If Government Subsidizes Art, It Will Always Be Censored


Last year, Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader from Nevada, made a speech on the Senate floor in which he criticized Republicans for their proposed budget cuts, arguing that the bill, H.R. 1, which plans to defund the National Endowment for the Humanities, would eliminate jobs, decrease tourism, and was just plain “mean spirited.”

What was Senator Reid so worked up about exactly? To quote, “The mean-spirited bill, H.R. 1 eliminates national public broadcasting. It eliminates the National Endowment of the Humanities, National Endowment of the Arts. These programs create jobs. The National Endowment of the Humanities is the reason we have in northern Nevada every January a cowboy poetry festival. Had that program not been around, the tens of thousands of people who come there every year would not exist.”

In addition to funding the annual cowboy poetry festival, other projects that have received grants from the National endowment of the Arts include an international accordion festival and the San Francisco Mime Troupe. While these examples alone are mostly funny, they ultimately raise the issue — why is the government involved with the arts in the first place?

This brings me to my first point, which is: Government support of art is in no way necessary or sufficient for the production of art. Art has existed for thousands of years, even prior to the existence of any sort of government at all. The earliest form of art traces back to cave drawings that were recently discovered in France, which have been dated to 30,000 years ago. 

Artists have always sought to create and will always continue to do so regardless of government funding. A large number of great artists died long before their works received the recognition and prestige they deserved. Essentially, artists don’t necessarily need an incentive to create besides for arts sake. To assert that government support is essential for the production of art is an absurd and insulting notion to all of the great artists who have produced prolific works throughout the centuries.

Expanding upon this point during the 2011 Fiscal Year, the National Endowment of the Arts budget was a mere $155 million. Compare that to the $150 billion Americans spend every year on movie and theatre tickets, books, MP3s, plus the $13 billion given by philanthropic foundations and individuals every year.

Government support of the arts allows art to become definable by the state. That is, if the government is going to give tax breaks, grants, or funding to organizations or businesses that sell art, they have to define what art is. 

This goes beyond museums, theatres, and concert halls, which are obvious to all of us. This has implications for new or controversial forms of art especially, which aren’t as easily accepted by the majority. For example, the BDSM art photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was put on trial for obscenity in 1990 because his work was displayed in a publicly funded museum. The iconic trial put the question of "what is art?" into the hands of a jury, and was a defining moment of the 90s culture wars.

Individuals have many contextual reasons for valuing a work or style of art that extends beyond the government’s limited vision of what art is and what it should do. Some advocates of government funding assert that there are such things an objective theory of art, the idea that art creates its own reality and intrinsic value, which is the standard by which the NEA bases the distribution of its funding. However, an objective theory of art is problematic — it’s never self-evident to begin with, and the benefits are unclear.

Without the government’s involvement in answering the question, “what is art?,” it would be hard to accept the notion of art being objectively definable, for art is always evolving and its merits and meaning has been debated for centuries. By asserting that an objective theory of art does, in fact, exist, the government does not finally provide an answer to the century’s long debate, but instead silences dissent, and prohibits new forms of art from consideration or inclusion.

Instead, it’s better to say that art is purely subjective. I want to emphasize that this is not the same thing as forsaking any and all standards of art. After all, each of us knows it when we see it. It’s just that none of us see things exactly like someone else, which is why the fact that the government’s use of “objective standards” for judging art is so arrogant, and leads to complications with its application.

If art is really so objective, Mr. Stephen Dick, Jr., owner of “Nite Moves,” a strip club located in Albany, New York wouldn’t have tried to persuade the state’s highest court  to agree that exotic dancing is a form of art in order to save his business from paying nearly a million dollars in back-taxes, since New York state law has a sales tax exemption for “musical and dramatic performances.”

If government has the authority to define what is art, it can also define what art isn’t, which leads to greater censorship. If a certain type of art is warranted as obscene, the government has the ability to forcefully remove it. I’ll provide an example:

Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato, a Republican senator who represented New York, made a plea to Congress in 1989 for the removal of a photograph from the National Portrait Gallery by Andres Serrano titled, “Piss Christ.” The photograph depicted the crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine. 

The artist received $15,000 for his work from the National Endowment for the Arts, through the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. In D’Amato’s plea, he stated: “If this is what contemporary art has sunk to, this level, this outrage, this indignity — some may want to sanction that, and that is fine. But not with the use of taxpayers’ money. If you want free speech, you want to draw dirty pictures, you want to do anything you want, that is your business, but not with taxpayers' money.”

I’d have to say that I agree. As long as the government subsidizes certain artists’ works, there is always a case to be made for censorship by those taxpayers and/or government officials who disagree with the art’s content. If the NEA had not awarded Serrano $15,000 of taxpayer money, the objection wouldn’t have had any merit in the first place, and the photograph would have remained in the gallery.

No elite panel of experts should get to decide what art is best for us, just as no one decides which type of religion we should adhere to. The separation of church and state in America exists for a reason. Forced worship subjugates theology to politics. Similarly, forced funding of the arts subjugates any and all forms of creative expression to politics.  

No individual should be forced to fund the arts — in whatever trivial amounts or indirect ways — that they may openly despise. Forced funding of the arts forces artists and institutions lucky enough to win momentary favor from bureaucrats to become submissive and uncreative to meet government standards, or become instruments of the powerful and well-connected. Either way, everyone loses.

Independence works wonderfully for the church. The same sentiment holds true for the arts.