Food for Thought

Adrienne Rich, a widely respected writer and feminist, died a few weeks ago at the age of 82. As we consider the question of the “purpose” of art, these comments of Rich’s might inspire you:

“[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.”

Rich said this when she declined to accept a National Medal for the Arts in 1997. She did so as a protest against Congress’s vote to end the National Endowment for the Arts, which has funded and encouraged art and literature in the United States since the 1960s. (Ultimately, Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House of Representatives at the time, failed to in his attempts to eliminate NEA funding in 1997.)

EDIT: Another example to stimulate discussion about the relationship between art and power

In 2009, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami was awarded the prestigious Jerusalem Prize. Many pressured Murakami to decline to accept the award in response to Israel’s bombing of Gaza at the time. He chose to accept the prize, but used his acceptance speech to call attention to the issue and criticize Israeli policy. He stated:

“Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.”

Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?

What is the meaning of this metaphor? In some cases, it is all too simple and clear. Bombers and tanks and rockets and white phosphorus shells are that high, solid wall. The eggs are the unarmed civilians who are crushed and burned and shot by them. This is one meaning of the metaphor.

This is not all, though. It carries a deeper meaning. Think of it this way. Each of us is, more or less, an egg. Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell. This is true of me, and it is true of each of you. And each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, is confronting a high, solid wall. The wall has a name: It is The System. The System is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it takes on a life of its own, and then it begins to kill us and cause us to kill others – coldly, efficiently, systematically.

Full text of his speech is available here :


7 responses

  1. why couldn’t she just go an accept the award like everyone else? but noooo! she has to make a political statement out of everything. And why is it that at every waking second feminists have to somehow relate everything to their plight. I’m pretty sure not all art is designed with the intention of subjugating females and whatnot.

  2. Think: if I had left “feminist” out of my description of her accomplishments, would your reaction have been the same? The misreading here is that she’s connecting the issue at hand to “her” plight. Her commentary here is not about feminism – it’s meant to raise the question as to whether the government has – or should have – the power to sanction the art world, which extends far beyond issues of gender. To contextualize, the HoR reevaluated NEA funding not because they questioned if and how a government should financially support the arts (a valid question), but because some found a photograph taken by Andres Serrano (an NEA-funded artist) offensive. Their reaction was to de-fund said artists. This is what Rich means by holding art “hostage.”

    In the context of our course, think of the “systems” that we’ve seen “control” the arts (or at least influence them) – the Paris Salon, the necessity of a Salon des Refuses in the face of a changing art world, David’s relationship with Napoleon…

    Edited the original post to add some anecdotes from novelist Haruki Murakami (a male…)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s