Art and State: The Case for Separation
The Brooklyn Museum of Art is suing the City of New York to forestall a threatened suspension of funds resulting from an art exhibit in which a painting of the Virgin Mary sports clumps of elephant dung. Mayor Rudolph Guiliani is offended. So am I, but for a different reason. Why are hardworking people being taxed to support a scatological tantrum? And a British one, no less, thrown by a Manchester lad named Chris Ofili.
More fundamentally, why is there a National Endowment for the Arts as opposed to a National Endowment for Plumbers? Art is a profession like any other. Artists who depend on the government dole are expressing nothing so much as their inability to succeed in the real world where they would have to satisfy the same standards of free- market competence imposed upon the rest of us.
The answer returns: Art enriches society. The average Joe and Jane are not competent to judge artistic worth and, thus, they function like boat-anchors that cause the quality of society to sink. Only by forcibly diverting the money that unenlightened people would otherwise spend on their children or on feckless pleasures, like snow tires, can 'society' protect itself against their ignorance.
Many responses to this position are possible. I favor moral indignation. I revolt against the elitist arrogance of those who pick the pockets of working people and slur them in the process rather than offering a humble 'thank you.' Of course, I wouldn't be satisfied with a 'thank you' either. They should take their hands out of other people's pockets. Those who create art should have to pound the pavement for rent money the same way as everyone else.
Recently, I heard an intriguing argument: namely, the First Amendment prohibits government from funding the arts. Here's the deduction. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from making laws that prohibit the freedom of speech or of religion. One impetus behind this constitutional provision was the example of the Church of England (Anglicanism) -- an "established" religion that received state funding while other religions had to compete at a great disadvantage. That is, people had to make voluntary contributions to them from the money that remained after being taxed for Anglicanism.
The Pilgrim fathers fled this system of State-religion. They knew that a "state tithe" for Anglicanism was not an endorsement of religion per se. It was the forcible imposition of one religion over all others. Some colonies then developed their own miniature state religions, which generated the same problem on a different scale. The Constitution settled the issue by preventing the government from weighing in on behalf of any particular established Church. This affording minority religions protection from the unfair advantage gleaned by any church able to align with government.
Similarly, we need a separation of Art and State. The NEA is not a benefactor of "art" per se. It funds one person's expression at the expense of another--and not merely the taxpayer. Every artist who tries to make an honest living through merit is penalized thereby. After all, which art gets funded? Certainly, no popular vote gets taken.
In short, the NEA is a discriminatory and elitist organization that is proud to be out-of-touch with the "common" people who fund it. Yet, if Congress may make no law respecting the establishment of religion, then it has no right to provide funding for the establishment of an artistic trend. If it may not prohibit the free exercise of religion, then it should not interfere with the free exercise of art by fiscally advantaging one form of expression over another. Funding canvases smeared with dung is contrary to the Constitution.
When Glen Scott Wright, Olifi's London representative, yells "censorship" and compares Guiliani to a Nazi, he is really objecting to a stop in the flow of stolen money into the pockets of his client. Since when is the refusal to fund something "censorship?" Is my refusal to buy the New York Times as opposed to the Washington Post censorship? Only by leaving the real world and entering the realm of state-approved art do such accusations make sense. Art and state should be separate. Artists, like all people in free society, should seek benefactors through voluntary means.
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Wendy McElroy is author of The Reasonable Woman : A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus, 1998).
Also read Who Should pay for Art by Michael Levin.