Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Touchstone

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.

Enough said.



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* Mark Rothko


Anonymous Anonymous said...

But for Vietnam, Kennedy and Johnson were the last two presidents who seemed to genuinely care about all the people. Fulfilling campaign promises Johnson passed a thousand pieces of social legislation to help the disadvantaged and right the wrongs of the Jim Crow era. These were men of honor compared to the present occupier of the White House who tries to destroy as much of the New Deal as possible. He has us in a war that assured his re-election and now distracts the populace while the corporations rape and plunder the environment-- the contrast is stunning. Television allows us to see presidents close up and personal.
In their television appearances both JFK and LBJ filled us with hope and pride at being American. What we witness today is shock-ing and awe-ful.
Thanks for the JFK memory this November 22.

1:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you.


3:50 AM  
Blogger SB said...


5:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The JFK words didn't exactly give me hope, but they did remind me of the possibilities that exist when like minded people begin to work toward creating a different kind of world.

8:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The words of JFK still stir my heart and give me hope. I am grateful on this Thanksgiving eve that there are still folks who remember these times and this vision for our country. Thanks for the stroll.

8:49 AM  

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