Sunday, January 23, 2011

How to Manufacture Controversy Out of Nothing

You know, I didn't even know the Smithsonian had a major artistic display by homosexual artists. Until the right-wing activated their "Christ in Pee" narrative - you remember that one, dontcha? It exists because of that one time some no-name artist somewhere recieved a small government grant for crappy art that no one would have ever heard of or seen if it hadn't become political.

Anyway, activation of this narrative scared the pants off a Simthsonian curator while he was traveling, and had a piece of negligibly controversial art removed from the exhibit. A small skirmish in the culture wars, to be sure, but the censorship vs. liberals-hate-Jesus conversation always starts up when Congressmen have to start making actual budgetary decisions, and need something else in the papers and editorial pages.

It is like the Breitbart video-splicing racisim-into-a-speech-against-racism firing of Shirley Sherrod. People are now more frightened of right-wing fever dreams and fake controversies than ever. The GOP Gangsta Rap strategy continues unabated.



patsbrother said...

Would you want your money to support racist art? Do you want your money to support homophobic art? As you are forced to pay for the NEA, would you want the NEA to support such art?

Let me answer that question: no. You would not.

People offended by what they view as vehemently anti-religious artwork are forced to pay for such art if its paid for through the NEA.

It is not censorship to refuse to pay for something that offends you (or to raise a stink about being forced to pay for it).

Or do you think its censorship for the Andy Warhol Foundation to threaten to withdraw its support for the Smithsonian based on the Institution's decision to withdraw that one rarely-viewed piece?

Personally, I think it was probably a bad idea for the nation to take on the role of arts supporter insofar as the government is required by the Constitution to be viewpoint neutral and all artwork (and all decisions regarding artwork selection) are inherently viewpoint specific. Such disagreements are bound to happen from time to time, and discussions on what the nation chooses to fund are always valid.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

Yeah, well, I don't want my money to support pre-emptive invasions of other nations or torture either. How'd that work out for me?

And guess which was waaay more expensive?

Bottom line is that government grants for the arts is a terribly small part of the budget. Out of that, a terribly smaller part goes to fund art that is actually controversial, and even in those cases, it is usually unintentional.

However, it is always brought up to support a narrative that out-of-control government spending (on the arts) is not only bankrupting this country, it is doing so while disgracing America, Apple Pie, and Jesus.

If they wanted to have a grown up conversation about it, they'd speak about it like grown ups, and actually discuss the value of the NEA and Smithsonian and such to the Federal budget.

Instead, we get this.

patsbrother said...

Racist, homophobic, or anti-religious art specifically affronts individuals for who they are. When your government pays for such, your government supports a specific affront to you.

A communal decision to go to war is not an expression of hate against you.

No matter how small a part of the budget, no one should be forced to pay for something that specifically attacks them for who they are.

Yet interestingly, in addition to that distinction, we had a national debate on the specific issue of whether to go to war (or, most accurately, whether to abdicate that decision to someone else), and as a group, we decided to vote yes. There was no such national debate and decision to fund offensive art.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

And, yet, we still have a National Endowment for the Arts, and we still have a Smithsonian. One wonders why, if the government is funneling all our tax dollars to support art we consider offensive?

The easy answer is: we're not, really. Artists apply for grants from organizations that receive part of their funding from the NEA, paid for by spending bills that originate in the House of Representatives. This is how it has been done for decades.

The Big, Bad Government doesn't make some decision thinking "this art will offend someone, let us pick up the bill. Mwu ha ha."

You want to talk about value? You want to talk federal spending? You want to talk tax dollars funding things we consider offensive? Please, be my guest. It would be an excellent conversation to have. I think it would make people reflect on exactly how much their government spends on what and for which reasons. I think it would point out exactly what those we elect to represent us are doing with their money.

But that conversation might threaten some other sacred cows. The arts are a useful scapegoat, but the sum is quite paltry. There are many other things our government pays for that taxpayers would find offensive, or just bad value. As soon as people start looking at one thing, they might look into others.

That's why the trick is to use the little offenses to get people outraged, without ever doing anything about it.

patsbrother said...

You really want this to be about value, but it's not. People shouldn't have to pay to fund their own debasement.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

You're absolutely right.

But there are people who will take offense at anything, and there are people who are already primed to be outraged at things like this, and there are people who don't think the government should be involved in the funding of the arts.

Again, all conversations to have. But my point is we don't have those conversations, all we get is talk of outrageous controversy, and there is a reason why that is. You're stuck on the "offensiveness" argument without seeing the forest for the trees.

To whit: it appears the Smithsonian exhibit was only offensive to those ready to be offended by the exhibit. The viewers were looking to be offended, and found some tiny part of the thing on which to hang their offense. Hell, there are people offended that government money may go to fund homosexual artists in any capacity.

Where do we draw the line? And when do we have a discussion that goes beyond "this made someone angry, we shouldn't pay for it?"

Editor B said...

Just for the record, the work you reference in your first paragraph is "Piss Christ" by Andres Serrano.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

Editor B - Yeah, I had to look that up. From the wayback. Talk about narrative staying power.

patsbrother said...

Really? How can one forget something like the the Virgin Mary splattered in elephant dung, covered with cutouts of porno-mag vaginas?