I learn a lot of things from my Twitter feed, and most recently this: in January 1963 JFK gave a speech at Amherst College in homage to the poet Robert Frost, who had taken part in his inauguration as President and had taught at Amherst on and off for forty hears. Frost had died in January of that year - fifty years ago, plus or minus a few weeks. Of course, JFK's coming to Amherst after Frost's passing serves as a moving counterpart to Frost coming to DC for the President's inauguration, and the circumstances are made even more harrowing by the knowledge that JFK had less than one month to live when he addressed the Amherst crowd.
The National Endowment for the Arts foundation provides an excerpt of the speech on its website and explains: "In this speech, President Kennedy made clear the need for a nation to represent itself not only through its strength but also through its art... Two years later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, creating The National Endowment for the Arts." So perhaps the speech had more long-lasting consequences than most discussions about the relevance of humanities, as important as they are. The full transcript is available here.
I care about art in all its forms because, quite simply, it makes us see the world we hadn't imagined before, and that's what I want to do with my life. You might argue this is the reason I went into research as well, although it involves a much different part of my brain: the purpose remains to see things that others have not yet noticed, make connections where others have seen none, and share our findings with the world.
Frost appears to have struggled with depression, something JFK touches upon right away when he quotes the poet as saying "I have been one acquainted with the night." And perhaps some level of night is necessary for the individual to see things anew - a sense of isolation perhaps, of outsiderness. In the same vein, I also liked JFK's point about the artist as a solitary figure. The speech is full of quotable sentences, such as: "In pursuing his perceptions of reality, [the artist] must often sail against the currents of his time." What a fantastic trove of inspiration.
Given the parallels between JFK and our current President, it is interesting to note how one (in very different economic times) stressed the importance of art and the other emphasizes science, technology, engineering and especially manufacturing. JFK stresses science too (insert obligatory reference to Sputnik here), but I can't think of any other US president who advocated for the arts the way he did - the very reason for the Arts Center being renamed John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts in 1964.
I feel we need to be reminded of art today because art makes us human, and certain groups seem to lean more and more toward exploiting other people: finance professionals out to make a quick profit or indulging in Ponzi schemes, employers using recent graduates as unpaid interns under the pretext that they should already be glad to be getting some work experience. Sadly, with the fragmented nature of our society and the habit of some artists to shock just to get attention, we lose opportunities to learn from what we see and simply dismiss what we don't understand with a shrug. (Or like a docent in New York City once told me, I paraphrase: "People really should realize that if an object is in MoMA's collection, there must be some sort of reason."
I'll end with quotes from the speech:
"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." - JFK.
"The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation's greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable." - JFK.
UPDATE : for readers interested in Frost's poetry, I highly recommend "The Art of Robert Frost" by Tim Kendall, which I discovered in a bookstore in Bethesda shortly after I wrote this post. It provides selected poems by Frost along with elements of analysis, and helps tremendously in understanding Frost's talents, techniques and themes. From the Yale University Press website: "In addition to close readings of the poems, The Art of Robert Frost traces the development of Frost's writing career and relevant aspects of his life. The book also assesses the particular nature of the poet's style, how it changes over time, and how it relates to the works of contemporary poets and movements, including Modernism." I usually find YUP's books ridiculously expensive and priced for the academic/university library book market, but this is one occasion where the $35 price is warranted for. Tim Kendall, professor of English literature and Head of English, University of Exeter, has done a fantastic job.
And for those of you who'd like to hear Frost read his own poems instead of having other people talk or write about him, below are two YouTube videos where he reads "Birches" and "The road not taken", respectively. (Full video credit goes to the videos' owner, awetblackbough. You can watch his channel and subscribe here.)