Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Should the Federal Government Fund Art?

In February of this year (2009), President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which included $80 million for the National Endowment of the Arts. From poets to film makers to photographers, the signing was applauded as a triumph for the art community. I did not applaud. Federal funding for the NEA troubles me greatly.

The first definition of art is "The products of human creativity," and the history of art is one of patronage. Prior to the Renaissance, most art and music contained a religious theme and the primary patrons of the arts were the Catholic Church and its affluent supporters, such as the Wool Guild of Florence, their goal being to sponsor art and music that inspired and uplifted the spirituality of those who saw and heard it. A secondary type of patronage was the wealthy individual. Individual patrons' motivations for supporting the arts were primarily prestige and pleasure. Pleasure is the motivation most of us are familiar with. If we like something and can afford it, we buy it. And, if we don't like it, we don't buy it. And this is what troubles me about using public funds to patronize the arts. If the NEA funds a particular artist or artwork, you have bought it whether you like it or not.

The controversy began to emerge in 1972, when the NEA awarded artist Judy Chicago $36,000 for her exhibit "The Dinner Party," a giant dining table with place settings of famous women's genitals. The intent was to celebrate the achievements of great women. There's no question it celebrated their genitals but was it art? Was it worth $36,000 of public funding?

In 1989, when the NEA awarded Andres Serrano $15,000 for his photograph entitled "Piss Christ," a crucifix immersed in a glass of urine and cow's blood, the controversy began to bubble faster (no pun intended). Was it art? It was certainly shocking, but shocking is not a subsidiary definition of "art." Was it worth $15,000? Of your money? Because that is ultimately the question regarding publicly funded art.

The controversy gained additional steam when the NEA awarded Robert Mapplethorpe $30,000 for his traveling photography exhibit entitled "The Perfect Moment." Many of the photographs were sado-masochistic and one particular photograph, showing the genitals of a small girl, was considered child pornography by many viewers. Again, the question was, is this art? And, again, was it worth $30,000 to you?

This controversy is again on the front burner with the NEA's recent $50,000 grant to Frameline Film House, which produced "Thundercrack," billed by Frameline as "the world's only underground kinky art porno horror film, complete with four men, three women and a gorilla." I don't know how many people have paid to go see "Thundercrack" but that and that alone, not the NEA, should be the measure of whether this is good or bad art.

Here is the core issue to me. As much as I love and cherish the creative process, no one should be compelled to pay for art they don't want, which is precisely the function of the NEA, to make you pay for art you may not otherwise choose to buy. Funded art is given a platform of expression not available to unfunded art. This preferential treatment of some art over other art, especially art with a religious message, by definition promotes one religious point of view over another, an action prohibited to the federal government, and puts the government in the position of determining what is good art and what is not, a decision best left to the buying public. If I make guitar straps that people like and will buy, I will be a successful artist. If I don't, should I be able to get your money anyway? No, I don't think I should. So, this is one artist who objects to public funding of the arts. Thanks for reading. Terri

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