Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929 – March 27, 2012)

July 3, 1997 

Jane Alexander 
The National Endowment for the Arts
1100 Pennsylvania Avenue 
Washington, DC 20506 

 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. 

 Adrienne Rich 
 cc: President Clinton

8 Comments Add yours

  1. My, she was one of a kind.

    I was privileged to see her read several times in different venues and to talk briefly with her once. A few of my colleagues are friends of hers and say that for all her assertiveness on matters public and social (as above), she was warm, modest, and exceedingly generous–she understood that she was a kind of icon for many (younger, usually) people but she maintained that she was still her own personal self; she shied away from being the ‘famous influential feminist lesbian poet’ and, in her work, put the poet part foremost–along with the person she was.

    I cannot say definitively that her work will remain lasting…how do we say that? As lasting as Virginia Woolf’s? As lasting as Shakespeare’s? No way to foretell. But I do think her work has been crucial for at least two generations of readers, and that bodes well for her “legacy” (though she might scoff at legacy…I don’t know).

    1. Sigrun says:

      There is a braveness in Rich’s letter that I very much admire, taking the full consequences of ones thoughts & ideas, taking them serious all the way through. I’m not sure if I could do this myself.

  2. Caroline says:

    I think this letter shows an integrity we don’t get to see very often.

  3. KM Huber says:

    Yes, integrity, and who can foretell how long her words will be read. Forever, I hope.


  4. I find this letter very moving. Says it all, doesn’t it?

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