“I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens.”-JFK
In 1974, I saw a revival of Voltaire’s Candide on Broadway. It was interesting to learn that it was the writer/playwright, Lillian Hellman who first adapted Voltaire’s Candide as a play in 1956. Voltaire was born today in 1694 and was a French Enlightenment writer who brought wit to his writings as he observed and criticized the world around him. “The French Enlightenment philosophers became known as the philosophes. The philosophes used criticism and rejection of the old authority, along with a desire to explain man’s role in the universe, and in society to reshape the world in which they lived. They attacked many topics like morality, politics, economics and religion to design their new world. Along with natural law and human reason the philosophes emphasized toleration, especially religious toleration and progress. There was a great confidence in modern man and his achievements in technology and understanding the natural world.”-gettysburg.edu
As we commemorate 50 years since President JFK was assassinated, let us remember for a moment, that both JFK and Jackie Kennedy promoted the Arts during his short time in The White House. A series of “Concerts for Young People” at The White House was started by The Kennedys in 1961. French writer, Andre Malraux, who was The French Minister of Culture at the time, was hosted by The Kennedys, whose aim was to promote Washington D.C. as a national hub of The Arts. “President Kennedy affirmed that, “creativity is the hardest work there is” and playfully added that the White House “was becoming a sort of eating place for artists. But, they never ask us out.”–jfklibrary.org
Less than a month before JFK was assassinated, he spoke at Amherst College in Massachusetts at a gathering honoring American Poet, Robert Frost, whom JFK greatly admired. As you well remember, Robert Frost created a poem for JFK’s inauguration in 1961. This was the very first time a poet, a creative individual, was part of the inauguration ceremony. At this Amherst College event to remember Robert Frost who had died at the beginning of 1963, Kennedy said, “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.”
As a retired teacher and teacher-researcher, I witnessed how important the Arts were to my students as they tried making sense of this world. The Arts gave a voice to my students from other shores and comforted all of my students as they groped with difficult situations in their lives. It was so important to me that they have The Arts in their lives and I always wrote my own plays that taught them (and their audience) tolerance, social justice, history and used folk songs, union songs and songs to which I set new lyrics that addressed the theme of the various plays. All students participated. It didn’t matter if they didn’t know one word in English. The Arts brought us together. My students were my “garden” and my inspiration to always do better.