AMY GOODMAN : Adrienne Rich, one of the most distinguished poets living and working in the United States, has refused the 1997 National Medal for the Arts to protest the growing concentration of power in fewer and fewer hands. Adrienne Rich informed the Clinton administration of her decision in a July 3rd letter to Jane Alexander, the chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, which administers the awards. The National Medal for the Arts is usually awarded annually to 12 people. Past winners include the writer Eudora Welty and the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. A ceremony at the White House will take place in the fall.
We're joined now by Adrienne Rich. And we were wondering if you could start off by reading the letter you sent to Jane Alexander.
ADRIENNE RICH : OK.
"Dear Jane Alexander,
"I just spoke with a young man from your office, who informed me that I had been chosen to be one of twelve recipients of the National Medal for the Arts at a ceremony at the White House in the fall. I told him at once that I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration. I want to clarify to you what I meant by my refusal.
"Anyone familiar with my work from the early Sixties on knows that I believe in art's social presence--as breaker of official silences, as voice for those whose voices are disregarded, and as a human birthright. In my lifetime I have seen the space for the arts opened by movements for social justice, the power of art to break despair. Over the past two decades I have witnessed the increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice in our country.
"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. I know you have been engaged in a serious and disheartening struggle to save government funding for the arts, against those whose fear and suspicion of art is nakedly repressive. 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. I could not participate in a ritual which would feel so hypocritical to me.