When discussing the need for a humanity-based economic system, he frequently listed 95% of our nation’s artists as among those whom our current system assigns the economic value of $0.00.
He is correct. The economic value of poets, painters, folk dancers etc. is, in round figures: $0. And —for what it’s worth— Yang had a better idea. But, for the best idea, we must go back 60 years to October 26th, 1963.
Society Must Set the Artist Free
At Amherst College on that day, President John F. Kennedy made one of the most radical yet accurate cases for the importance of artists ever made by a politician. “The artist,” President Kennedy began, “becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.
“In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology.”
Did it seem merely grand rhetoric? Was it true but of peripheral importance? Would we have acted upon his vision if his vision had not been obliterated by his assassination less than a month later. Whatever the reason, Of Poetry and Power, was all but forgotten until the 2017 release of Bestor Cram‘s documentary film JFK: the Last Speech.
“The artist’s fidelity,” Kennedy continued, “has strengthened the fiber of our national life.” Strengthened the what? These words seem almost ridiculous today. Certainly, the fiber of our national life has grown egregiously threadbare over the last 60 years. The slow death of arts instruction in public schools began, according to many arts in education specialists, only seven years later. In 2001, the Rand Corporation assessed the damage and proposed the solution in their report A New Framework for Building Participation in the Arts. In order to survive, non-profit arts organizations need to provide their own outreach and education programs as part of their audience building budgets. Previously, this job had been fulfilled by the nation’s public schools.
Many parts of the country are now enduring an epidemic not only of book banning but of punitive consequences for those who defy the ban. The epidemic is spreading also to works of history and science.
Arts publications such as FolkWorks not only rely heavily on volunteer participation, such publications must insist that being online only are their ways of saving trees. Many of the fine musicians featured in FolkWorks (and not just me) can be heard moaning and weeping in the wee hours: “Nobody buys CDs any more! We have to f—–g give our music away!”
Andrew Yang was wrong. An artist’s worth is less than $0.00,
But President Kennedy was right. “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.”
And: “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.”
Having Words: Kennedy and Frost
Of Poetry and Power was Kennedy’s eulogy for the poet Robert Frost who had died that January. The occasion was the opening of the Robert Frost Library at the college.
“The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, a lover’s quarrel with the world.” What was the President thinking!?
Kennedy was probably thinking of his bitter quarrel with the man he was honoring. He had refused to speak to Frost since the previous October, That’s when Frost had returned from a goodwill mission to the Soviet Union loudly misquoting Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev.“Frost,” according to the Washington Post headline next day, “Says Khrushchev sees U.S. as Too Liberal to Defend Itself.”
Frost had put his foot in it —Royally! President Kennedy felt stung. Earlier that year on March 26th— Frost’s 87th birthday— had not he presented the poet with the Congressional Gold Medal? He had! And now this?
It was about to get worse. While Frost and Krushchev had been discussing peace and prosperity for all, Krushchev had been secretly installing nuclear missiles in Cuba and aiming them at the United States. Krushchev had merely been using the the elderly and ailing poet to gauge what Kennedy’s reaction might be. It would be left to President Kennedy to avert WW III or not.
Despite his anger, Kennedy could not remain silent about his friend Robert Frost. Kennedy had, according to Stewart Udall, his Secretary of the Interior, a “profound sympathy for the principles and truths that Robert Frost lived by.” Udall would call Kennedy’s eulogy “the most majestic speech of [Kennedy’s] public career.”
Their friendship had begun when Robert Frost had read a poem at President Kennedy’s inauguration. At least, he had tried to. It was a bright winter morning and the glare off Frost’s manuscript had been nearly blinding. So, instead of reading the poem he had completed the night before, — a poem in which Frost had prophesied “a golden age of poetry and power” for Kennedy’s presidency— Frost recited his poem “The Gift Outright” from memory.
If Frost was being deferential, Kennedy, in his eulogy, cut to the quick. “The highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist,” Kennedy insisted, “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.”
Well, we were warned.
President Kennedy’s Radical and Unheeded Vision for the Arts
What About the Worth of the Artist?
OF POETRY AND POWER - Part 1