The Letter with Which Adrienne Rich Became the Only Person to Decline the National Medal of Arts

Adrienne_Rich-2I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope.”

Beloved poet and reconstructionist Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929 — March 27, 2012) is celebrated as one of the most influential literary voices of the twentieth century, her essays and poems having catapulted into the forefront of collective conscience controversial issues like sexual identity and the oppression of women and lesbians. In 1997, to protest the growing monopoly of power and the government’s proposed plan to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, she became the first and only person to date to decline the prestigious National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed upon an individual artist on behalf of the people of the United States, awarded to such luminaries as Maya Angelou, John Updike, Ray Bradbury, and Bob Dylan.

In this 1997 broadcast from the radio show Democracy Now, Rich reads her letter declining the medal, adding to history’s finest definitions of art in what’s one of the bravest and most eloquent acts of political dissent in creative culture.

Listen to Adrienne Rich read her extraordinary letter.

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