Monday, October 11, 1999

Week of 10/11/1999

Sticking It In The Eye Of The Beholder
- by David Matthews 2

"Artists can color the sky red because they know it's blue. Those of us who aren't artists must color things the way they really are or people might think we're stupid." - Jules Feiffer

A few years ago, I was criticized by one of my online visitors, who amongst all of the perceived faults he posed, one of them was the fact that my head shot photo was set behind a painting that was in my parents’ living room, which he deemed to be a cheap Hong Kong acrylic painting. To be honest, I never really knew where my parents got their paintings from. All I know is that they got them from someplace and it suited their tastes just fine. I needed a head shot photo for the local newspaper to run with my column, and it didn’t really matter where the photo was taken, because in a black-and-white newspaper the background would be meaningless. But apparently that does not translate the same in the high-color world of the Internet.

Now, if anyone has ever been in my parents’ living room, they’d know that the painting in question is a rather nice scene of a coastline in midday, complete with a lighthouse. Some might call it cheap, but my father calls it art.

And that’s the problem with art.. it’s subjective. Much like beauty, art’s appeal - or disgust - rests only in the eye of the beholder.

Lately, however, a lot of talk has been about what in the art world disgusts people.

Most of the talk, naturally, has been by the number one enemy to freedom - those dysfunctional moralists who try to find even the most obscure museum display and use it as their excuse to throw every artist and artisan into the gulag.

Of course, it doesn’t take much to offend a moralist. Performance artist Karen Finley taking off her clothes and covering herself in chocolate sauce would set off a good percentage of the bible-thumping crowd. Throw in a couple of the infamous photos done by the late Robert Mapplethorpe, and you’ll get most members of the Christian Coalition in a rabid, frothing fury.

Personally, someone covering themselves in chocolate sauce or having a photo taken with a bullwhip up someone’s butt only tells me two things: one, that we have some very creative people in the world; and two, some folks would do anything for a buck.

But is it art? For me, no. I would much rather have a "Kingdom Come" lithograph done by Alex Ross, or perhaps one of the cosmic Chromagraphs done by Michael David Ward. To me, a beautiful nude form is much better to the eye than a beautiful nude form made to look like a butterscotch sundae. Give me a photo of a beautiful nude form done by Pompeo Posar than one taken by Robert Mapplethorpe any day. To me, that’s art.

However, some people do consider smearing chocolate over a naked body to be art, because they pay good money to commission it and display it where they can. And I have no problem with that, because I know that art is subjective.

But what if the government funds it?

That’s where the real problems begin, because what one taxpayer considers art, a moralist who also pay taxes would consider to be an obscene waste of money.

The latest battle between art and government deals with the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the man who is perhaps the most anti-freedom mayor of New York City, Rudolph "Mussolini" Giuliani.

The Brooklyn Museum recently opened an exhibit called "Sensation" - which was sponsored by a private patron to the museum - and featured several unusual pieces of art, including a painting of the Virgin Mary decorated with elephant waste and adorned by certain parts of the female anatomy. That piece, amongst all others, was singled out by every conservative and religious moralist in America as blasphemous.

But Giuliani decided that proclaiming a piece of art to be blasphemous was not enough. He wanted to make the museum pay for offending his senses. So he used his authority as mayor to cut off all public funding, and is even threatening to evict the museum from their city-owned building unless they cancel the exhibit.

Now let’s get brutally honest here… this is a clear case of abuse of power if there ever was one by an elected official. The kind of blatant political extortion that defines the word censorship. Not even the members of the US Congress and the Clinton Regime have abused their power so blatantly as Giuliani. Outside of the political office, Giuliani’s antics would rightly brand him as an extortionist, and reward him with prison terms.

However, the issue of government funding for the arts is something that really needs to be addressed.

Because art is very subjective, government sponsorship of the arts is something that deserves a rare zero-sum category, either accepted in full or not at all. As a libertarian, I would rather not see any government funding for art, simply because of the kind of problems such as being faced in New York. The alternative is what moralists would want, namely to fund only the art that they would approve of; that would reflect their own personal tastes - no matter how dysfunctional they are. To essentially turn groups like the National Endowment for the Arts into the artist version of the Hayes code.

I realize that there are plenty of starving artists out there in the world. I meet them at comic book shows and science fiction conventions. People of amazing talent, who look at their more successful counterparts and either are jealous or baffled how these people could make it rich in their trade. But they aren’t alone in their frustrations. As a writer, I would love to be able to quit my bill-paying day job and spend all my efforts developing my writing skills until I can be recognized in the private market. Or do to the same as an online broadcaster.

But the truth is that such welfare from the government does little to encourage real success in that field. If the goal is to make money from your work, then government welfare solves that situation quickly, without any need to appeal to the more lucrative private sector. Why should one strive to succeed in the private sector when the government is willing to pay your way? Our problems with the current welfare system is the best example of why even this kind of funding doesn’t work to bring forth true success.

As for government’s current sponsorship, it’s one thing to have someone like "Il Duce" Giuliani decide to stop future funding altogether. He wouldn’t even need to use the excuse of the Brooklyn Museum to justify his actions then. Although the art world would throw a fit, it would be far more respectful as an elected official than his current actions, which show the world just how much of a fascist he really is.

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