Friday, November 22, 2013

John F. Kennedy and the Arts: An Appreciation

At the interment of President John F. Kennedy, Arlington National Cemetery, 25 November 1963

Those of us of a certain age, say, those of us over the age of 55 or so, know exactly where we were when we heard the awful news that John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, had been assassinated, fifty years ago today, in Dallas, Texas. I was a six year old second grader that fateful Friday, and was playing in our family's living room on Balwynne Park Road in the Wynnefield Heights section of Philadelphia. At the time, I was of course too young to grasp the horribleness of death or the significance of the event for my country, but I vividly recall it for one reason: it remains one of the only times—indeed, perhaps the only time—I ever witnessed my mom crying uncontrollably. To this day, the details of the next few days—the shooting of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, the somber-yet-impressive state funeral—remain images indelibly impressed on my memory.

From a historian's perspective, Jack Kennedy was an ambiguous figure. Indeed, in the intervening years both conservatives and liberals have wanted to claim him as one of their own (or, for the more responsible ones, to claim that he held positions amenable to their own, properly nuanced, of course). He was a hawkish Cold Warrior and advocated lowering taxes. Yet only the most inveterate purveyor of anachronisms would dare to claim he would have advocated the later sweeping reforms of Ronald Reagan, let alone the simplistic rhetoric of the current Tea Party. On the other hand, he never advocated for the developed liberal policies associated with his younger brothers Bobby and (especially) Teddy. For my part, I find it difficult to believe he would have disagreed in principle from his successor Lyndon Johnson's Great Society reforms. Nevertheless, the nasty fact remains that he presided for too short a time to establish a definitive legacy on domestic issues.

What I want to focus on today is something different, a matter hardly ever discussed in our increasingly Philistine culture. I am speaking about the arts, specifically the necessary role the arts play in a functioning, civilized society. Less than a month before he was killed, Kennedy gave a brief speech at Amherst College in honor of the four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Frost, who had died on 29 January that year (to listen to the speech, go the NEA website here). The transcript of the speech is as follows:
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.

I too share President Kennedy's view of the necessary role of the arts in a civilized society. Indeed, the banal, stultifying oppressiveness of the individualistic and exclusively economic worldview of the present Zeitgeist have, in my view, robbed this country of much of what, at one time, made it great. Would that another leader arise to awaken this sleeping giant from its soul-destroying artistic slumber. 

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