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The Art of Plunder


Now that the controversy surrounding the art exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum has calmed down, it’s a good time for some sober reflection.

To recap, the museum, which is subsidized with taxpayer money, is hosting an exhibit that includes among other things, a painting purportedly of the Virgin Mary adorned with a gob of elephant dung. This understandably offends Christians, who presumably have other things to do with their money than finance the defacing of what they hold sacred. When New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced that he would end the taxpayer subsidy to the museum, the usual gang of obscurantists cried “censorship.” The First Amendment, they said, prohibits denying a subsidy on the basis of artistic content. This is the same group of folks who decry any forced taxpayer sponsorship of anything suggesting religion.

Which raises an interesting question. Would the defenders of the Brooklyn Museum favor Giuliani’s position if the painting of the Virgin Mary lacked the elephant dung adornment? If they were consistent, they would themselves call for an end to the subsidy on the grounds that government establishing religion. We are left with a remarkable conclusion: the taxpayers may be forced to subsidize perceived antireligious statements, but not religious statements.

An acquaintance of mine points out that this kind of thinking collapses into absurdity, since an antireligious statement is a kind of religious statement, and therefore cannot be subsidized without violating the First Amendment.

The defenders of art subsidies never cease to amaze me, considering that they are ostensibly intelligent and educated people. Floyd Abrams, considered the most eminent First Amendment attorney in the land, said that yanking the museum’s subsidy is like burning books. Really? There is no much nonsense packed into that statement that it is hard to know where to start. A burned book is a book destroyed. But an art exhibit not funded by the taxpayers does not entail destruction of the art. I am quite certain that the trendy postmodernist crowd would easily come up with private money to display the art if the taxpayers were unavailable to them. (And if they can’t, then why on earth should the taxpayers have to foot the bill?)

Moreover, while book burning violates someone’s liberty, namely, that of the owner of the book, abstaining from subsidizing art violates no one’s liberty. Artists and museums have no right to the taxpayers’ money. Any claim to the contrary must explain why they have a right to it, when those who produced it in the first place have no such right. It just makes no sense.

Finally, book burning, on top of everything else, is an aggressively symbolic way of dramatizing that some thoughts are unthinkable. It is a favorite measure of totalitarian governments. Refusal to subsidize art in no way communicates that some thoughts are unthinkable. It simply says that the taxpayers are to be free to think what they want when it comes to their own hard-earned money.

All these points are so obvious that it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the defenders of art subsidies are just being disingenuous. Their protests are a smokescreen designed to stifle the opposition. People generally don’t like to be identified as book burners and enemies of freedom of thought and expression. Many will remain silent in the face of the onslaught from allegedly liberal advocates of subsidy.

It’s a shame that this issue of art subsidies flares up only when something grossly offensive comes to the public’s attention. The real offense is the subsidies per se, regardless of what is subsidized. Just as a Christian properly wishes not to finance the defacing of what he holds sacred, an atheist wishes not to contribute to religious art and an advocate of individual rights wishes not to finance art that celebrates a child molester. Art has much in common with religion, namely, it deals with fundamental values and views of existence. Neither should be subsidized by the taxpayers. Both should be permitted freedom within the framework of private property.

Freedom of expression cannot possibly include the right to force someone to pay you to speak or paint. Anyone who refuses to see that has long ceased caring about the truth.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.