The Ethical Spectacle, April 1995,

End All Federal Support of Controversial Art

It is not an eternal truth, nor does it make sense, that anyone really benefits in the long term if the government is a patron of the arts. The art produced will either be bland, in which case the money could really be better spent, or the art will be puerile. There is no middle ground here.

Some will respond by pointing to the Renaissance and the respectable role of public patrons of the arts. But that was a different time, and public needs and the effects of sponsorship then have nothing to do with our situation now. The great art of the Renaissance (I don't know much about art, but I know what I like) mirrors the world with great beauty, and expresses ideas about piety, religion and the nature of man. It is not advocacy art, meant to enflame, irritate or to provoke thought. Borgia would not have commissioned a painting portraying Borgia as a murderer.

Our civilization has eaten Renaissance art for its breakfast, and must now subsist on other food. If the government wants to support any art (and can afford to) let it support legacy art, the kind that makes us all feel civilized, even if we see it once a year or never: touring shows of Renaissance treasures, 50-year old ballets or 100-year old operas.

Radical art--the kind that makes you think or at least gets you angry--will always exist, and should. The great artists do not seek to imitate what has succeeded before, or to produce what is safe, but instead almost by definition will inhabit the political, moral and even the legal fringes of our society. Sometimes they will not even know they are artists. I have two examples in mind.

Supporters of Hamas celebrate the suicide bombing that killed many young Israelis by creating touring performances in which the terrorist act is re-enacted to cheering crowds. It is a glorification of murder and hatred, but it is also art, visceral art that causes an intense reaction in its spectators.

Some years ago, in response to an upcoming referendum in Chile which dealt in some way with the consequences of political murder in the Pinochet era--perhaps it was an amnesty-- protesters mounted the most eloquent demonstration of which I have ever heard. They paraded with huge human silhouettes, each of which bore the name of one of the murdered, and the words: "Have you forgotten me? Yes No". This too was art, provocative and profoundly moving.

Hamas did not ask the Israeli government for a grant for the play, and the Chilean demonstrators did not ask the government for a grant for their poster work, either.

Radical art must exist--it serves a need of its creators and is healthy for the rest of the populace, which can stand to be provoked once in a while, or at least awaked. But how radical is it really, if the government pays for it? And what does it tell you about the government that pays and the artist who accepts the money? Imagine how you would feel about an indulgent parent, smiling with pride at a child who shouts threats and obscenities. The parent may be corrupt, even a criminal, deserving exposure; but there is still something very wrong with the picture.

The watchword of the men and women who create such provocative art should be silence, cunning, and exile if necessary--it keeps them honest, and the rest of us too. A crucifix in a jar of urine, or a performance artist smearing her naked body with blood, may communicate a visceral message. Such expressions are, in any event, protected by the First Amendment in this country. But there is no reason the government should pay for them, and serious doubt about the integrity of the artist who would accept such pay.

One of the saddest things I ever heard was that the Dutch government buys the art of any artist who cannot sell it elsewhere. There is supposedly a huge warehouse there, where mold-infested paintings lie in stacks. This raises the related issue that art should be subject to the laws of commerce. Two types of commerce. Bland art, representational self-satisfied art, will succeed like the paintings of Norman Rockwell if enough people are moved to buy it, or buy posters of it, or magazines buy it for their covers. Provocative art will succeed (often after the artist's lifetime) if enough people are moved, or shaken by it, to come back again for a look, until a piece has acquired a certain moral necessity or (the example that jumps to mind is the work of Kafka.) Government funding shelters artists against the free effects of both types of commerce. Artists should not be sheltered from this.

Let's not waste time with defenses of the National Endowment for the Arts, or other such organizations, centered on the relative percentages of "acceptable" and radical art they have sponsored. Government simply does not need to be in the art business for anyone's benefit.