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What's More Obscene Than Obscene Art?
by J. H. Huebert

The Collegian 
October 15, 1999


Controversy raged for several weeks in New York City, as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani threatened to withhold funding from, and revoke the lease of, the Brooklyn Museum of Art because of its new "Sensations" exhibit.

The exhibit is now famous for featuring such "artwork" as a painting of the Virgin Mary done in elephant dung; preserved, severed animal parts; and a picture of a topless woman presiding over the Last Supper.

 

Giuliani and his supporters argue that taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for art they find morally offensive. The museum’s supporters accuse the mayor of censorship, and even many relatively disinterested individuals, in the interest of being "fair-minded," say that the controversial artists have a right to express themselves through their art in the museum. Anyway, they say, the government has no business determining which art is "good" and "bad," so the exhibit should go on.

 

This is a problem that almost always arises when government funds something--people get upset because some of the money goes to something they personally disapprove of. It is a problem which is inevitable, but whose cause most people fail to recognize: People are being forced to pay for something they would not otherwise choose to pay for.

 

That the "art" in this case is wholly disgusting to most of us is relatively unimportant. Isn’t it much more immoral and offensive that the city government engaged in what is essentially legalized theft by forcibly taking money for art (good or bad) from innocent citizens in the first place? Consider it this way: If a thief held you up and stole your wallet, would you be more concerned that he took your money, or more concerned that he might spend the money he stole on offensive artwork? Of course, you’d be more concerned about having been robbed, and that is where the attention should be focused in this issue as well. The obscene art may be insulting, but the theft itself is the true injury.

 

If the government took itself out of the business of stealing from you to pay for art, no one’s freedom of expression would be abridged, because the "Sensations" exhibit, and others like it, could still go on--but the people who want to see that sort of thing would be the ones who would bear the entire cost. Of course, if not enough people would voluntarily give up their money for such art, and such exhibits couldn’t stay in business, that would only demonstrate that they apparently weren’t very valuable to anyone in the first place.

 

Some supporters of government funding for the arts suggest that, if not for the stolen tax dollars, the best artists would suffer, too, because people are just not sophisticated enough to pay for good art on their own. Again, though, this requires a government official to determine which art is worthy of funding and what art is not (and the Brooklyn exhibit gives us an idea of what the cultural elite apparently consider to be "worthy" art). Worse, it still requires that money be forcibly taken from people who would not otherwise choose to spend their money on art. Difficult as it may be for many to grasp the idea, theft is still theft, and theft is still wrong, even if it is legal, even if the thief is the government, and even if the beneficiary is Michelangelo himself.

 

Some argue that government subsidies for art are needed so that the poor can have access to art. This argument is weak because the amount of interest most poor people take in art is rather questionable. Besides, the market does a fine job of bringing me all the art and culture I need at prices anyone could afford as it is. I can walk into Circuit City with $1.99 (plus tax) and walk out with a recording of practically any of the great works of classical music. I can go into Barnes & Noble and buy books with practically any great work of art--or I can just look at them in the store for free.

 

Unfortunately, a great many people in New York City, and all over the world, do not understand any of the ideas expressed here. Until they do, every taxpayer will be forced to pay not only for art, both offensive and inoffensive, but for many hundreds of other goods and services he doesn’t need, doesn’t want, and will never use.

 

To me, that’s obscene.

 

© 1999 J. H. Huebert