CultureWork
A Periodic Broadside for Arts and Culture Workers
August 2006. Vol. 10, No. 3.
Center for Community Arts and Cultural Policy
Arts & Administration Program, University of Oregon                        ISSN 1541-938X

Why talk to an arts audience about the constitutional vandalism of President Bush's signing statements? Because the arts tell the truth to power when Congress has failed and the Courts are silent. The arts have power, majesty and authenticity to speak about the issues that concern us most, and the erosion of our constitutional government is at the top of the list. — John Frohnmayer, August 2006


This past June, when we had barely wrapped up the May issue of CultureWork, were in the midst of grading finals, and were planning for our second child due in late August, Doug Blandy (CultureWork's Advisor) approached us about a speech given at the City Club of Eugene.  Doug was excited about the speech and its connection to the journal's mission to "provide timely workplace-oriented information on culture, the arts, education, policy, and community."  In the haze of wrapping up the spring term we said yes and wondered what was being said about the arts locally at the City Club.

A little geographical background here: Eugene is a mid-sized city (estimated population is around 185,000), and overall, news travels fast, especially among the university community.  Still, the breadth of arts and cultural activity in Eugene does not allow one to concentrate on all the possible experiences available.  So, we were a bit confused about this speech, that we had not read yet, and its real applicability to CultureWork.

Slowly we worked our way around to reading the speech, Canaries in the Coal Mine:  Art, Freedom, and Community, by John Frohnmayer, former NEA chair, and we were struck by the message.  The speech is a powerful reminder of the importance of the arts and the roles artists play within the formation of history.  History is a strange animal in that it is dynamic, but at the same time static (the 'more things change the more they stay the same').  Frohnmayer's message is a concise and commanding reinforcement of what many of us in the arts administration field have recently been feeling.  But the power of the speech goes beyond a simple reinforcement of one’s opinion.  It serves as a reminder of the importance of the arts and artists in giving voice to historical views that might be overlooked or suppressed. As activist and historian Howard Zinn argued, "that's what art does — it takes something that is not quite true, it is invented, but it makes you think about reality in a way that a simple non-fiction account could not possibly match."(1)  Zinn and Frohnmayer remind us, arts administrators and artists, that we are not only the caretakers and creators of "pretty" things, but of history itself.

The dynamics of history has moved us forward in our personal life with the recent birth of our daughter, Elise. That spring term haze has been cleared and any static aspect of our lives during that time has become vibrant again.

John Frohnmayer has graciously allowed us to reprint his speech in its entirely.  Our hope is that it might help you to clear whatever haze is keeping your lives and artistic pursuits stationary.

—Julie and Robert Voelker-Morris

1. Burton, S. (2003). Duty of expression: Thom Yorke and Howard Zinn debate the artist's role in making the world a better place. Resonance, 39. Retrieved August 30, 2006, from http://www.resonancemag.com/index2.html


Canaries in the Coal Mine:   Art, Freedom, and Community

John Frohnmayer

Eugene City Club,  June 2, 2006 (1)

Martin Luther King, Jr. said: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

By that standard we all should be dead.

Forgive me if this talk is both a celebration and a diatribe: a celebration because of the lifetime of extraordinary works of Mark Clarke and Peg Coe and a decade plus of brilliance by the Lord Leebrick Theatre (2), and a diatribe because we have little time to save ourselves from political annihilation. While my language may be apocalyptic, the crisis in American nerve, American justice, American law, and American ideals is real and getting, by the day, worse.

I have re-read the Constitution: a document I revere for its wisdom and complex simplicity. (Although I would say, in relation to the prohibition it contains against granting titles of nobility, that I have some questions about this Lord Leebrick outfit.)  It (the Constitution, not this Lord Leebrick fellow) vests all legislative powers in Congress. (Art. I § 1)

It says every bill passed by Congress, before it becomes a law, shall, ". . . be presented to the President . . . . If he approves he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it with his Objections to that house in which it shall have originated. . . . ." (Art. I § 7)

The executive power is vested in a President. (Art. II § 1) The President, before assuming office, shall take this oath: "I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of The President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." (Art. II § 1)

At this point you may be wondering if the teleprompter has the wrong speech, but stay with me for a moment. On 750 occasions, so far, President Bush has been presented with a bill passed by Congress. No bill has he vetoed – not one. Instead he has issued, with little publicity, "signing statements" in which he directs the executive department either not to enforce these bills, or to enforce them in accordance with his interpretation (constitutionally, the province of the Supreme and other Federal Courts).

In short, our Constitution's separation of powers into three branches – our vaunted checks and balances – has been compressed into a single person – President Bush. He has usurped unto himself the legislative and judicial functions and, not withstanding the oath I just read, has chosen to enforce such laws as he sees fit in the way he sees fit. For example, on March 9, 2006, he signed the renewal of the USA Patriot Act. Here is an excerpt from his signing statement:

The executive branch shall construe the provisions . . . that call for furnishing information to entities outside the executive branch . . . [and will] withhold information . . . which could impair the deliberative process of the executive . . . . (March 9, 2006 weekly compilation of Presidential documents, pp 425-426.)

In other words, Congress cannot expect the reports of FBI activities that the law requires. Not only will President Bush not enforce the law, he has told Congress to pound sand.

Moreover, he sees no need to justify to us – the citizens who own the government – why this departure from law and precedent is necessary, is justified, or is wise. The few and the puny cries of dismay have been greeted with the litany of 9/11, that dissent is disloyal, that we are at war (albeit not a declared war in the constitutional sense) and that we are in peril and should be afraid.

And maybe we are. How else can we explain the utter lack of scrutiny – let alone public outrage – at this constitutional vandalism? How else can we explain that the press – our guardian of liberty – our source of information vital to democracy – has been AWOL?

What I fear most is not the next – or even the inevitable terrorist attack. I will fight. I will make sacrifices – I will defend freedom with strength and resolve. What I fear is the epitaph that says: The Revolution came in plain sight and we were too busy, too preoccupied, too selfish to notice.  And so the ideals, the moral leadership, and the rule of law that have made us both proud and admired as a country will be gone. Democracy surrendered. And then 9/11 would be not just a national tragedy but a national disgrace — a lever used to pry the heart out of America.

The Cato Institute – hardly a bastion of liberal love-speak, said it best: "[under Bush's] sweeping theory of executive power, the liberty of every American rests on nothing more than the grace of the White House."

What does this have to do with art?  Absolutely everything. When politicians don't speak truth to power, artists can and do. I have three examples:

The first comes from President Bush's 2002 National Security Strategy (p. 5) in which he proclaims that America's "clear responsibility to history" is to "rid the world of evil." Well, that's a tall order. Let's start with Federalist 10 in which Madison says a republican form of government is necessary because humans are factious and the majority will trample the minority unless a single representative has to juggle the interests of many different factions.

Reinhold Niebuhr, the towering 20th century Theologian in his systematic theology The Nature and Destiny of Man describes us as both children of God and sinners; every person carries both the ability to do good, and the inevitability that he will do evil (otherwise, why Christ's sacrifice?)

Rid the world of evil? Shakespeare knew better. Lear destroys his family, his kingdom and his life over jealousy and megalomania. Shakespeare's Richard III explores the misuse of power and the nature of evil. Moliere's Tartuffe is about a man who pretends piety and generosity while trying to bed his host's wife and rip off the family. Evil is part of human nature. Artists know it and the President should, too.

Second example: The consequences of the misuse of power.  A common description of the difference between a comedy and a tragedy is that the main character in a tragedy has power and in a comedy does not. Baron Lord Acton tells us that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So in The Crucible Arthur Miller's subject was the Salem witch trials, but it was written and produced during the McCarthy era. The witch hunts, abuses of power, fits and foibles of human nature are true for all history.

Similarly, Ibsen in An Enemy of the People recounts one man's struggle against official corruption and the will of the people (here, it's a health issue – unclean water in the spa.)  And, for his efforts?  He is destroyed.

Third example: truth telling. Machiavelli in The Prince says that "ordinary people will always be taken by appearances."  But political speak today – from both parties – is so devoid of soul, so full of spin, so riddled with half truths, omissions and misrepresentations that we have come to expect to be lied to. In this context Shakespeare was both cynical and acerbic: "Every man has his fault and honesty is his."  Timon of Athens.

The poet e.e. cummings put it this way:

nothing measurable can be alive,
nothing that isn't alive can be art,
nothing that isn't art can be true,
and anything that isn't true
doesn't amount to a very good goddamn.

In a recent speech in Corvallis, [Oregon], David Broder of the Washington Post said that not only do we not trust our politicians – we don't trust each other. Some of you may have seen the bumper sticker: "Horn broken, watch for finger." And that is where the arts, in addition to telling the truth to power, and unmasking the hypocrisy and vacuity of politics, play a vital role. The arts (and here I mean all of us who are engaged in any way in making, appreciating, promoting and enjoying the arts) can help our society to reestablish the connections between us as flawed but vital human beings.

Trust and trestle come from the same Latin root word. Trust is a bridge built with commonality. What is true about good art, enduring art, profound art is that it is true now, will be true tomorrow and was true yesterday. Art has a different way of keeping score than does politics, because art knows, in the words of Albert Einstein, that, "not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."

Art gives us both the permission and the vehicle for political rebellion. Art gives us the vision to recognize human glories and foibles and to deal honestly with them. And art tells us that we are all in this together and we had best stop the partisan bickering and, in the best theatrical sense, get our act together as a society.

We have allowed purloined Presidential power to fill a political vacuum of inattention and paralyzing caution. We have presumed rather than achieved greatness; we have made few sacrifices as a people, while expecting the ultimate sacrifice from our soldiers. We know, if we listen to our playwrights, our poets, our singers that no hero will come to save us because political salvation is by dedication and sweat and honest compromise.

So I leave you with the words of the American poet Sam Hazo:

I wish you what I wish myself:
Hard questions and the nights to answer them
And grace of disappointment
And the right to seem the fool for justice. That's enough.
Cowards might ask for more
Heroes have died for less.


1. This speech was delivered to the Eugene City Club on June 2, 2006 at the annual Arts Awards meeting. Honored for their lifetime of painting, teaching and support of the arts were Peg Coe and Mark Clarke and for a dozen brilliant seasons of theatre, the Lord Leebrick Theatre Company.

2. http://www.lordleebrick.com/index.htm. Lord Leebrick has established a reputation for high artistic quality and a commitment to presenting challenging and diverse scripts.  The company is an NEA Grant recipient and a member of Theatre Communications Group, the nationally recognized organization of American not-for-profit theatres.


Lawyer, author, ethicist John Frohnmayer's views on the First Amendment first captured national attention when he served as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. He was appointed by President George Bush and served from 1989 until 1992 during the highly visible controversy over NEA funding of art considered by some to be obscene. He published the story of his Washington sojourn in Leaving Town Alive: Confessions of an Arts Warrior (Houghton Mifflin) in 1993. His second book, Out of Tune: Listening to the First Amendment (North American Press) August 1995, is described as a "primer in citizenship" and a "refresher course in the First Amendment for anyone who has a stake in democracy." Out of Tune explores the tension between freedom and order in a collection of essays and exercises to stimulate discussion of issues of public importance.

Frohnmayer graduated in 1964 from Stanford University with a B.A. in American history. He studied at the Union Theological Seminary in New York as a Rockefeller Fellow prior to taking his masters in Christian ethics from the University of Chicago. Following service as an officer in the United States Navy from 1966 to 1969, including a tour in Vietnam, Frohnmayer studied law at the University of Oregon. He was editor-in-chief of the Oregon Law Review and was elected to the Order of the Coif upon his graduation in 1972.

As a litigator in firms in Eugene and Portland, Oregon, Frohnmayer's clients included newspapers, a television station, and an International Sculpture Symposium. His experience with government funding of the arts began in 1977 when Oregon's governor appointed him to the Oregon Arts commission. He served on the Commission eight years, four as chair.

The People for the American Way honored Frohnmayer with its first National First Amendment Award in 1992, the Governor of Oregon recognized him for excellence in public service with the Governor's Arts Award in 1993, and the Montana Library Association awarded him its Intellectual Freedom Award in 1997.


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CultureWork is an electronic publication of the University of Oregon Center for Community Arts and Cultural Policy. Its mission is to provide timely workplace-oriented information on culture, the arts, education, and community. For links to other sites of interest, see the ICAS links page. For previous issues of CultureWork, visit the Previous Issues page. Prospective authors and illustrators please see the Guidelines.

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Editors: Julie and Robert Voelker-Morris                                        Advisor: Dr. Douglas Blandy. 

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