JONATHAN CHAIT FEBRUARY 10, 2011
NPR today had what strikes me as a wildly slanted report on the controversial National Portrait Gallery exhibit 'Hide/Seek,' which honors the contribution of gay and lesbian artists. The exhibit created controversy because, under political pressure from conservatives, it removed a video depicting ants crawling on a crucifix. The unchallenged point of view conveyed by the report was that opponents of the exhibit claimed they were offended on religious grounds but actually were anti-gay bigots:
The show had been open for a month, and hadn't received a single complaint. Then the conservative Catholic League got wind of Hide/Seek and urged supporters to deluge the Smithsonian and members of Congress with grievances. Republican politicians including John Boehner and Eric Cantor — now the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader — advocated canceling the exhibition, though it's unclear if they actually saw it.
Scholar Jonathan Katz, who co-curated the show, believes it's telling that much of the criticism of Hide/Seek was couched as an objection to what some argued was anti-Catholic bias.
"It's no longer the same game that it was 15, 20 years ago, where you simply had to point out the homo and yell, 'Kill it,' and the mob attacked," Katz says. "Now you have to clothe your homophobia in something else."
Do some opponents of the exhibit hate gays? Probably. But if you want to test that proposition, you need to see how they react to an exhibit about gays that does not include a crucifix covered with ants. My guess is that most of the critics are actually upset about the message about Christianity.
Episodes like this are recurrent features in American politics, and one takeaway I have from is that public arts subsidies are inherently problematic. It's problematic to force people to subsidize art that offends their religion or their values. It's also problematic to have the government vet art for messages that might be politically toxic.
A while ago, I wrote an article for TNR making the case against public arts subsidies. My basic argument is that art is not a clear cut case of market failure requiring government intervention, and the complications involved with either censoring or failing to censor offensive exhibits are hard to square:
The problem is that art is not like most of the public goods that liberals want government to subsidize. Art is not a giant project like a highway or a national park, something so big that individuals have neither the incentive nor the means to build it on their own. Nor is art a good that ought to be universally enjoyed as a matter of entitlement, like education or health care. (Even if your goal is universal access to art, you don't want the NEA, you want art vouchers for the needy. But that would put the government in the cruelly paternalistic position of requiring the poor to spend money on a symphony instead of food.) Rather, art bears a strong resemblance to the sort of goods that liberals are content to leave to the market, like clothing and entertainment. Art can be produced and consumed by small groups or individuals who are willing to pay for it. People are also willing to subsidize it through their own charitable donations.
I suspect arts subsidies survive because their core constituency is rich and influential. But given that the government only provides 1% of art funding, is it really worth the trouble?