John F. Kennedy photo

Magazine Article "The Arts in America."

December 18, 1962

ONE AFTERNOON in the fateful year 1940, the President of the United States had two callers. The first was Lord Lothian, the British Ambassador, who had just flown in from London to give Franklin D. Roosevelt an eyewitness account of the bombing of London. The second was Francis H. Taylor, museum director and authority on the history of art.

Taylor waited for 2 hours while the President and Lothian talked. When he finally entered, he found the President "white as a sheet." Yet the President, we are told, kept Taylor in his office that afternoon for another hour and a half. Turning from a grim preoccupation with the war, Franklin Roosevelt talked about the arts in American life. He spoke of plans for broadening the appreciation of art and looked forward to a day when "every schoolhouse would have contemporary American paintings hanging on its walls."

George Biddle, the distinguished American artist who records this meeting, adds on his own: "Roosevelt had little discrimination in his taste in painting and sculpture. [But] he had a more clear understanding of what art could mean in the life of a community-for the soul of a nation--than any man I have known."

In the year of 1941, Roosevelt himself recalled another President who also found time in the midst of great national trials to concern himself with artistic endeavors. It was in the third year of the Civil War, as Roosevelt told the story in a speech dedicating the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and men and women had gathered to see the Capitol dome completed and the bronze goddess of liberty set upon the top. "It had been an expensive, a laborious business," Roosevelt said, "diverting labor and money from the prosecution of the war and certain critics . . . Found much to criticize. There were new marble pillars in the Senate wing of the Capitol, there was a bronze door for the central portal and other such expenditures and embellishments. But the President of the United States, whose name was Lincoln, when he heard these criticisms, answered: 'If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign that we intend this Union shall go on.'"

Both Roosevelt and Lincoln understood that the life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation's purpose--and is a test of the quality of a nation's civilization. That is why we should be glad today that the interest of the American people in the arts seems at a new high.

Looking at the American scene, I am impressed by its diversity and vitality--by the myriad ways in which Americans find enlightenment, exercise, entertainment, and fulfillment. Everyone, young and old, seems to be busy. Our roads and seashores are crowded; the great parks draw visitors in unprecedented numbers. Sports thrive, and even such formerly humdrum activities as buying groceries for the family take on a holiday aspect in the new shopping centers. In the midst of all this activity, it is only natural that people should be more active in pursuit of the arts.

The statistics are gratifying: books have become a billion-dollar business; more money is spent each year in going to concerts than to baseball games; our galleries and museums are crowded; community theaters and community symphony orchestras have spread across the land; there are an estimated 33 million Americans who play musical instruments. And all this expresses, I believe, something more than merely the avidity with which goods of all kinds are being acquired in our exuberant society. A need within contemporary civilization, a hunger for certain values and satisfactions, appears to be urging us all to explore and appreciate areas of life which, in the past, we have sometimes neglected in the United States.

Too often in the past, we have thought of the artist as an idler and dilettante and of the lover of arts as somehow sissy or effete. We have done both an injustice. The life of the artist is, in relation to his work, stern and lonely. He has labored hard, often amid deprivation, to perfect his skill. He has turned aside from quick success in order to strip his vision of everything secondary or cheapening. His working life is marked by intense application and intense discipline. As for the lover of arts, it is he who, by subjecting himself to the sometimes disturbing experience of art, sustains the artist--and seeks only the reward that his life will, in consequence, be the more fully lived.

Today, we recognize increasingly the essentially of artistic achievement. This is part, I think, of a nationwide movement toward excellence--a movement which had its start in the admiration of expertness and skill in our technical society, but which now demands quality in all realms of human achievement. It is part, too, of a feeling that art is the great unifying and humanizing experience. We know that science, for example, is indispensable--but we also know that science, if divorced from a knowledge of man and of man's ways, can stunt a civilization. And so the educated man--and very often the man who has had the best scientific education--reaches out for the experience which the arts alone provide. He wants to explore the side of life which expresses the emotions and embodies values and ideals of beauty.

Above all, we are coming to understand that the arts incarnate the creativity of a free society. We know that a totalitarian society can promote the arts in its own way--that it can arrange for splendid productions of opera and ballet, as it can arrange for the restoration of ancient and historic buildings. But art means more than the resuscitation of the past: it means the free and unconfined search for new ways of expressing the experience of the present and the vision of the future. When the creative impulse cannot flourish freely, when it cannot freely select its methods and objects, when it is deprived of spontaneity, then society severs the root of art.

Yet this fact surely imposes an obligation on those who acclaim the freedom of their own society--an obligation to accord the arts attention and respect and status, so that what freedom makes possible, a free society will make necessary.

I have called for a higher degree of physical fitness in our nation. It is only natural that I should call, as well, for the kind of intellectual and spiritual fitness which underlies the flowering of the arts.

A nation's government can expect to play only an indirect and marginal role in the arts. Government's essential job--the organization and administration of great affairs-is too gross and unwieldy for the management of individual genius. But this does not mean that government is not, or should not be, concerned with the arts. A free government is the reflection of a people's will and desire--and ultimately of their taste. It is also, at its best, a leading force, an example and teacher. I would like to see everything government does in the course of its activities marked by high quality. I would like to see the works of government represent the best our artists, designers and builders can achieve. I want to make sure that policies of government do not indirectly or unnecessarily put barriers in the way of the full expression of America's creative genius.

The arts in the United States are, like so many other of our activities, varied and decentralized to a high degree. Private benefactors, foundations, schools and colleges, business corporations, the local community, the city and the State combine in widely differing proportions to organize and support the institutions of culture. I would hope that in the years ahead, as our cultural life develops and takes on new forms, the Federal Government would be prepared to play its proper role in encouraging cultural activities throughout the Nation.

In the Nation's Capital, the Federal Government, of course, has special obligations. There is, first, the fact that the District of Columbia lies directly within Federal jurisdiction. Beyond this, there is the fact that, as the Capital of our Nation, Washington inevitably becomes to a degree a showcase of our culture. In other countries, capitals have been located in great cities with an historic identity and cultural life of their own. But Washington, it has been remarked, is a single-industry town, and that industry is politics and statecraft. Such an environment, some have said, provides barren soil for the arts. Yet, despite this, the community of Washington has done much to welcome and encourage cultural activity.

Still, our vision must look beyond the pleasure of the community to the leadership of the nation. In this vision, the National Cultural Center will play a vital role. The Center, which Congress has chartered and for which it has given land, aims to be part of a broad effort to stimulate the performing arts. It was not conceived as a group of halls and theaters to benefit Washington audiences alone. Here, visitors and tourists will come throughout the year, bringing back to their communities a sense of what the performance of great works can mean in their lives--and a proud realization that their Nation's Capital is a focus of creative activities. In many other ways, the National Cultural Center will interact with the cultural life of communities across the country. The finest of our symphony orchestras will play here; local repertory theaters and opera and ballet groups, increasing in numbers and professional status, should find their appearance in the Nation's Capital a distinction eagerly sought. The Center will, I hope, become in the broadest sense an educational as well as a cultural institution, helping to stimulate the formation of similar groups in other cities.

Other countries have their national theater and opera, permanently situated in the capital and singled out for their government's special concern. Better fitted to the needs of the United States is the idea of the Cultural Center, a great stage hospitable to the best coming from this country and abroad, an institution encouraging the development of the performing arts in all their diversity of origin and variety of form. I earnestly hope that the backing of citizens across the country will make possible the fulfillment of these plans.

To work for the progress of the arts in America is exciting and fruitful because what we are dealing with touches virtually all the citizens.

There will always be of necessity, in any society, a mere handful of genuinely creative individuals, the men and women who shape in words or images the enduring work of art. Among us, even this group tends to be enlarged. "I hear America singing," said Walt Whitman. He would certainly hear it singing with many voices if he were alive today.

Outside the group of active participants stands the great audience. Perhaps no country has ever had so many people so eager to share a delight in the arts. Individuals of all trades and professions, of all ages, in all parts of the country, wait for the curtain to rise--wait for the door to open to new enjoyments.

This wonderful equality in the cultural world is an old American phenomenon. De Tocqueville, in the 1830's, described how on the remotest frontier, in a wilderness that seemed "the asylum of all miseries," Americans preserved an interest in cultural and intellectual matters. "You penetrate paths scarcely cleared," said de Tocqueville; "you perceive, finally, a cleared field, a cabin . . . with a tiny window." You might think, he continues, that you have come at last to the home of an American peasant. But you would be wrong. "The man wears the same clothes as you; he speaks the language of the cities. On his rude table are books and newspapers."

The cabin with its tiny window has vanished. Yet we might expect to find its counterparts today in homes which would seem quite as remote from the arts. The suburban housewife harassed by the care of her children, the husband weary after the day's work, young people bent on a good time--these might not appear in a mood to enjoy intellectual or artistic pursuit. Still on the table lie paper-bound reprints of the best books of the ages. By the phonograph is a shelf of recordings of the classics of music. On the wall hang reproductions of the masterpieces of art.

To further the appreciation of culture among all the people, to increase respect for the creative individual, to widen participation by all the processes and fulfillment's of art--this is one of the fascinating challenges of these days.


Note: The article was printed in the December 18, 1962, issue of Look magazine as part of a special adaptation of "Creative America," a book scheduled to be released in October 1963- The article is printed herein through the courtesy of The Ridge Press, Inc., publisher of the book.

John F. Kennedy, Magazine Article "The Arts in America." Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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