Lyndon B. Johnson photo

Remarks at the White House Festival of the Arts.

June 14, 1965

Ladies and gentlemen:

Thomas Jefferson often spoke of America's good fortune in being distant from the Europe of his day. But in a letter in 1785, he spoke of his great pleasure in the architecture, painting, sculpture, music, and other arts of Europe. "It is in these arts they shine," he said. And he wrote: "It is the only thing which from my heart I envy them."

Well, I wish Thomas Jefferson could be here today. He would find that the last cause for envy had disappeared.

For most of our history we have bowed to that observation of Jefferson. We have had great artists. But the central flame of American art has been fed by the model of other invention, and fanned by the standard of other judgment. Almost unaware in recent decades, we have realized this is no longer so. In every field we have produced artist after artist, equipped to stand in the front rank of creative talent. Our painting and music, architecture and writing have profoundly shaped the course of modern art. From jazz and folk song to the most complex abstractions of word and image, few parts of the world are free from the spreading influence of American culture.

I do not pretend to judge the lasting values of these works. But if art is important to man, then American art is deeply important to mankind.

So today the Nation honors its artists.

No people can afford to neglect the creative minds among it. They enrich the life of the Nation. They reveal the farthest horizons of man's possibility. And Government--as representative of all the people--should always play a role in stimulating our people.

First, and most important, it can leave the artist alone. Art is not a tender or fragile thing. It has kept alive in the habitations of cruelty and oppressions. It has struggled toward light from the manifold darkness of war and conflict and persecution. Yet it flourishes most abundantly when it is fully free--when the artist can speak as he wishes and describe the world as he sees it without any official direction. In no country in all the world--East or West--is the artist freer than here in America. There are pressures. But they come from inner desire and not external coercion.

Secondly, the Government can offer direct encouragement. Most of this help will come, as it always has, from private and local sources. But the Nation has its obligation. And that is why we have proposed a bill to establish a National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities. That historic bill has already been passed in the United States Senate. I would hope that it could soon become law.

Third, we can work to create an atmosphere for the arts to thrive. Fundamentally this flows from the values and the thoughts and the hopes of the Nation itself. It is shaped by our schools and by our surroundings and by the nature of our society.

So by honoring artists and their work, by recognizing the importance of their contribution, we not only reflect, but we help to mold the values of this country.

Every President has known that our people look to this city, and to this house--not to follow but to lead, not to listen but to teach, not only to obey their will but to help design their purpose. The Presidency is not just a center of action and administration. It is, perhaps most importantly, a wellspring of leadership. We are, for example, using this great power to help move toward justice for all of our people, not simply because I believe it, but because American freedom depends on it. And we are trying to stimulate creation, not because of our personal tastes or desires, but because American greatness will rest on it.

So, this is the true meaning of this occasion. Those of you who are participating in this day are not simply sharing an isolated event. You are sharing in an effort to enrich the life of this country and all of its people. You have been asked to come not because you are the greatest artists of the land, because in the judgment of those who made up this guest list you may be and you do distinguish yourselves in the world of American art, but by your presence you help in the struggle to liberate all the talent and energy which this Nation has in such abundance. And you help us awake, in all of our people, the knowledge and the appreciation which can add so much to their lives.

Your art is not a political weapon. Yet much of what you do is profoundly political. For you seek out the common pleasures and visions, the terrors and the cruelties of man's day on this planet. And I would hope that you would help dissolve the barriers of hatred and ignorance which are the source of so much of our pain and danger. In this way you work toward peace--not only the peace which is simply the absence of war-but the peace which liberates man to reach for the finest fulfillment of his spirit.

Stephen Vincent Benet called upon the "American muse, whose strong and diverse heart--so many men have tried to understand." You are still reaching for the understanding beyond capture. But in that effort you not only explain a nation. The search itself enlarges America in heart, in spirit, in purpose, and in grandeur.

We have created an American culture. It is a great achievement. But with it come great responsibilities that can no longer be cast off on others: to lift and to strengthen-in partnership or rebellion--a nation; in itself and for the dreams it shares with all mankind.

Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 8 p.m. on the South Lawn at the White House.

The Festival of the Arts lasted over 12 hours and was attended by more than 300 artists, art patrons, and critics. The program ranged from pop art and jazz to poetry readings and ballet. Mrs. Johnson spoke briefly at the close of the program.

The National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 was approved by the President on September 29, 1965 (see Item 534).

Lyndon B. Johnson, Remarks at the White House Festival of the Arts. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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