5: Letter, Adrienne Rich to Jane Alexander, July 3, 1997.

5: Letter, Adrienne Rich to Jane Alexander, July 3, 1997.

In 1997, Adrienne Rich was to receive the National Medal for the Arts, an award created by Congress whose recipients are nominated by the National Endowment for the Arts and selected by the President. Her decision to decline the award became national news and a source of controversy which Rich ultimately addressed in an essay in the Los Angeles Times in which she included a copy of her initial letter refusing to accept the honor. Rich’s decision was grounded in her beliefs about the proper relationship between art and political power. This resource allows students to consider the roles of political conscience and activism in Rich’s work.

Suggested Activity: Explain the background of this event, then distribute copies of the resource. Ask students to focus on the middle two paragraphs (individually, in pairs, or together as a class). What does it mean for art to “simply decorate the dinner table of power which holds it hostage”? Why does Rich mention that “The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate”?

Rich writes that there “is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice.” Ask students to write for three to four minutes about the relationship between art and justice. How else, beyond breaking silences and giving voice to the disregarded, can art work toward justice? In what ways can art perpetuate injustice? Do they accept the premise that art should work toward justice? What other goals or priorities might an artist have?

Additional activity: In this letter, Rich describes what art should not do. Based on what students have learned about her life and work from other resources and additional poems, what do they think Rich believes politically-conscious art should do? Ask them to discuss and write down the characteristics that come to mind. Can they think of contemporary artists, in any medium, whose work largely fulfills these goals? What dilemmas or controversies do (or might) these artists face?

Source: Adrienne Rich, “Why I Refused the National Medal for the Arts,” Los Angeles Times, August 3, 1997.