14 February 2006

Piss Mohammed?

Gerard Henderson, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, points out how newspapers who are now refusing to print the controversial Mohammed cartoons out of "respect" for Muslim sensibilities took quite a different tack when the target was Christianity. Andres Serrano's juvenile "artwork," consisting of a crucifix submerged in urine, infuriated many Christians, including then-Mayor Giuliani,who attempted to cut off public funding for the Brooklyn Museum exhibit that included it.

Giuliani's point, and that of most other critics of Piss Christ, was not that it should have been banned (let alone that its creator should be jailed or beheaded), but that taxpayers shouldn't have to foot the bill for it. The reliably hysterical Frank Rich used his New York Times column to accuse Giuliani of Nazi-like tendencies, as did his colleague, Amei Wallach, and the Times, which has been showing extreme deference to irate Muslims in the cartoon controversy, editorialised in favour not only of Piss Christ, but public funding for it:
A museum is obliged to challenge the public as well as to placate it, or else the museum becomes a chamber of attractive ghosts, an institution completely disconnected from art in our time.
A chamber of attractive ghosts? Sounds suspiciously like the New York Times, though I'm not sure "attractive" is the first word called to mind by the ghoulish spectre of Frank Rich.


jb. said...

Hey Larry-- Jesse Staniforth here. I've finally tracked you down and have enjoyed reading your posts the last week or so but haven't felt the need to reply with anything thus far.

HOWEVER, we Canadians are, as you know, given to a certain sympathy for public funding-- big government, as our southern neighbours call it. I've recently been embroiled in debates over government grants to bands and came to the conclusion that grants like FACTOR, while not always given (by virtue of lottery) to the most promising, interesting, or talented artists, are an important part of fostering a creative atmosphere that's divorced, or at least semi-divorced, from the profit motive. The more I consider the history of art and poetry and even music, the more it seems crucial to recognize that most great art (even of the 20th century) came about as a result of patronage, and the best kind of patronage (in my pinko Canadian opinion) is a council of at-least-kind-of objective critics.

I know that you may cry foul over this idea alone, and I guess at the core it may come down to a difference in thinking. I don't believe in the market and I think art, literature, or music forced to seek success by virtue of the market alone is destined to pander forever to the lowest common denomimator. On the other hand, a lifetime enjoying the troubled-but-reliable social safety that eventually squeezes its way out of the digestive tract of our until-recently social-democratic bureaucracy has convinced me that a troubled government that looks out for the health, welfare, and yes, even culture of its people is better than cutting any or all of those things free to be set upon by market whims. So we may just be destined to disagree forever on that point alone.

But if you do believe in patronage of the objective kind (rather than one rich person who chooses as per his/her tastes), then you almost have to admit that there will inevitably be offensive art supported. Offensive to whom is a good question-- if it supports only anti-Christian, pro-liberal artists, then obviously there's something afoot. But if you believe in supporting art that takes place in a country dedicated to freedom of expression (or, as I prefer to refer to it, freedom to accept being offended without censoring or beating someone up over it), it seems only inevitable.

I think that Serrano's "art" is stupid, even by the (in my opinion) idiot standards of what passes for art these days (peppered with vacuous rich kids often still enthralled with the fact that (a) they have feelings and experiences, and (b) the outside world doesn't take place entirely at their command). But I fully support the idea that he should receive public funding to make it, since even the "experts" don't seem to have much idea what will make lasting and relevant statements, and must take risks from time to time on culture that risks offence.

Also, nice to see you're alive and well!

Chuck said...

I totally disagree. The government should NEVER subsidize bands or any art for that matter. If the public's not interested in supporting you by buying your music then it's probably because you suck...and why should taxpayers subsidize music they don't even want to buy? Just because you ignore the profit motive doesn't mean it ignores you. It's inescapable.

Larry Livermore said...

In general I'm against public funding of art, not because it might result in controversial or "offensive" art, but because it results in so much bad art.

One need only take a gander at the "sculptures" in public spaces or listen to the unlistenable modern operas that have been (unwillingly) subsidised by the taxpayer to understand that while the market may not be the best way to determine the value of art, it's got to be better than face-saving, ass-covering government bureaucrats.

My perhaps romantic concept of patronage is that in olden days, artists were compelled to go hat in hand to the rich and privileged, and of course had to pander to the tastes of Lord Whatsit or J.R Robber Baron. But since the industrial revolution and the emergence of mass culture, the working and middle classes have become the new patrons of the arts, and while you might dismiss them as "the lowest common denominator," they are the same lowest common denominator who elect the public officials you seem willing to entrust with deciding which art is and isn't worthy of being subsidised. So why not cut out the middleman and let the people choose directly?

But my willingness to cut out all public funding for the arts only extends as far as modern art; I'd hate to see museums closed, or clasical opera or ballet companies go out of business because they can't attract enough paying customers. So I guess I contradict myself: I'm strongly in favour of the British government making all public museums free again, as they've done under New Labour, but at the same time, I'm utterly appalled at the vacuous crap that Nicholas Serota has dumped, at enormous public expense, in the Tate Modern. Perhaps I'll have to compromise and decree that no art less than a hundred years old should be underwritten by the public.

I could also be a bit more sympathetic toward countries with a smaller artistic gene pool if they want to subsidise bands or theatre companies or the like, especially if they're concerned about local art being completely overwhelmed by that of a much bigger and more powerful neighbour. But when you get down to it, how many of Canada's truly great bands wouldn't have made it anyway, with or without government grants?