I recently had a small argument with my step-mother-in-law. Now, the woman is a saint, on numerous grounds. But she is also a reflexive Liberal. For years she sported a “FRIENDS DON’T LET FRIENDS VOTE REPUBLICAN” bumper-sticker, and couldn’t understand why it bothered me, until I pointed out that the sentiment it expressed was that it was acceptable to interfere with somebody’s right to vote simply because you disagreed with their politics. Once I put it in those terms, that sticker came off.
I was complaining about ‘public art’ that was deliberately insulting, and she said “Well, I think that society should support the arts”, as if that clinched matters. And, with the help of a “Drop it” from my Lady, I did manage drop it. But I can’t agree with her.
I love museums and public art galleries. I always have. And, like most people who benefit from public funds, I would like to see the government continue to pay for my fun. Which isn’t the same as believing it’s right that they do so.
The NEA funds a lot of ‘edgy’ art. New art, that hasn’t had the test of time. Art that, in some cases, seems aimed at outraging some of the people who pay for it (If you have another explanation for Andres Serrano’s PISS CHRIST, I would love to hear it). Now, I have no use for people who might want to prevent others from making artistic statements, however offensive. But there is a big difference between not censoring something, and paying for it.
It’s easy to dismiss the complaints of people you don’t like. And the intellectual Left really doesn’t like Christians who take their religion very seriously. Oh, they’ll welcome pacifist Christians when it’s time to protest a war, but the idea that Jesus Christ was a savior, and that immersing a figure of him in urine is insulting …. well, they don’t really have a lot of sympathy.
And neither would I, although I was raised Christian and respect the religion. But the NEA is tax money. It is collected from people under the threat of prison.
Throughout history, rulers have used tax money wrung from the peasantry and spent it on whatever art they damned well pleased. And if the peasantry took offense at the Art their betters bought for the palace, well, that was what the executioner’s axe was for. But we are supposed to be a republic. The idea that a social elite gets to decide how to spend tax money on non-essentials like art without giving consideration to who may be offended is, in itself, offensive.
Now, if the people who believe that society should support the arts are willing to stand by when something that offends them gets funding, that would be a matter of principle, and I would respect them. Not agree with them, but respect them. And, frankly, I strongly suspect that my step-mother-in-law falls into that category. But I also strongly suspect that a substantial number would have a hissy cat-fit if they discovered that the NEA was funding the restoration and exhibition of, say, THE BIRTH OF A NATION or TRIUMPH OF THE WILL. Both are widely regarded as legitimate works of art. Wildly offensive, true, because of what they celebrated, but art nonetheless.
So, where do you draw the line? Should we carefully not offend Islamic sensibilities with paintings of Mohammad? And how is that different from Serrano’s little in-joke? And if the answer is only that, thus far, for all the attempts of various pillocks to draw parallels, Christians don’t assassinate people for drawing pictures, and Islamics do.
The other issue is, if ‘art’ cannot exist without support from tax money, what makes its support worthwhile? We are not a poor nation. We support a great deal of art, voluntarily. And, bluntly put, I have small patience with those denizens of the Art World who disparage anything that is popular enough to survive without public monies.
Tax money supports Opera, but not Heavy Metal. Why? Tax money funds the exhibition of works by Roy Lichtenstein. Why not the originals of newspaper strips and comic books? The whole issue of spending tax money on luxury items like art is full of pits and hidden land mines.
Frankly, if the Liberal Intellectual Left wants to go to exhibits of art like PISS CHRIST, they should expect to have to pay for it out of their own pockets. They are not, by and large, poor. Certainly not by global or historical standards. Sure, if the money is not collected from the Great Unwashed they will blow it on art that THEY like (or, you know, food). And that art might be in dreadful bad taste. But, lets admit it, so is a great deal of art in prestigious museums now. And I’m not talking exclusively about recent art, either. I mean, how many renditions of THE MADONNA AND CHILD can you really look at before they start resembling Elvis on black velvet?