Another Censorship Skirmish in the Culture Wars

Why must I pay for filth?

The Washington Post brings us another thrilling skirmish in the culture wars.  To oversimplify a bit, the facts seem to be:

  • The National Portrait Gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, a partially tax-funded public museum, put on an exhibit called "A Fire in my Belly" by David Wojnarowicz.
  • The work was part of an exhibition on gender identity, itself one of our more controversial topics.
  • "A Fire in my Belly" is a 30-minute video which includes a brief sequence in which ants crawl across a crucifix lying in the dirt.
  • Enough people objected to this show of disrespect for Christianity that the Smithsonian decided to eliminate that part of the video from the exhibition.
  • An uproar ensued with artists crying "censorship" and conservatives claiming that public money should not be used to promote offensive art.
  • An art gallery named Transformer obtained rights to the exhibit from the artist's estate and is broadcasting the offensive segment to the public through its main window, making it visible to casual passers-by.

This incident sums up our culture wars.  The artists believe that anything they want to fund can and should be funded by the taxpayers and that not spending tax money promoting a particular work of art, however they might choose to define "art," is censorship.  Just as people who believe that abortion is murder don't want to pay for other people's abortions, people who detest particular works of tax-funded art don't want to pay for them.

The Meaning of Censorship

Since our recent political controversies tend to do violence to the traditional meaning of words as each side tries to redefine the terms of discussion to gain advantage, let's look at what "censorship" actually means.

Wikipedia defines it as "suppression of speech or other communication which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient to the general body of people as determined by a government, media outlet, or other controlling body."

That is not at all what's going on.  Nobody is saying that "A Fire in my Belly" should be suppressed as in done away with; the proof is that Transformer is displaying it even more publicly than the Smithsonian tried to.

All that the so-called censors are saying is that the taxpayers shouldn't be asked to fund things many of them don't like.  The artists are saying that not spending tax money promoting "A Fire in my Belly" is censorship, which is utterly false.

That reality notwithstanding, the discussion centers around whether the government should be "censoring" the "art:"

Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee responsible for much of the country's arts funding, said that he, too, initially found the video "somewhat distasteful."

"But," Moran added, "I find the idea that it is being censored out of the exhibit more distasteful."

"The whole point is that we should not be censoring," he said. "We should be discussing.  [emphasis added]

Rep. Moran is engaged in an exercise in misdirection - nobody is suggesting that the show be censored, only that whomever wants it exhibited should pay the costs of exhibiting it themselves as Transformer has done instead of forcing the costs onto all of us.

The discussion immediately turned political:

Incoming speaker of the House John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and incoming majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) yesterday echoed Donohue's salvo, adding that the exhibit was a misuse of taxpayer dollars.

For Moran, that was an ominous sign.

"This new Congress has a bull's-eye on arts funding," he said. "I don't think there is any question they are going to target the NEA, the NEH and anything else that funds art."

Having been elected to cut the deficit, the Republicans are well aware that their electoral base not only expects them to cut spending, they're expected to first direct the ax at certain specific forms of spending which their voters consider to be unusually objectionable.

The Larger Issue

After being buried under an avalanche of comments on "censorship," the Dec 2, 2010, Washington Post printed a discussion on page C1 which analyzed the issue of government funding versus censorship in some detail.  One reader described the issue:

Why should the general American public fund art that is offensive to them?  Let the artists get help from individuals ... who may be attracted to that particular type of art ...

For many conservatives, that's precisely the question.  Why should people who believe that abortion is murder have to fund it?  Why should people who are offended by an artist floating a crucifix in urine have to pay the artist's outrageous-seeming fees - or even fees that are not outrageous?  Blake Gopnik, the Post art critic, replied:

Can we all agree that in the long run, art is pretty much as important as anything else a society produces or does?  If that's the case, maybe it's too important to leave in private hands, where the choices of a few rich funders determine what works are preserved and displayed for the rest of us.  Things we really care about - our defense, education, food safety, roads - tend to be in public hands, so maybe art should, too.

Assuming that art is as important as, say, national defense is a bit of a stretch, but let's accept the Post's premise that art is indeed that important.  Where Mr. Gopnik's logic falls apart is his blatantly-stated assertion that important things should be in government hands.

Consider the examples he cites:

  • Defense - everybody knows that no nation has ever been able to successfully fund defense other than by general taxation, but our Defense Department is hardly a model of efficiency or cost-effectiveness.  The cumbersome and politicized procurement process means that the military can't use the latest technology.  With huge cost overruns on just about everything it does, the fact that defense has to be funded publicly is no justification for funding anything else that way.
  • Education - our government-funded education system is as inefficient as our defense system and far less effective at its mission of educating children so that their income taxes can fund our pensions.  Last year we finally got proof, in DC, home of the Washington Post no less, that schools which are not subject to all the cost-bloating government rules educate even the poorest and worst-off children far better than public schools for a lot less money.
  • Food Safety - how long did the FDA know that there were immense problems in egg factories without doing anything about it?  It took a major scandal to get the feds involved.  People died, but nobody could be sued because inspection is a government responsibility.  If food safety were in private hands, victims could sue.  According to the trial lawyers, the threat of being sued keeps vendors honest.  Government involvement removes this incentive to keep things safe.
  • Roads - progressive cities are finding that, having given away too much money to public employee unions, they can't afford to maintain their roads.  Some governments are letting paved roads revert to gravel, others are selling roads so that private companies can levy tolls and keep the roads better maintained than the government can.

To get back to the world of art, rich individuals sponsored da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Last Supper, Michelangelo's David, the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, and Pieta, as well as Handel's Messiah and most of the work of Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart among many others.  Some of the rich classical patrons were indeed government officials and no doubt taxpayer funds were raided at need, but the art funding decisions were made by the one autocrat, not by a committee, and certainly not by bureaucrats.

Government-funded art, in contrast, goes through committees and peer review and is thus subject to political pressure just like science funding.  As far as Scragged is concerned, we'd stack up the record of art funded by rich and powerful individuals, politicians or otherwise, against anything ever funded by paper-pushers at the National Endowment for the Arts from its inception until now.

The Post's art critic may be right about the importance of art, but the examples he chose are proof positive that art should be funded privately instead of by the government.  We look forward to the new Congress shutting down the NEA - and right after that, killing off NPR and the CPB.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

Spot on.

As an aside, most "art" nowadays isn't art anyways.

This gets into a philosophical area on what art is and how it's defined, but the bottom line is - if it takes a "specialist" to translate what a piece of art means and why it's so great, while regular spectators aren't wowed or amazed or care about it at all, IT ISN'T ART.

Real art induces natural appreciation. That isn't to say that all art is appreciated by all people that look at it, else it isn't art, but it DOES mean that if the vast majority don't like it - except for a few academic pinheads - then IT ISN'T ART.

December 8, 2010 10:44 AM

As one would expect, the NYT came down against the Smithsonian for pulling the "art." They say that the Smithsonian is SUPPOSED to disturb. I guess they didn't read Mr. Smthison's will by which the Institute was established.

Bullying and Censorship
The Smithsonian pulled a video from an exhibit after complaints from the Catholic League and John Boehner, failing in its important role of challenging, disturbing and enlightening.

In an appalling act of political cowardice, the Smithsonian Institution last week removed “A Fire in My Belly,” a four-minute video clip, from an exhibit called “Hide/Seek” at the National Portrait Gallery. The privately financed show explores identity, gender and homosexuality in American portraiture.

The video, by David Wojnarowicz, is a moving, anguished reflection on the artist’s impending death from AIDS. It shows very quick glimpses of challenging and, at times, disturbing images, including masks, a meatpacking plant, various objects on fire and the artist undressing himself.

One of those images, 11 seconds of ants crawling on a crucifix, drew an outraged denunciation from the Catholic League, a lay civil rights organization that receives no church financing. It called the video “hate speech” and said it was designed to “assault the sensibilities of Christians.” A spokesman for Representative John Boehner, the incoming House speaker, called for the Smithsonian to shut down the exhibition or “be prepared to face tough scrutiny” under the new Republican majority.

Secretary G. Wayne Clough of the Smithsonian immediately yielded, removing the video from the exhibit. His excuse was that the video “was detracting from the entirety of the exhibition.” That is absurd. The exhibition is supposed to deal with culturally challenging images. Indeed, some of the most important roles of art and of museums are to challenge, disturb and enlighten.

The Catholic League is entitled to protest, as are members of Congress, although the bullying from Mr. Boehner’s office was chilling. Mr. Clough had a responsibility to defend this work and to reject censorship. He failed. On Monday, the Smithsonian announced that the exhibit will remain open, as planned, until Feb. 13, but without Mr. Wojnarowicz’s video. That is not remotely good enough.

December 8, 2010 6:40 PM

The NYT now accuses the Smithsonian of "Gay Bashing." I guess if not agreeing with Mr. Obama's politics is racism, it's OK to say that disliking the art of someone who's gay is Gay Bashing. But one ought to be able to expect better of the Times. The offensiveness of the art the taxpayers were paying to display had nothing to do with the artist's gender, it was just plain offensive.

Gay Bashing at the Smithsonian
It still seems an unwritten rule in establishment Washington that homophobia is at most a misdemeanor.

December 12, 2010 1:28 PM
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