By Ron VandenBoom
Thats the question millions of Americans asked themselves recently when an exhibit on original art opened in New York City.
It seems the internal organs of certain barnyard animals, live maggots on a severed cows head, and a figure of the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung, is of questionable artistic value in certain circles. Not the least of those circles is that of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was so offended by the art that he threatened to cut off New York City funding to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, filed a city lawsuit to pull the museums lease from the city-owned building, and withheld a $500,000 payment from the city to the museum. The museum receives about $7 million of its $23 million budget from the City of New York.
The controversy over the exhibit also spilled over into one of The Havre Daily News editorial board meetings. It is one of the few times the board was unable to reach a consensus of opinion on an issue.
Two concerns divided the five board members. First, how do we determine whether the exhibit is art or merely trash? And second, should the government be involved in supporting the museum through tax dollars?
Four of the five board members found it hard, if not impossible, to answer the first question. It seems that in the eyes of most of the board, myself included, it is almost impossible to say what constitutes art.
While most of us think of art in terms of grace and beauty, it is not a hard-and-fast rule. Art can be anything that makes you think, inspires the soul, or depicts our culture and society in a figurative and imaginative way. It can be a colorful and aesthetic painting, the graceful elegance of a sculpture, or a photograph of an evening sunset.
Art also can show the negative underbelly of society the darker, less flattering truth of hopelessness, hunger, depravity and poverty. It can show the ugly, the depressing and the repugnant.
So does the exhibit constitute art? Whos to say?
On this point, the board was in general agreement. While I might have the right to determine for myself the works artistic value, I dont have the right to determine its value to others. One mans ceiling is another mans floor and while I might not have the same opinion as you, I must respect your right to have an opinion.
But heres the problem. What happens when my opinion and your opinion differ and its tax dollars supporting the exhibit?
The honorable mayor of New York decided he would express his view by withdrawing the citys financial support and suing the museum.
A noble idea, perhaps, if youre supporting and suing with your own money. But these arent just Giulianis dollars. Theyre dollars that came from the taxpayers all of the taxpayers those who agree with him and those who dont. The building is a public building and belongs to all the taxpayers those who agree and those who dont.
The use of governmental authority, financial or otherwise, to coerce the museum into not showing what it believes to be offensive is nothing short of using the power of government to censor what it doesnt like.
The potential hazards of this kind of thinking are well documented in the annals of history and are part of what the First Amendment is all about.
Surprisingly, I think the solution is simple keep government out of the art business.
The $7 million New York contributes could be better spent doing something government should be doing reducing the backlog of court cases, for example.
If the people want art, they will support it with private dollars just like they support sporting events, movie theaters or ski resorts.
In a free country with a free economy, the public votes with its dollars. If the public chooses not to support art with its own dollars, it is not the responsibility of government to demand that it be supported with tax dollars.