The Washington Post brings us another thrilling skirmish in the culture wars. To oversimplify a bit, the facts seem to be:
This incident sums up our culture wars. The artists believe that anything they want to fund can and should be funded by the taxpayers and that not spending tax money promoting a particular work of art, however they might choose to define "art," is censorship. Just as people who believe that abortion is murder don't want to pay for other people's abortions, people who detest particular works of tax-funded art don't want to pay for them.
Since our recent political controversies tend to do violence to the traditional meaning of words as each side tries to redefine the terms of discussion to gain advantage, let's look at what "censorship" actually means.
Wikipedia defines it as "suppression of speech or other communication which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient to the general body of people as determined by a government, media outlet, or other controlling body."
That is not at all what's going on. Nobody is saying that "A Fire in my Belly" should be suppressed as in done away with; the proof is that Transformer is displaying it even more publicly than the Smithsonian tried to.
All that the so-called censors are saying is that the taxpayers shouldn't be asked to fund things many of them don't like. The artists are saying that not spending tax money promoting "A Fire in my Belly" is censorship, which is utterly false.
That reality notwithstanding, the discussion centers around whether the government should be "censoring" the "art:"
Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee responsible for much of the country's arts funding, said that he, too, initially found the video "somewhat distasteful."
"But," Moran added, "I find the idea that it is being censored out of the exhibit more distasteful."
"The whole point is that we should not be censoring," he said. "We should be discussing. [emphasis added]
Rep. Moran is engaged in an exercise in misdirection - nobody is suggesting that the show be censored, only that whomever wants it exhibited should pay the costs of exhibiting it themselves as Transformer has done instead of forcing the costs onto all of us.
The discussion immediately turned political:
Incoming speaker of the House John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and incoming majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) yesterday echoed Donohue's salvo, adding that the exhibit was a misuse of taxpayer dollars.
For Moran, that was an ominous sign.
"This new Congress has a bull's-eye on arts funding," he said. "I don't think there is any question they are going to target the NEA, the NEH and anything else that funds art."
Having been elected to cut the deficit, the Republicans are well aware that their electoral base not only expects them to cut spending, they're expected to first direct the ax at certain specific forms of spending which their voters consider to be unusually objectionable.
After being buried under an avalanche of comments on "censorship," the Dec 2, 2010, Washington Post printed a discussion on page C1 which analyzed the issue of government funding versus censorship in some detail. One reader described the issue:
Why should the general American public fund art that is offensive to them? Let the artists get help from individuals ... who may be attracted to that particular type of art ...
For many conservatives, that's precisely the question. Why should people who believe that abortion is murder have to fund it? Why should people who are offended by an artist floating a crucifix in urine have to pay the artist's outrageous-seeming fees - or even fees that are not outrageous? Blake Gopnik, the Post art critic, replied:
Can we all agree that in the long run, art is pretty much as important as anything else a society produces or does? If that's the case, maybe it's too important to leave in private hands, where the choices of a few rich funders determine what works are preserved and displayed for the rest of us. Things we really care about - our defense, education, food safety, roads - tend to be in public hands, so maybe art should, too.
Assuming that art is as important as, say, national defense is a bit of a stretch, but let's accept the Post's premise that art is indeed that important. Where Mr. Gopnik's logic falls apart is his blatantly-stated assertion that important things should be in government hands.
Consider the examples he cites:
To get back to the world of art, rich individuals sponsored da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Last Supper, Michelangelo's David, the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, and Pieta, as well as Handel's Messiah and most of the work of Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart among many others. Some of the rich classical patrons were indeed government officials and no doubt taxpayer funds were raided at need, but the art funding decisions were made by the one autocrat, not by a committee, and certainly not by bureaucrats.
Government-funded art, in contrast, goes through committees and peer review and is thus subject to political pressure just like science funding. As far as Scragged is concerned, we'd stack up the record of art funded by rich and powerful individuals, politicians or otherwise, against anything ever funded by paper-pushers at the National Endowment for the Arts from its inception until now.
The Post's art critic may be right about the importance of art, but the examples he chose are proof positive that art should be funded privately instead of by the government. We look forward to the new Congress shutting down the NEA - and right after that, killing off NPR and the CPB.