Your Tax Dollars at Work
by Wendy McElroy
When the Brooklyn Museum of Art used taxpayer's money to present Sensation - a show of young British artists Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani erupted in rage. He didn't think the average Joe and Jane should be forced to subsidize artwork that included dissected animals and a painting of the Madonna smeared with elephant dung. On November 1st, federal judge Nina Gershon ruled that Guiliani's withdrawal of city funding violated the First Amendment. Gershon declared, "There is no federal constitutional issue more grave than the effort by government officials to censor works of expression..."
The Museum is not the only one full of excrement. Refusing to subsidize a form of expression is not censorship. If it were, I would be guilty each time I bought The Economist instead of Time. Using your own money to express your own preference in literature, art and religion is precisely what the First Amendment was intended to protect. Coercing money from taxpayers for 'art' they would not willingly support is a violation of freedom of speech. It means that taxpayers might not be able to support the art they do prefer. Having mega-wealthy Museum Board Members - like Henry Luce III demand that working people subsidize their choice in art as a matter of free speech is obscene. As Guiliani stated, "It isn't about free speech. It's actually a desecration of the First Amendment...to take money out of the taxpayers' pockets...into the pockets of multimillionaires."
The city corporation counsel, Michael D. Hess, had asked Judge Gershon to postpone her ruling until the exhibit's financing could be examined. She declined. Hess' request reflected the revelation that - as well as sopping up tax dollars - Sensation had been financed by individuals and corporations who stood to profit monetarily from the exhibit. For example, Museum Director Arnold L. Lehman solicited funds from dealers who represented the artists on display. The Museum also received a pledge of $160,000 from British ad millionaire Charles Saatchi, from whose private collection the pieces were culled. In an article entitled "Brooklyn Museum Recruited Donors Who Stood to Gain," the October 31st New York Times reported on the Museum's response to possible accusations of conspiring to inflate the prices of Saatchi's collection. "They...then tried to conceal his financial support from the public."
Even the liberal chic New York Times - a passionate defender of the exhibit - called the Museum's funding "highly unusual" and "ethically problematic." Personally I have no problem with loudly calling it unethical for one set of elitist millionaires to enrich others of their ilk at taxpayers' expense.
And I am offended by the rationale they use to justify bellying up to the public trough: namely, the average person is too stupid to understand fine culture. If left to our own devises, you and I might spend our money on tickets to a ball game or a set of Dr. Seuss books for our children. Then what would become of the shit-smeared canvasses on which the progress of Western culture clearly rests?
It is time to tell elitist multi-millionaires that you refuse to divert money from your family's budget to support their preferences in art. Or to further plump their bank accounts. In Washington, at the behest of Sen. Robert Smith (N.H.), the Senate passed a non-binding resolution to end federal funding for the Museum. Perhaps this is a good step toward making artists earn their own way in the same manner as any other profession. I always prefer the direct approach. Far be it from me to suggest, however, that readers smear a file card with whatever substance best expresses their free speech and mail it to the Director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The address is 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11238.