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Thursday, March 1, 1990

Art, Censorship, and Markets

Steven Yates earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Georgia in 1987. He has since taught philosophy at Clemson University and Auburn University and was awarded a research fellowship by the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University. He will be joining the faculty at Wofford College early this year.

The art world has been in turmoil since Senator Jesse Helms charged the National Endowment for the Arts with using $45,000 of government money to subsidize “obscene art.” Helms’ main targets were the photographs of the late Robert Mapplethorpe which depicted homosexual and sadomasochistic themes and that of Andres Serrano depicting a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine. Many in the arts community reacted sharply to Helms’ actions and made the expected charges of censorship. The old issue of what “obscenity” is and who decides has resurfaced with a vengeance, and the ensuing debate has had all the usual characteristics of groups who talk past one another because of shared premises neither has examined.

First of all, let us distinguish between aesthetic considerations and economic ones. Whether certain works of art are “obscene” belongs to the former; the issue of whether they should be subsidized by the government belongs to the latter. I wish to deal only with economic considerations here.

Now if the basis of the art world’s censorship charge is the Helms bill itself, which refuses government money to artists and exhibits deemed “obscene,” then it seems the charge must fail, for it rests on a crucial unexamined premise! that the government has an obligation to subsidize the arts. If this premise is false, then refusal by Congress to fund certain exhibits is not censorship. Censorship would occur only if the exhibits were forcibly closed down—and that has nowhere happened. Comparisons some in the art community have made between this incident and the Salman Rushdie affair are grossly exaggerated. But these remarks notwithstanding, the censorship charge refuses to go away. A publicly funded Washington, D.C., museum canceled a scheduled showing of the Mapplethorpe exhibit and this suggests that it might yet have some basis. Let us find out.

The same people who find the Mapplethorpe and Serrano exhibits offensive—and Helms certainly seems among them—rarely find anything offensive in the idea that government may go on subsidizing art which no one has deemed “obscene.” In short, both Helms and his critics in the art world share the view that Federal dollars should be expropriated from citizens to support the arts—they just disagree on what should be subsidized.

It is here that a more subtle form of censorship enters the picture, for the kinds of art and artists enjoying continued support inevitably would be those with “official” political approval. If Federal dollars support certain artists and exhibits, then these artists and exhibits will gain an advantage they would not have had in an open market, the same way that government-subsidized automobile manufacturers will gain advantages they would not have had otherwise. The advantages, it is clear in these latter cases, are unmerited, for if one’s company is propped up by the government at taxpayer expense, one can go on producing an inferior, unneeded, or irrelevant product and delay having to answer to market forces indefinitely. Does this situation have a parallel in the art world?

Now I will not deny that many people find the Mapplethorpe and Serrano exhibits offensive. But notice that once we challenge both the art world’s and Helms’ hidden premise that at least some art deserves government support, this aesthetic issue is entirely beside the point; for in a free society neither individuals nor institutions have the right to impose artistic tastes on others, and no one is forced to subsidize any kind of art against his will. Instead, free individuals patronize those art forms they find interesting, pleasing, or provocative, and steer clear of those they find offensive, uncalled for, or simply boring.

The only satisfactory solution to the problem of censorship in the arts, therefore, is for the government to get out of the art business altogether, and allow people acting under free market conditions to support the kinds of art they want. Thus individuals wishing to support “non-offensive” art may do so; likewise for supporters of the Mapplethorpe and Serrano kind of exhibit. Artists of the latter persuasion will have no grounds for claiming censorship; for without government interference, a censorship situation cannot arise.

Of course, there may be legitimate grounds for questioning the nihilistic impulses that seem to motivate much modern art. Art, at its most socially significant, mirrors a culture’s world view. It may be that extremely avant- garde forms of art have a significance that easy charges of “obscenity” only obscure. Perhaps, too, they have a grassroots support that conservatives fear. These are all side issues; but notice that proper exploration of them can begin only when we allow market forces to decide just what kind of art really has public support, and from whom.

  • Steven Yates, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy, is a writer and consultant living in Columbia, S.C. He is the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (ICS Press, 1994).