ART Without Borders

preserving and promoting artists' rights in the world


Dr. Dan H. Fenn
Art Without Borders
June 23, 2006 at Democracy center, Cambridge, MA

I have about as much right to salute and celebrate Event #1 of Art Without Borders as biting horseflies have to attend a beach picnic—though I am more welcome. For my career in the arts has been both mercifully short and disastrous. (Arch dig. Upside down school bus. Piano.)

My life, fortunately for the world of the arts, has taken me in a different direction, into politics and government as a practitioner, writer, teacher, and commentator. So why would Sirarpi think that I would be a good fit with this important occasion?

There is one obvious reason: politics and government, at its best and highest, are concerned with the protection and the enhancement of basic human rights and individual freedom. Your organization is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of artists’ rights to free expression here and through out the world.

Let us be clear, these days are not promising ones for human rights and for individual freedom in out nation for any of us—never mind artists. Despite the pledge of our forebears, “not to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed,” we are now, sadly, passing though a time when the exact opposite is true. What a contract with our own past! In the darkest days of the American Revolution, 1776 – 1777 the Congress and the Army adopted the policy: humanity toward the enemy, especially prisoners of war. This was in marked contrast to the way the British and Hessians treated Americans who wanted to manage the war consistent with their values and their principles. These forebears would be horrified by Abu Gharib, Guantanomo, and extraordinary rendition.

We hear a lot these days about hewing to the purposes and intent of the Founders. One wonders which Founders exactly since they were so at odds among themselves: Jefferson warred with Hamilton (more on this later) Madison with Adams, Chief Justice Marshall with President Jefferson, Hamilton with the majority at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Adams with Jefferson (“Good riddance to bad ware,” he said when Jefferson left Washington’s cabinet.) Laying aside that inconvenient historical truth and the fact that Madison himself, the true founder and author of the Constitution, declared on the floor of congress that there was no way of knowing what the delegates to Philadelphia intended, never mind those who ratified the document so the position was without merit.

I find it extraordinarily difficult to reconcile the principles of the founders and generations of Americans who succeeded them with the recent Supreme Court ruling setting aside the ancient prohibition against government agents invading my house without announcing themselves. Or civil servants listening to my telephone calls, or finding out what books I check out of the library, or what rallies I attend. Or a president who decided on his own what laws and parts of laws he will enforce and which he will simply brush aside. That sounds like the slow undoing of human rights to me.

Let me remind you that we in this nation, have always believed that basic individual rights come not from government officials but from God, however you may choose to define and label the Divine. The Declaration of Independence, our basic expression of faith and aspiration, says “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that to secure these rights government are instituted among men.” That was the function of the Constitution: to secure these rights, not the bestow them. Look up the Iraq constitution sometime, heralded as the central document of this so-called free and democratic state: the government ensures the rights of freedom of speech, and assembly, subject to the requirements of public order and public morality. What government people grant, they can take away. What I have just because I am a human being government officials can’t take away and are supposed to safeguard.

I say all this in full recognition that there is an ebb and flow to the extent and nature at the margin of some of our rights. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus. There are two great stories in the annals of any society, the community story and the individual story, the security and wellbeing of the whole and the freedom of each single person. In America, the deep seated conflicts between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson incarnated those two stories. Hamilton stood for order, for national security and growth, for the greater good of all, for efficiency and predictability. Jefferson stood for individual participation, for diffusion of power in government into the hands of the many, for letting a thousand flowers bloom, for letting people alone to follow their own dreams in their one way to wherever they wanted to go.

Any society, ours included, moves back and forth between these two standards, depending on the times and the needs. Surely, our society has done so. But aside from the demands of a particular time, there are those in any community who temperamentally tilt toward Hamilton and will grasp any opportunity to push us in the direction of order and top down control (so long as they are in control). Such is the state of our union today. Happily there are also always those who tilt toward Jefferson, whose highest value is the preservation and nurturing of the individual creative spirit, the one in Robert Frosts’ words who takes the road less traveled, by the one who speaks out through whatever medium best suits, by the one who believes that the surest road to the future and the security of the community is the celebration and the expression of the intrinsic work of every human life.

In the best of the worlds, each side recognizes—truly recognizes—the worked of the other. In the worst of worlds, they are irreconcilable and bitterly at war, locked in an endless struggle.

It is dazzlingly clear, isn’t it, where the artist, the poet, the painter, the composer, the singer fits into the stormy play. I am sure it is true: A person once told me, you do what you do because you like to. Even because you must.

But the artist, at her best, is the exemplar and the champion of the Jeffersonian vision. Who has the arrogance to call the arts “frills” in our schools Frills indeed!

But the means she may be the first victim of the Hamiltonian run amok, unrestrained by the culture, the laws, or even conscience. You know far better than I how this plays out around the world. I am sensitive to the story of a lesbian writer of children’s books in America explaining and validating love between same sex couples whose books have been banned and burned (they have also been celebrated) and who have been harassed for both her work and her like.

John Kennedy, who deeply appreciated literature and poetry and the use of word—though not perhaps so much the visual and performing arts [—favorite song—] to my mind express all this best a few weeks before he died in a speech at Amherst College where he received an honorary degree and participated in the groundbreaking ceremony for the Robert Frost Library. These were his words.

“This is an enormous task you have undertaken. There conceptual organizational and fiscal complexities to the hammered out, many obstacles and frustrations lie ahead, many sleepless nights when you will be faced with the three boxes. Good will and noble goals are not, as we all know, self-actualizing. But you have set out on an important journey. You have joined and blessed ranks of good folk, seeking to do good things in and for this world.”

Without purposes and people like you, the world would be grim indeed. Thus, this is a critically important task you have taken on. It is also a most difficult one.


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