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July 3: Declining the Honor

July 3, 2013

Adrienne Rich in 2006Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Adrienne Rich declined to accept the National Medal of the Arts on this date in 1997, in a letter to Jane Alexander, head of the National Endowment for the Arts. “Over the past two decades I have witnessed the increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice in our country,” Rich wrote. “There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I do know that art — in my own case the art of poetry — means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.’ Speaking with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, Rich described President Bill Clinton, who had named her for the award, as “cowardly and spineless” and expressed concern that the Democrats and Republicans “are so close together in their collaboration with the wealthiest interests in the country and . . . so alike in their disregard for the majority of people in this country.” To hear Rich reading her letter, click here. To see her reading her poem, “What Kind of Times Are These,” see below.

“The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A President cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.” —Adrienne Rich