Tag Archives: Hide Seek

Separation between art and state

In Utah, the Sutherland Institute is leading an effort to stop state support for the Sundance Film Festival. On the organization’s blog Derek Monson writes:

Given the amount of sexual promiscuity that Sundance Film Festival regularly brings to Utah, it seems similarly indecent that Utah’s major economic development agencies basically endorsed the event: providing “critical support” to the festival as a “global branding” opportunity, and being listed under the event’s “Corporate Support” banner.

The institute’s president Paul Mero says that the organization is opposed to all corporate subsidies. From an economic position — and one of fairness — this makes sense. As Matt has written, subsidies that favor one type of business lead to inefficient investment thereby decreasing economic growth. When Utah policymakers tout the economic benefits that the festival brings to the state, they are ignoring that the festival would likely be held in Park City for its scenic location without a subsidy and the unseen costs of directing taxpayer resources away from what they would otherwise be invested in.

In this case of subsidized art, however, those receiving the subsidies should be as wary as the taxpayers providing them. No one at the Sutherland Institute has suggested placing restrictions on the content of the films allowed at Sundance, rather they object to their tax dollars supporting supporting a film festival, and one that contains films some may find offensive at that. But in many other cases, public funding for art breeds censorship.

In 2010, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery famously removed a video by David Wojnarowicz which had been a part of an exhibit called Hide/Seek in response to conservative groups and the Catholic League which described the work as  as “designed to insult and inflict injury and assault the sensibilities of Christians.” Understandably, these groups protested their tax dollars being spent on art they found offensive, but just as understandably artists participating in the exhibit objected to government censorship of their colleague’s work. In reaction, AA Bronson asked the National Portrait Gallery to remove his work in protest, but his request was denied by the museum.

The many examples of censorship of government-funded art and art museums provide compelling reasons for art and state to remain separate, both to protect taxpayers and economic growth along with artists’ freedom of expression.

Judgement Day for the Arts and Entertainment Subsidy

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.