Celebrating the Birth of John F. Kennedy and his Contributions to Our Nation's Arts and Culture
This is the second in a series of columns recognizing President John F. Kennedy's contribution to the arts. It is part of a partnership between the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation celebrating the centennial of Kennedy's birth.
Robert Lynch, President & CEO of Americans for the Arts, is First Recipient of JFK Commonwealth Award Together with the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, it is my honor to announce that Robert Lynch, President and CEO of Americans for the Arts, is the first recipient of the JFK Commonwealth Award. A Massachusetts native, Lynch is one of the nation's leading arts advocates who has recently been on the front lines of efforts to protect the National Endowment for the Arts and other federal cultural agencies amid rapidly shifting political conditions.
A Cultural Legacy at Risk? The storm clouds are gathering. Will they bring forth a nourishing spring rain that wakes up and replenishes? Or ferocious winds that flatten decades of sturdy growth?
The winds of Washington carry ominous news. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) may be on the chopping block, this as we culminate a celebration of 50 years since the endowments' inception.
The NEA and NEH were the inspiration of President John F. Kennedy. He served just over 1,000 days before he was assassinated, leaving their enactment into law to President Lyndon Johnson and the US Congress.
Kennedy spoke and wrote passionately about the role of the arts and humanities in a democratic society. In an article for Look magazine in December 1962, Kennedy writes of the arts: "far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, it is very close to the center of a nation's purpose—and is a test of the quality of a nation's civilization."
"Above all, we are coming to understand that the arts incarnate the creativity of a free society. We know that a totalitarian society can promote the arts in its own way—that it can arrange for splendid productions of opera and ballet, as it can arrange for the restoration of ancient and historic buildings. But art means more than the resuscitation of the past: it means the free and unconfined search for new ways of expressing the experience of the present and the vision of the future."
Even as Kennedy clearly embraced the compelling role of the arts and humanities in our nation, he seems uncertain of the role of the federal government in their support.
First he writes, "A nation's government can expect to play only an indirect and marginal role in the arts. Government's essential job—the organization and administration of great affairs—is too gross and unwieldy for the management of individual genius."
And later in the same article, "…Washington, it has been remarked, is a single-industry town, and that industry is politics and statecraft. Such an environment, some have said, provides barren soil for the arts."
President Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy greet composer Igor Stravinksy and his wife Vera de Bosset Stravinsky as they arrive for a White House dinner party, January 1962. Photograph by Abbie Rowe, courtesy of the JFK Library Foundation.
But this does not mean that government should not concern itself with the arts and humanities: "I would hope in the years ahead, as our cultural life develops and takes on new forms, the Federal Government would be prepared to play its proper role in encouraging cultural activities throughout the nation."
"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 fulfillment's of art—this is one of the fascinating challenges of these days."
In the past 50 years, there have been a number of attempts to defund the NEA and the NEH. They are often triggered by a particular piece of art that is objectionable to a legislator. The root of the objection is typically complex societal change that is reflected in the art (more on that in an upcoming column).
But the language of the law that brought us the endowments speaks not so much to the funding of a particular piece of art, but rather to the freedom to make art and be creative.
Kennedy wrote, "When the creative impulse cannot flourish freely, when it cannot freely select its methods and objects, when it is deprived of spontaneity, the society severs the root of art."
This notion is clearly reflected in the NEA enabling legislation, calling on the endowment to "help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination and inquiry but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent."
Public funding of the arts and humanities is right and essential in a democratic society. Freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry are the bedrock of democracy. Artists, writers, and historians produce a priceless record of our civilization. And the public dollar ensures that that record belongs to and is co-authored by the citizens of this nation.
This is not a time to shutter the windows and head for the basement. It is a perfect opportunity to harness the wind and reassert the foundational value of America's unique public/private partnership in our cultural life.
As Kennedy put it in remarks at Amherst College in 1963, "Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much."
The MCC is a state agency supporting the arts, sciences, and humanities, to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts and its communities. It pursues its mission through a combination of grants, services, and advocacy for nonprofit cultural organizations, schools, communities, and artists. The MCC also runs the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund in partnership with MassDevelopment.