1997 Interview with Poet Adrienne Rich on Her Refusal to Accept US National Medal for the Arts

From Democracy Now!

“Poet, essayist and feminist Adrienne Rich died on Tuesday at the age of 82. Rich drew widespread acclaim for her many volumes of poetry and prose, which brought the oppression of women and lesbians into the public spotlight. She was a key figure in the women’s movement and an uncompromising critic of the powerful. Rich won numerous awards and honors, including the National Book Award for the 1973 collection Diving into the Wreck. Refusing to accept the award alone, she appeared onstage with poets Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, and the three accepted the award on behalf of all women. In 1997, she famously declined to accept the government’s National Medal of Arts in a protest against the Clinton administration, writing that art “means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.” Rich spoke to Democracy Now! that same year about her decision, and she began by reading her July 3, 1997 letter to Jane Alexander, chair of the National Endowment of the Arts.”

Click here to listen to the show

Here’s the beginning of that 1997 interview:

ADRIENNE RICH: [..] I am concerned about what it means when we have two parties which are so close together in their collaboration with the wealthiest interests in the country and who are so alike in their disregard for the majority of people in this country. And I feel as if the relative creative freedom of artists and intellectuals ultimately depends on the conditions everywhere and the conditions of human labor everywhere. We’re all working. We’re all trying to do our work. And the circumstances, the conditions under which working people exist in the society are not something that can be separated and left aside from the position of the artist. I just don’t see how you can do that.

AMY GOODMAN: In the New York Times article that described your rejection of the arts medal, it says, “Ms. Rich views poetry as an instrument of change, and her work has sometimes been dismissed by critics for being political.” What is your response to those critics?

ADRIENNE RICH: To those critics? I don’t have a response to those critics. I have to go on doing my work, and my work is informed by the society in which I live. There’s no getting around that. And I believe that that’s true of all art, that it comes out of a social context. It does not simply blossom in some studio or attic away from the polluted air, the fumes, the social conditions of the artist’s own time. And I feel as if this effort to segregate art is extremely dangerous, and it’s a kind of—it is an attempt to hold art hostage, to make it a captive, a carved radish rose on the dinner table, if you will.


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