Freedom for arts requires freedom from public funds

October 10, 1999|By Gregory Kane

YOU CAN always count on someone to cater to crudity.

Exhibit A in support of that assertion is "Sensation," the "art" show stinking out the Brooklyn Museum of Art in the Big Apple.

"The contents of this exhibition," a warning from the museum says, "may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety. If you suffer from high blood pressure, a nervous disorder or palpitations, you should consult your doctor." That sounds more like a caveat not to sniff certain inhalants than a promotion for an art exhibit.

Some of the "artistic" pieces show sliced-up animals in formaldehyde. A painting of the Virgin Mary by "artist" Chris Ofili is spattered with elephant dung and -- according to a story by the Catholic Review's Tracy Early -- besmirched with "cutouts from pornographic magazines."

Ofili told the New York Times that the painting is a "hip-hop version" of "sexually charged" portraits he had seen of the Virgin Mary.

This trash masquerading as art was enough to set off New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He threatened to withhold city funding for the museum if the exhibit was shown. Predictably, Giuliani was soon cast as the villain in this tale. The media -- with the notable exception of the Catholic Review -- portrayed Giuliani as some sort of philistine out to prevent the masses from taking in great artistic endeavors. He was, his critics trumpeted, on a censorship mission.

No, Giuliani was out to show liberal America that someone has to make sure that the hard-earned money working folks hand over to government in tax dollars should not be spent wantonly or capriciously. Liberals certainly won't. Arnold Lehman, the former director of the Baltimore Museum of Art who went to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, won't either.

"Just hand over your tax money and shut up about it," Giuliani's critics are telling us, not even bothering to conceal their contempt for taxpayers. Other critics aren't contemptuous, just honestly confused about whether Giuliani's attempts to "censor" the exhibit constitute a violation of the free speech guarantees of the First Amendment.

Enter the American Civil Liberties Union -- the good old AC-To-Hell-With-You -- which has been afflicted with this confusion for years. Susan Goering, executive director of Maryland's ACLU chapter, claims government officials aren't allowed to choose which works are acceptable and which are objectionable once they decide to fund the arts.

"The Supreme Court has made clear," Goering said, that "the one thing government can never do is ban viewpoint. They can't engage in viewpoint discrimination." Goering then quoted from NEA vs. Finley, the case in which the Supreme Court made the ruling.

"The First Amendment prohibits the government from discrimination on the basis of viewpoint in providing arts funding," the justices said.

So the Supreme Court also can be muddleheaded when it comes to interpreting the First Amendment. There's nothing in it about government funding the arts -- or not funding them, for that matter. But not funding the arts may be an idea long overdue for implementation. Goering said Giuliani would be on sounder legal ground if he gave no money to the arts at all.

"The one thing Giuliani can do, constitutionally, is not fund the arts," she said.

Exhibits like "Sensation" can -- and should be -- funded at a private gallery with private money. There are enough rich, weird people in America to make it happen. Let the "artists" whose works appear in "Sensation" foot their own bills like our authors, playwrights, filmmakers and most of our musicians.

The arts -- and society -- will be better off for it. Art should be as free of government influence as possible. It was our rock 'n' roll musicians -- allied with those from rhythm and blues -- who helped bring an end to Jim Crow in America. They were able to do it precisely because they were unfettered by a government that dragged its feet on civil rights.

When artists like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis played their music, they appealed to a generation of black and white youth. Some rock 'n' roll artists, as author David Wolff pointed out in his biography of soul singer Sam Cooke, refused to play to segregated audiences. Each time they did so, they chipped away at the edifice of Jim Crow. Their actions, combined with those of civil rights activists, soon caused that edifice to crumble.

Art can, and should be, provocative. It may sometimes be offensive. Occasionally, as in the case of the rock 'n' roll musicians of the 1950s and 1960s, it can be liberating. But it should always be free of government funding.

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