Why Subsidize Speech When It's Already Free?

By Stephanie Herman
Originally published in the Internet Herald April 1, 1998

Candace Bergen caught my attention on television recently, which is a rarity because I never watch her show and conspiratoriously ignore her Sprint commercials. But for those unenlightened members of our society most easily reached on the boob tube around 8:30 at night, she had a new and amusing message: "The arts enrich us all."

Well, everybody, maybe, except the artists themselves. Isn't that why liberals like Bergen complain the arts need a permanent siphoning hose attached to the NEA's bank account (not to mention yours and mine)?

Art is a pathetic commodity, economically speaking. For some reason, it fails to incite those necessary supply/demand dynamics that propel most other markets. Perhaps this is because most artists are bohemian types who just don't believe in free-market economics, and squatting on principle, refuse to play the smelly game of those capitalist pigs.

Perhaps. But the bohemians don't hate money that much. So these days, just like during the Renaissance, a willing patron has been sought and even found by many artists. It's called the federal government.

The feds meddling in art. Normally those bohemian artist types would refuse such an alliance, for the same reasons our society keeps government and religion separate. Art and religion are highly subjective realms -- just the sort of realms that require absolute freedoms: freedom of choice, expression and freedom from governmental interference. Oh, but don't forget that freedoms and lofty ideals are often handed over for the right amount of money. There's a difference, after all, between meddling in art and funding it.

History teaches us that the relationship between artist and patron has certain unfortunate caveats. In the days of the Renaissance, patrons like Alfonso d'Este considered the art they sponsored to be their own personal property, and often dictated its content, or as in the case of d'Este, requested changes be made to suit their own tastes. It's believed both Dosso Dossi and Titian were commissioned by d'Este to alter The Feast of the Gods after the original artist, the great master Bellini, had died.

So is it any wonder that Uncle Sam would pull an Alfonso d'Este? Not really. Even an abstract entity like a government likes to have some say-so on what they're spending. In 1989 Jesse Helms made Americans aware that their tax dollars were subsidizing works of art like Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix immersed in Serrano's urine, and made an issue out of NEA funding offensive art. A year later, Congress demanded that NEA funds be granted only to artwork that met certain decency standards.

The bohemian types were understandably shell-shocked at this news, but it didn't take them long to gain their collective composure and file a lawsuit. A small group of performance artists, dubbed the NEA Four, sued eight years ago on the grounds that the decency requirement was vague and violated the first amendment. A noble effort to defend art from governmental-imposed standards? Maybe, but the NEA Four were most perturbed that they lost their grant money after the decency clause took effect. The Four won their case, and subsequent appeals, but on March 31 the dispute was finally aired before the Supreme Court.

Probably the most outspoken of the NEA Four is Karen Finley. It was her artistic habit of drenching her naked body in chocolate and playing with yams that got her grant revoked. In an article she wrote for ACLU Voices, Finley complains about NEA budget cuts and that money from corporate funders -- the only other alternative for a starving artist, other than a job -- comes with "strings attached." Another example of an unfortunate caveat.

Finley's biggest beef is being silenced simply because she's offending people like Jesse Helms. Never mind the fact the Finley perceives the refusal of funding as silencing. She's right on one point, though: offending speech should not be censored. But doesn't it seem odd that most of these artists crying foul over content restrictions and decency standards are the same enlightened students we knew in college who insisted that racist idiots stop using the N word? Wasn't that a decency standard?

Now they're busy reclaiming their right to offend, amidst the PC climate of their own creation. Of course, we all know that it's safe to allow these enlightened bohemian types full freedom of expression because they're only offending those silly, judgmental Christians. But what if Nazis, misogynists or the members of the KKK decide to dabble in art? Would it still be OK to offend when the victims are no longer Christians but Jews, women, and blacks? What about a sculpture eroticizing rape or child molestation? A performance artist urinating on the photograph of an AIDS march? A gallery exhibit where a stuffed effigy of Bill Clinton sexually assaults the Mona Lisa?

Could these be considered "art"?

Good questions, and ones the government should never answer. In a free and open society, bad art is weeded out not by governmental standards but by the consensus of the art community: art lovers, critics and consumers. Bad art can't sustain interest.

That's the underlying principle behind free speech. When the content of free speech is stupid or wrong or offensive or ugly, that content should be heard and debated. Its value should be determined by consensus. Censoring the offensive or the ugly prevents this process -- the process borne of the Renaissance and responsible for our current societal "enlightenment" today.

Whether art depicts a cross in urine or a cross burning, shouldn't its own banality be its downfall? It should, but it won't when the government is creating a false demand for such art through the mechanism of NEA funding.

In the free market of ideas, subsidizing expression is to circumvent consumer demand -- something lacking in the art industry and causing the need for NEA funding in the first place. It's a problem that could probably be solved in much the same way other industries generate consumer demand -- through advertising, public relations, added value, hype. Maybe even lowering those outrageously arrogant prices.

Instead, the solution we've chosen -- the NEA -- ensures that the top-heavy, concrete, artistic manifestations of bad thinking will never fall of their own weight. Or if they do, that the government's chubby fingers are determined to clumsily glue the pieces back together.

This article copyright © 1998 by Stephanie Herman and may not be reproduced in any form without the express written consent of its author. All rights reserved.