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
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
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.