When Power Corrupts, Poetry Cleanses

As we recently marked President John F. Kennedy’s 100th birthday, we must remember the late president’s vision for our nation: as a democratic society with a shared commitment to free expression.

On an October day in 1963, President Kennedy articulated this vision in dedicating a library at Amherst College to Robert Frost. He described the late poet as “a man whose contribution was not to our size but to our spirit; not to our political beliefs but to our insight; not to our self-esteem but to our self-comprehension.”

Kennedy honored Frost’s life and vision that day by elegantly casting art as a vessel for truth, a counterbalance to power, and a mode of self-reflection — as critical to our nation’s greatness as its might. He spoke not only to Frost’s legacy, but also the dual role of the artist: as a specter for truth and an arbiter of justice within American society. 

Art humbles the arrogant by reminding them of their limitations, Kennedy said. “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”

Kennedy’s words that October day should be a rallying cry for us all, as they rightfully call for the full recognition of the vital place the artist holds in our country and in civilized society. 

The speech reflected the vision described in a poem Frost had written two years earlier for Kennedy’s inauguration, which Frost ultimately was unable to read from the lectern due to gusty winds and the sun’s bright reflection on newly fallen snow. The poem, “Dedication,” spoke hopefully of a coming “golden age of poetry and power.”

However, in the decades since, the recognition of the voice of the artist as a necessary and balancing force in our society has waned. Today, it is openly under attack. 

Kennedy’s words are a window into how leaders of the past championed the arts, and also a guide in how we must challenge those who seek to quash free expression. This is not a partisan concern: examples of leaders who understand the important role the arts play in free expression exist within all political persuasions. 

Leaders who are threatened by freedom of expression seek to denigrate truth and sever the ways in which it is disseminated. We are now witnessing this in real time: through the slashing of public funding for the arts and education, open contempt for the free press, and unrepentant lying through misinformation and “alternative facts”.

So what is there to do when our leaders reject the importance of truth? We must instead appeal directly to the citizenry. 

Art provides potent channels for dissent and resistance.  But it also unites disparate views. It creates understanding and a way forward by showing another way of seeing. 

Consider Mark Bradford’s Tomorrow Is Another Day (2017), an installation that transforms the Jeffersonian white rotunda and granite floors of the Venice Biennale’s U.S. Pavilion—in his words, “the White House”—into a beacon of his concern for marginalized people. Tasked with representing our nation to the world, Bradford brings to the pavilion the reality of inequity and poverty in the country through a narrative of ruin, violence, agency, and possibility. It’s a story of ambition and the belief in art’s capacity to engage us all in urgent and profound conversations, and even action. The artist’s work is a platform for truth and a window into self-comprehension.

Leaders who abuse power do not fear a single artist, or a single journalist. They fear what their work might inspire, the truth it reveals or the mass of citizens it can unite and inspire toward action.

It is that devotion to justice that demands we empower our artists in order to achieve a true depiction of ourselves — the ugly, the beautiful, the virtuous and the corrupt. It is what the world respects most about the United States. The arts do not exist only to be sold, or to sell tickets – they are not private goods. They are not an arm of the government, existing to bolster the state. The arts exist to enrich the lives of each citizen by depicting the truth of who we are. 

As Kennedy remarked, “In a democratic society, 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.”

Just as artists have a responsibility to truth, we have a duty to illuminate their message, invest in their values and work, and allow the truth to lead us where it may.