Art and Power
The events of the last week remind us of the risks of power and the fragility of democratic society. In contemplating the role of art in challenging times, I came across a moving speech by John F. Kennedy honoring the poet Robert Frost. It strikes me that these words are as accurate now as then. They can be extrapolated to be about all art and the people who create it.
“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… In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role…
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.”
John F. Kennedy Speech Following Robert Frost’s death (Amherst College, October 26, 1963)