Former Mackinac Center President, Lawrence R. Reed, stated in 2003, “art is too important to be dependent upon politicians” (Reed). When I first read Reed’s statement I was surprised – the government funds art?
Apparently yes, about $160 million in grants for public art every year, totaling $4 billion worth of grants between 1965 and 2008 (Wikipedia).
In 2009, a bill was proposed that would increase health care subsidies. Cost? $100 million (Karl). Government funds are limited, and that $160 million going towards public art could have gone towards better health care, helping people in need. Why should the federal government be spending money on art that could be spent to give aid? Maybe a better question is: should we trust the government to fund the arts, leaving our cultural heritage up to the whims of politics?
Politics and art mixing together is not a new thing; during the Renaissance, governments or corporations displayed their power through art (McKay 421). In Florence in the early 1400s, a statue of David was installed in the town hall. David symbolized the triumph of Florence over the Duke of Milan (Renaissance people were big on symbolism), how the “good and virtuous” Florence could defeat any enemy because they had God on their side, like David (Drogin).
There was another powerful group the Florentines had to beat, though: The Medici family. Florence lost this battle, and the Medici family took over power of the republic in 1434. To symbolize their rise to power (what did I tell you about symbolism in the Renaissance?), they commissioned a similar statue of David to be placed in their palace courtyard, making it clear to the public that they were now the rulers of the city. When the Medici family was eventually expelled from Florence in the late 1400s, Florence commissioned Michelangelo to sculpt yet another statue of David (seriously, guys? 3 statues of David?) to show the reinstatement of its power (Drogin). During the Renaissance, public art proved a powerful tool of propaganda and representation of power (McKay 421), but today, public art funded by the government is more used as a way to improve our “cultural heritage and legacy”, cultural legacy being yet another aspect of global competition (Young).
Should we leave our cultural legacy up to our government? If our government really just wants to get ahead, and doesn’t care as much about personal expression and interpretation (the real purpose of art), should we be entrusting public art to them?
Art and politics intertwined shows a conflict of interest: The government wants to maintain good public relations, and so the National Endowment for Arts (the organization that selects artists for the government to fund projects of) must carefully plan what art should be displayed, taking into account how the art will affect people’s view of the government, and in the end not necessarily choosing the best art (Young). Art is subjective, so how, then, can the government make sure that the pieces it chooses for public art will not send any unwanted messages to the piece’s viewers?
Short answer: it can’t. In the late 80s/early 90s, a few specific pieces of art were especially controversial: Piss Christ (which can be viewed here), by Andres Serrano, which was a photograph of a small crucifix figurine in the artist’s urine (kinda gross), and Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cinncinnati, which included pieces depicting “openly homosexual material” (Net Industries and its Licensors). Piss Christ was said to be anti-Christian, while Mapplethorpe’s pieces were said to encourage homosexuality, as well as obscenity (Net Industries and its Licensors). I looked at a picture of Piss Chist online and, honestly, felt a little uncomfortable looking at it – it looked, if not anti-Christian, insensitive to Christianity. I definitely think that people should have artistic freedom – that’s what the First Amendment is all about, right? – but that the government funded something that could be so easily viewed as anti-Christian was a little disturbing; the government is supposed to stand for “free exercise of religion” (Wikipedia), after all.
I don’t think our government should pay for public art because, as I mentioned earlier, there is a conflict of interest, and because people waste too much energy arguing about these controversial government-funded pieces of art. Many Republican senators have launched political attacks on the NEA – our very own primary candidate Newt Gingrich called for the NEA to be eliminated (Wikipedia). The Heritage Foundation for Public Policy is against the NEA because it believes the NEA will “continue to fund pornography” (Heritage Foundation). Clearly, art is subjective, and government funding raises too many controversies. While the private patron doesn’t have to worry as much about what messages s/he is portraying through their art, the government must appear to remain unbiased.
I think that art is a very important aspect of how America identifies itself, and public art should have a place in our society. I love seeing all the public art in Portland (here are some cool pictures of some Portland art!). It adds personality to our city. Culture shouldn’t take the backseat even in our bad economic situation; we just need to explore other alternatives to government funding of public art. Lawrence Reed states that a lack of government funding would encourage other people to step up and become patrons of the arts. Art historian and British Museum Director, Neil MacGregor, states that “culture gives us our place in the world; it reminds us of what we are and what we could be” (Szanto).
City of New York. New York City. Department of Cultural Affairs. Percent for Art. New York: New York, 2012. Web. <http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcla/html/panyc/panyc.shtml>.
Don Merkt. Water, Please. 1997. Sculpture. Regional Arts and Culture Council, Portland. Web. 1 Mar 2012. <http://racc.org/public-art/search/?recid=2057.168>.
Drogin, David, perf. “Patronage: A Case Study (David).” Dir. Beth Harris. 1400-1500 Renaissance in Italy & the North. Smarthistory: Radio. <http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/patronage.html>.
Heritage Foundation. “Ten Good Reasons to Eliminate Funding for the National Endowment of the Arts.” Heritage Foundation: Research. Heritage Foundation: Leadership for America, 29 Apr 1997. Web. 29 Feb 2012. <http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/1997/04/bg1110-ten-good-reasons-to-eliminate-funding-for-the-nea>.
Karl, Jonathan. “The $100 Million Health Care Vote?.”ABC News. ABC News, 19 Noc 2009. Web. 1 Mar 2012. <http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2009/11/the-100-million-health-care-vote/>
Net Industries and its Licentsors. “Mapplethorpe Obscenity Trial: 1990 – Obscenity or Art?, Suggestions for Further Reading.” (2012): n.pag.Law Library – American Law and Legal Information. Web. 28 Feb 2012. <http://law.jrank.org/pages/3469/Mapplethorpe-Obscenity-Trial-1990.html>.
Quigley, Margaret. “The Mapplethorpe Censorship Controversy.” Political Research Associates: Researching the Right for Progressive Changemakers. Political Research Associates, 2010. Web. 28 Feb 2012. <http://www.publiceye.org/theocrat/Mapplethorpe_Chrono.html>.
Reed, Lawrence W. “What’s Wrong with Government Funding of the Arts?.” Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Mackinac Center Online Network, 05 Jun 2003. Web. 29 Feb 2012. <http://www.mackinac.org/article.aspx?ID=5422>.
Szanto, Andras. “Funding: the state of the art.” Art Newspaper 08 Jun 2010, n. pag. Web. 29 Feb. 2012. <http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Funding-the-state-of-the-art-/20989>.
Wikipedia. “National Endowment for the Arts.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 6 Jan 2012. Web. 28 Feb 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Endowment_for_the_Arts>
Wikipedia. “First Amendment to the United States Constitution.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 6 Jan 2012. Web. 29 Feb 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution>
Young, John T. “Who pays for this stuff?!.” You Call That Art?!. You Call That Art?!, 18 Oct 2010. Web. 28 Feb 2012. <http://youcallthatart.net/2010/10/18/who-pays-for-this-stuff/>.