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Jewish World Review Jan. 28, 2002 / 15 Shevat, 5762

Michael Long

Mike Long
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Consumer Reports

Discretion and Art, Part 2

More thoughts on art and public funding. -- IT is all but certain now that the Jewish Museum of New York will go forward with their exhibition of "Mirroring Evil," images of the Holocaust with mocking modern insertions. (As if there was ever much chance of the museum canceling the show. It was conceived and organized by Norman Kleeblatt, curator of the museum itself.) As I noted last week, the museum is privately funded and has every right to proceed, just as Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center has a right to speak out about the impropriety of setting down irreverent (though perhaps thought-provoking) Holocaust images in a place dedicated to the memory of six million murdered Jews.

If only all arts arguments ended so reasonably. Reasonably? Yes. Individuals are spending private funds as they see fit. Other individuals object, and exert moral, social and economic pressure to change the decision. Whatever the outcome, no one's moral agency is sacrificed. People may be offended, but for a little while longer in America, that's not a crime.

In this case, no one was forced to do anything at all, and that is the critical, superior difference in privately funded art over its government-sanctioned counterpart. By its very nature, public funding of the arts relies on coercion. In all cases, someone is forced to contribute to the promotion of a cause, idea or image to which he objects. And unlike the common defense and the general welfare, the arts are not worth such coercion.

And yet. As I noted last week in this column, a libertarian approach to arts funding-that is, eliminating it-seems soulless, though it is intellectually satisfying and completely fair. The problem is that it suggests surrender to those who say that art cannot be even loosely defined, that there is no circumstance in which one can correctly assert that this or that effort toward art is immoral, unreasonable, wrong. All but the most radicalized of us can identify at least a little junk. As C.S. Lewis observed in other words, there is some undeniable center in all of us that whispers right and wrong.

Is that personal standard so valuable and so common that it is worth cultivating as a public standard? This is the real question in the arts debate, and thoughtful people that I know are divided sincerely and reasonably on the matter.

A strong libertarian friend told me that the end of arts funding isn't "soulless" at all; that the truly immoral position was to imagine a "soul" within a government. Wouldn't statements of history and purpose be more sincere, he asked me, if individuals banded together to make them? Wouldn't they be weakened if they were the product of compromise and majority largess?

Another libertarian friend cut to the heart of it when he observed that a cutoff doesn't have to mean anything about what is or isn't "art." He says it's simply respecting the constitutional limits of government.

A more conservative-leaning friend walked the other side of the street: Some things are more valuable than others and ought to be recognized as such. I don't believe that "[b]ecause we're afraid to draw a moral line between 'Piss Christ' and the National Symphony, we should just scrap all arts funding. I'd love to see a full-throated (and heavily-funded) arts program that celebrates America's history and culture. That way instead of just art for arts sake, we could show that art has a higher purpose than just sparking these silly debates."

It is clear enough that limited government is best served by ending arts funding. It is easy to argue that the arts are outside the scope of government envisioned by the founding fathers, who of course focused on the important thing, the primacy of individual liberty. And yet isn't it desirable to drum nonsense out of the public square? Isn't it satisfying and wise not only to believe but to assert the thing that must be true for a nation to stay together: that it shares at least some shred of common sensibility and decency?

The arts argument clearly demonstrates the conflict between these philosophies. Libertarians say that a nation is no more than a loose framework to support the technical aspects of individual interaction. Conservatives say that we stand together not just as economic actors but also as a society, and we must preserve what we value.

Here is your choice: lonely autonomy, or perpetual conflict over what shall be declared virtue. Choose one.

JWR contributor Michael Long is a a director of the White House Writers Group. Comment by clicking here.


01/16/02: Discretion and Art
01/08/02: Desperate Dems
12/18/01: Politics and Holidays
12/07/01: A war bigger than we know: Changing the future, slowly and surely
11/28/01: A Mid-Winter Night's Dream: A play in one fun act
11/20/01: A Lot of War Left To Fight
11/13/01: Guess who Clinton's apologizing for now: I'll bet you guessed right
11/02/01: Rules for Wartime: Rule Number One: Remember what's true
10/26/01: The Moral Case For Torture: Dirty hands don't always mean dirty souls
10/19/01: Questions for the Anti-War Crowd, Part II: What if someone took them seriously?
10/16/01: Questions for the anti-war crowd: If they question you, ask these back
10/12/01: The Jason Problem: Sometimes they only look dead
10/08/01: A little hindsight: A letter for readers in the future
09/28/01: Calling Bono: A plea to the pop culture elite to speak out
09/20/01: Encouragement from the Heartland, by mail
09/13/01: Bleeding time
09/07/01: The trailer-park taste of the public radio catalog
09/04/01: BRAVE NEW FREUD: Internet-based psychiatry may mean relief for those who have shunned treatment
08/17/01: First Amendment: Chickens home to roost
07/27/01: Dispatch From The Front: The Gun Control War
07/20/01: Summer song
07/03/01: It's a Wonderful Recount

© 2001, Michael Long