One of my favorite lines from JFK comes from his speech honoring Robert Frost and the arts in general at Amherst, on October 26th 1963:
"In America, our heroes have customarily run to men of large accomplishments. But today this college and country honors a man whose contribution was not to our size but to our spirit, not to our political beliefs but to our insight, not to our self-esteem, but to our self- comprehension.
In honoring Robert Frost, we therefore can pay honor to the deepest sources of our national strength. That strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation's greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.
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 artist 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." more
Clearly, things have changed in the last 44 years. The importance of art and the artist have been lost in a flood of media notoriety and the plutocratic perversion of "art as treasure".
For where are the men and women who question power? For without them, who will help us determine whether we use power or power uses us?
We are living in a time where there are far to few true artists who can help us chart our way through the narrow straits that lay ahead.
In the sixties, our poets, our song writers, our philosophers, our mystics, gave us the signpost and the lighthouses we all needed to use our new found power for the good of us all.
Today, the world of commerce and the consumer society that has overtaken our very lives will stretch its muscle and dominion over our streets and cities. The economy will be on steriods.
Some will shop till they drop.
Others will climb another mountain.
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