Art, justice, and Adrienne Rich
Here we are, poised on the edge of a "holiday weekend" in which we celebrate America's independence through those ever-meaningful traditions of barbeque, fireworks, and shopping sales. As I sit in Boston, watching the torrential downpour, I'm choosing to celebrate by rereading the words of poet Adrienne Rich.
What does Adrienne Rich have to do with July 4, you ask? In 1997, on the eve of Independence Day, she challenged Americans to consider the current state of democracy and challenged the government to live up to its highest ideals. Her great act of (as I see it) patriotism? She summarily refused the National Medal for the Arts because, as she explained "the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration."
In Rich's hands, art is not abstract, it is not an aesthetically pleasing overlay to something we might call "real life," it is not an extra-curricular activity or a hobby for people with ample leisure time. Rather, art is a tool, a weapon, a battleground for justice. It is a basic right of all people; it is the voice of the people.
Adrienne Rich shares the vision of fellow poet (and one-time lover) Audre Lorde, who wrote that "poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action." And of Muriel Rukeyser, who wrote, "If there were no poetry on any day in the world, poetry would be invented that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger."
This was not the first time Adrienne Rich had refused an honor on ideological grounds. In 1974, when she was awarded the National Book Award for Poetry for her collection, Diving Into the Wreck, Rich declined to accept the award in her own name, instead joining with fellow nominees Lorde and Alice Walker to accept it in the name of all women who are silenced.
I appreciate Rich's grand gestures, her attempts to use the power she wields as a successful poet to promote not herself but her vision of art as a force for justice. And I appreciate that she does not claim to have all the answers, just a sense of what is not working and what her responsibility is as an artist and an American to ask the difficult questions. As she wrote in her letter to the National Endowment for the Arts:
"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. ... 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."
And in her essay, "Why I Refused the National Medal for the Arts," she further developed her vision of what art could be:
"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?"
Her closing question is the one I take with me this weekend. To fulfill the ideals of equality and our unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- what else would have to change?