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Art and State: The Case for Separation

September 28, 1999

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

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
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

* * * * *

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.

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