The following is an excerpt from a speech given by President John F. Kennedy on October 26, 1963 at Amherst College in Massachusetts, in honor of the poet Robert Frost. Frost had died in January of that year. Kennedy would die less than a month after he spoke these words.
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 commands respect
throughout the world not only for its strength
but for its civilization as well."
Our leaders don't talk like this anymore.
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Earthfamilyalpha Content II
* Mark Rothko