Whose Art Is It Anyway?
There is no shortage of similar flaps: Karen Finley, a National Endowment for the Arts grantee, smeared her naked body with chocolate while she hectored audiences about racism; a catalogue essay for a federally subsidized show called for nasty things to be done to Senator Jesse Helms; two artists took their government grant money and handed it out in cash to illegal immigrants; another Virgin Mary was violated (this time pierced by a metal sewer pipe). Yet, contrary to what this might lead you to believe, the American model of subsidizing art has been a rousing success. At least that's what Tyler Cowen contends in his recent book Good and Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding. Cowen, chair of the economics department at George Mason University, limits his argument to the indirect subsidies given through tax breaks for donors and patrons. Here's one of Cowen's examples of how indirect subsidies work in the United States (and cannot work in a country like France, where tax deductions are limited to 1 percent for individuals and one-tenth of 1 percent for corporations): In 2000 the Minneapolis nonprofit organization Artspace needed $20 million to rehabilitate an old warehouse to use, primarily, for artists' studios. Artspace took the forthcoming ten years' worth of federal tax credits for low-income housing--which amounted to $9 million--and used them as collateral for a $7 million bank loan. The organization snagged another $4 million write-off from the Interior Department for saving a "historic" building. Then it "sold" the combined tax credits at a 7 percent discount to a company that agreed to become the organization's "partner." With $10 million or so in hand and a corporate sugar daddy in tow, Artspace could begin construction. Everybody won: Artspace realized its dream, needy artists got affordable places to work, a company's image was polished, Minneapolis had its creative energy ratcheted up and its reputation as a culturally progressive city reinforced, and the federal government saw its money spent, art-wise, on something more publicly acceptable than exhibiting a photograph of Robert Mapplethorpe with the handle of a bullwhip stuck up his ass.
Or did they win? Artspace's subsidy program suffered from a murkiness of purpose. Was it a way of helping to get great works of art produced? Was it a long-shot hope of increasing tourism and giving the city an economic boost? Was it a welfare program for artists? To make matters more complicated, Cowen has some pretty rubbery ideas about what constitutes a subsidy. He cites Georgia O'Keeffe and Roy Lichtenstein as having "relied on public university support early in their careers." Well, yeah, sort of. Both painters made a living for a while teaching in public colleges, but they had jobs, not fellowships. By Cowen's reasoning, an artist's employment as a guard in the National Gallery of Art, or as a TSA airport screener, could count as a subsidy.
Cowen is conflicted about whether or not taxpayers should directly finance works of art, having one foot in the "libertarian economist" camp, where people must pay for what they want but aren't taxed to pay for what they don't want, and the other foot in "art lover" territory, where public art and art in public are considered essential, or at least reasonable, concerns of society as a whole. His argument is inconsistent--on the one hand, subsidies ought to reward the "idiosyncratic"; on the other, there ought to be "a general agreement about product quality." And while he allows that a conservative Christian taxpayer might rightly object to being "forced, through coercive taxation, to support an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe photos," he claims that "most indirect subsidies, however, do not support art in this manner."
Some art supporters might object to Cowen's conceding the nominal right of a conservative Christian (or conservative Hottentot, for that matter) to object with any actual effect. But in cases like this, sins of omission (declining to spend tax money on very subjective, nonutilitarian projects) are preferable to sins of commission (spending tax money because the projects coincide with the taste of some other--albeit more "expert"--minority). Moreover, if one of the indirectly subsidized artists in an Artspace studio creates work to which a conservative Christian would object were it exhibited publicly (I'd say the odds are 100 to 1 in favor of that happening), are not the conservative Christian's tax dollars--channeled though they are through a maze of "tax credits," "corporate partners" and front organizations--still being used to support art to which he'd probably object? The only difference between a direct grant from the NEA to a solo show of an artist and the indirect subsidies Cowen lauds is the number of hands through which the cash is passed. In other enterprises, such sleight of hand is called money-laundering.
Historically, the place where subsidies for art and art controversies collide most loudly is the museum. "For all of the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century," writes Kammen, "a critical function of the art museum was to provide the visitor with a sense of structure and impose order. As early as the 1930s, however, museums found it increasingly challenging to do so successfully." During that decade, modern art got its camel's nose--Cubism, abstraction, Surrealism--into the museum's tent. The art museum became so ardently open-minded about what it deemed "museum-quality" art that it jettisoned both the requisite signs of a special talent (e.g., the artist's "knowing how to draw") favored by cultural conservatives and the special pleading known as "social context" beloved by cultural liberals. To shoehorn militantly modern art into galleries and storerooms already stuffed with academic tours de force, museums fell back on the common denominator of formalism: how a work of art is constructed visually, as independent as possible from what it means. Gradually, the art museum became a kind of high-end design showroom (i.e., you've seen the painting, now buy the poster) and a fun outing for the whole family, a theme park minus the rides.