Will the Arts of My Generation Denote the Greatness of It?

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“…the greatness of any society can be measured in its support of and investment in the arts.”

My husband often says this, mostly when I’m bemoaning the lack of money coming in for my literary endeavors. He’s unsure if this was organic or if he heard it somewhere.  I did some internet and library browsing and found quotes by President John F. Kennedy.  Allow me the luxury to spam you with all the promoting of the arts as central to our lives and culture that Kennedy purported about the arts (because I think we need a reminder):

“If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place in which to live.” Address at Harvard University, June 14, 1956

President John F. Kennedy spoke often of the importance of the Arts.

“There is a connection, hard to explain logically but easy to feel, between achievement in public life and progress in the arts. The age of Pericles was also the age of Phidias. The age of Lorenzo de Medici was also the age of Leonardo da Vinci. The age Elizabeth also the age of Shakespeare. And the New Frontier for which I campaign in public life, can also be a New Frontier for American art.” (Response to letter sent by Miss Theodate Johnson, Publisher of Musical America to the two presidential candidates requesting their views on music in relation to the Federal Government and domestic world affairs. Answer from then Senator John Kennedy was dated September 13, 1960.)

“…I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.” Closed-circuit television broadcast on behalf of the National Cultural Center from the National Guard Armory in Washington, D.C., November 29, 1962

“To further the appreciation of culture among all the people, to increase respect for the creative individual, to widen participation by all the processes and fulfillments of art – this is one of the fascinating challenges of these days.” Magazine article “The Arts in America” printed in the December 8, 1962 issue of Look. (This was part of a special adaptation of Creative America The Ridge Press, Inc., 1962.)

“Too often in the past, we have thought of the artist as an idler and dilettante and of the lover of arts as somehow sissy and effete. We have done both an injustice. The life of the artist is, in relation to his work, stern and lonely. He has labored hard, often amid deprivation, to perfect his skill. He has turned aside from quick success in order to strip his vision of everything secondary or cheapening. His working life is marked by intense application and intense discipline.” “The Arts in America,” 1962 article by John F. Kennedy

“We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” Amherst College, 10/26/63

“I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty…an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.” Remarks at Amherst College, 1963

“In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.” Remarks at Amherst College, 1963

“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.” Amherst College, 10/26/63

“The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose…and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.” Statement prepared for Creative America, 1963 (Inscribed at the Kennedy Center for the performing Arts)

Beyond that there was nothing I could find in researching that came close to what my beloved had uttered. Yet, knowing him the way I do, it’s likely his own brilliant mind.

Regardless of its origin, the phrase got me thinking about how our society will be judged 100 years from now and beyond. Is our society more arts-focused than it was 100 years ago? 200 years ago?

Norman Rockwell's color study of Southern Justice

I look back much like Kennedy did and see that when we made great strides as a society, our arts were in the forefront. I remember as a young girl seeing the Norman Rockwell paintings that were his interpretation of the civil rights movement. They were powerful images for a young person in a racially divided city of Detroit. The paintings helped fuel what I believe was a core value of justice that seemed natural and organic, as if it was coded in my DNA. I remember looking at his atmospheric study of Southern Justice – I think I was at my great grandparents’ house and found this old magazine. Regardless, it was powerful.

During the same time frame there was the anti-war demonstrators; the music that goes hand in hand with that and of course the literature. For music there was The Byrds, The Doors, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Bob Dylan, and Barry McGuire. Hell, the first protest song I can remember from my youth: Peter, Paul and Mary – although Dylan wrote their famous “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Protest Music At Its Finest

The climate was also reflected in literature. You see it in Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s work. She wrote in OUTLAW WOMAN:  “At night on Sunset Boulevard, cars were always cruising bumper-to-bumper, blasting Dylan, The Beatles, the Stones, or The Doors…young freaks clogged the sidewalks, a mass of hair, painted bodies jingling Tibetan bells.  They were gentle people, but the cops hated the anarchy of the music and the freedom.” (This passage makes me think that maybe things haven’t changed all that much.)

Don’t forget some of the greatest American writers like William Burroughs, Joyce Carol Oates, and Raymond Carver hauntingly illustrated the divide and violence intrinsic in American life at all levels of society during that time, too. Oppression, Feminism, and Love in the modern era. I could go on and on about our late 50s, 60s and early 70s generation of artists, especially the writers.

Nevertheless, the arts got people involved. As Jerry Rubin (yes of the infamous Yippie movement guy) wrote, “Once they got attracted by the action, they discovered the issues.”

Then things get quiet as far as music and literature as a force for change once the “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades” 1980s hits. Maybe I’m too close to it to recognize stuff. I mean for literature this was the time for the Nobel Prize-winner Alice Walker and Toni Morrison (also a  Nobel Prize winner), Amy Tan, Rita Mae Brown and N. Scott Momaday. But not all of them were really main stream (Morrison the exception as she of Hollywood options). Protest music of the 80s and 90s? Wham and Pearl Jam? Not hardly (with apologies to the beloved Eddie Vedder et al). Did this stuff actually get people to do things? Maybe. Maybe it’s still processing and fermenting in our consciousness.

Who are the Dylan’s and Ortiz’s of our generation? Who is the Carver or Rockwell of our generation? What will peoples of the future say about what we did in 2012? Will they say that we spent more on corporate bail outs as opposed to art?

But then again I look at the protests in Tunisia, Egypt and all over the Arabic world. There is the #Occupy movement. We have war veterans returning to create protest art. I think of Coffee Strongnear me here in Washington. Regardless, this is all bootstrap art. These are not easily lucrative projects.

Occupy The Streets - A collective art consciousness?

Is it now that the arts will come out of protest as oppose to inspire it? But who will be their benefactors? The sponsors? Who are the supporters so that the artist can toil and do what they do to document life as it is or should be?

I will be considering this for some time. I find no definitive conclusion after all this rumination. All I can say is I hope that when my generation (supposed generation x) is long and gone, they will say that we valued our artists and their work. That we were the beginning of the measurement of greatness because we knew the value of art. We knew art was life. Our human life. And that is sacred.


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