Brooklyn Bums

Welfare reform for artists.


The New York Daily News--which touts itself as "the eyes, the ears, the honest voice" of the Big Apple--is very concerned about censorship. So when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared he would withdraw funding for the Brooklyn Museum of Art for rolling out the shocking "Sensation," a show featuring a portrait of the Virgin Mary decorated with clumps of elephant emissions, they explained it thusly: "SOUR ON RUDY: Poll Shows Most N.Y.ers Back Museum."

"They should be able to display whatever they want," the News quoted one city resident as saying. Giuliani "has no right to censor it, it's just art. One man's sense of art is another man's garbage." "It's like a preacher in a church," said another random New Yorker. "If you don't like what the preacher's saying, you can get up and leave."

Well, not this church. This friendly congregation takes its tithe right out of your paycheck, without so much as a mumbled benediction.

Why is it so difficult to explain the intrinsic link between censorship and subsidy? The News poll found that 58 percent of New York City residents believe no city official--not the mayor, not city councilmen--should have the power to cut off funding for offensive art projects. But the very essence of art funding is to selectively enhance some work to the exclusion of others. That's a reality dictated by economic scarcity. To say yes to dung artist Chris Ofili is to say no to street performer "bOINk." And when it's city cash flowing, it's city officials--through their appointed loyalists and budgetary controls--who ultimately make the call.

The Village Voice crowd, so vocal in support of the Brooklyn Museum's claim on the working man's taxes, embarrasses itself. The Voice's editor defended "Sensation," claiming that the dung was itself inoffensive and that the show was a paean to the "sacred and the profane." All right, we'll go with that on the mid-term.

But the very exercise--explaining High Art to the unwashed--was as phony as a Village Voice personal ad (so I hear). The liberals were only pretending to defend the work as genuinely Catholic. After all, they're not "viewpoint neutral," to use the legal phraseology. They don't lobby for public funding for born-again Impressionists from the Bible Belt.

Indeed, at "Sensation," what's the Virgin Mary doing with government subsidies? Surely it was only the dung that enabled this modern masterpiece to pass the church/state smell test. Otherwise, it would have been as reviled as a City Hall nativity scene.

Yes, but--Mayor Giuliani is a cheap, pathetic self-promoter playing to the crowd's emotions. Exactly. And here his grandstanding is an excellent exhibition of the performance art formerly known as democracy. The system doesn't always get it wrong.

So long as Rudy sticks with the theme that taxpayers shouldn't have to support what they are offended by, he's the true civil libertarian. It is a testament to the flimsy individualism affected by many ACLUers that they could be out-libertied by Giuliani, whose soul feasts on jailed defendants.

But he can't hold that single note. Like Republicans generally, the mayor eagerly cadges government dollars for galleries patronized by the upscalers who sip a lot of election-year coffee. As it is in the Village, so it is in the affluent suburbs: Art with a message is perfectly acceptable on the public tab, so long as the message is perfectly acceptable.

Even the intellectual right has turned soft on subsidies. Key right-wing thinkers have come out for censoring popular culture, and Robert Bork has brutally severed censorship from the issue of who pays. Commenting in Slouching Toward Gomorrah (1996) on Robert Mapplethorpe's NEA-funded "homo-erotic photos," Bork wrote, "To complain about the source of the dollars is to cheapen a moral position. They would be just as offensive if their display were financed by a scatterbrained billionaire." The moral position the conservatives would discount--apparently to zero--is that of individual liberty.

The position against public funding for the arts is marvelously libertarian, constitutional, and progressive. Art is expression. If you oppose censorship, you must oppose the handicapping of government-sanctioned viewpoints, inherent in decisions to fund this but not fund that. If you believe in eliminating welfare for the rich, then forcing the art community to become self-sustaining relieves the middle and lower classes of subsidizing what they so rarely enjoy or even understand--take it from The Villiage Voice!

"Scatterbrained billionaires" should be paying for the museums, not Joe Sixpack. The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, is private and all paid up. Why not the Brooklyn Museum?

It's a perfectly reasonable position. All it lacks is adherents.