50 years later: JFK’s Inspirational View on the Arts

50 years after the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, many will reflect on the 35th president’s legacy. From his speech on October 26, 1963, MASSCreative looks at his inspiring vision for the arts.

Just less than a month before his death, Kennedy spoke at Amherst College in honor of Robert Frost who had died in January of that year.  In his speech, Kennedy framed the poet laureate’s work within the context of the American identity. He argues that Frost contributed to “national life” in a way that only artists can:

But democratic society--in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost's hired man, the fate of having ‘nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.’

Kennedy combats apathy and invites his audience to consider the arts in a light that is anything but superfluous. His words inspire appreciation for art as an essential tool in crafting our national identity: “Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost.”

These words still find meaning today as we weigh the societal support of art and culture. Historically, political leaders segment issues in silos, quarantining art to the fringes of governmental funding. Our culture is often pervaded by the sentiment that Art is nice, but not necessary. To help alter this attitude of indifference, we need our political leaders to stand up as champions of the arts. If there is any question about the pertinence of art as a tool for civic engagement, politicians need only reflect on the integrative vision for the arts that Kennedy offers in his speech: 

I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.

50 years later, we can appreciate the resonating power of John F. Kennedy’s voice and honor his commitment to the arts. Visit the National Endowment for the Art’s page to hear the audio from his historic speech

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