A few items piqued my interest on the subject of government subsidies for cultural activities.
First, is The National Portrait Gallery’s decision to remove a controversial (or arguably, derivative) video involving a crucifix and some ants. Interpretations aside, (hate crime, an AIDS allegory, or retro-1999?), Rep. Boehner took the moment to call it a waste of taxpayer dollars. The museum, as part of The Smithsonian receives $5.8 million a year from Congress.
Artist Lee Rosenberg comments on the Gallery’s decision,”I may catch some flak for saying this, but the rules of engagement for a federal institution in the nation’s capital are arguably different than for The Whitney Museum or The New Museum,where pushing the envelope is understood as part of the mission.”
Boehner’s and Rosenberg’s arguments arrive at common ground by advancing each to the next step. The exhibit is not a waste of taxpayer dollars because it offends a majority, but because arts subsidies allow political judgements to take the place of the aesthetic preferences signaled in private donations.
This time Hide/Seek fans are out of luck (at least in theory; the video is web-streamed) since the political majority disapproves. The censorship claimed by some is the price of public subsidy. It is a political sword cutting in another direction. The private penalty would be a poor turnout or irate donors. A portion of the funding for The National Gallery is forcibly extracted from a blurry “national collective” and not voluntary given by the self-selecting private patron or donor.
This core insight is also what makes the Creation Museum’s hunt for Kentucky tax credits to build a theme park no less offensive. The Creation Museum’s founders, Answers in Genesis and Ark Encounter are taking heat for seeking the subsidy on the grounds it violates the separation of church and state. The museum claims its work is scientific.
The museum is also popular. And some argue the park will help attract tourism. Whether the argument for public funding for the arts and entertainment is freedom of expression or economic development, an uncomfortable truth fills the gulf between the investors in search of a subsidy for a Genesis-as-Science theme park and the 58% of those polled in The Washington Post who think the Hide/Seek video shouldn’t have been pulled.
Those who seek public subsidy for their art or amusements share a belief in the use of legal force to extract and direct public funds to favor one viewpoint over another.
All the rest is only commentary.