Closest to God?

By Steven Martinovich
web posted December 20, 1999

Canadian-born philosopher Leonard Peikoff once wrote that when it came to the universe creation business, it was the artist that was the closest man to the gods generally credited with the job. That may have been true in the days of Victor Hugo or Lord Frederick Leighton, but these days our self-styled gods appear as Diana Thorneycroft or Chris Ofili.

The issue of government funded art has been a hotly discussed topic in the United States since the controversy over "Piss Christ" when it was learned that the National Endowment for the Arts funded the evocatively titled piece -- a crucifix suspended in a jar of urine -- earning the barbs of social conservatives and religious groups. Recently, headlines were made by a Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibit which features -- among other efforts -- Ofili's "The Holy Virgin Mary," a painting of the religious icon splattered with elephant dung.

Canada hasn't escaped its share of publicly funded and dubious art either, whether $127 000 for "Bubbles Galore," a soft core lesbian porn which aired on cable television not too long ago, $60 000 courtesy of the Canada Council for "The Girl Who Would Be King," a lesbian, drag-king adventure which involved a pirate searching for her "jewels", or $15 000 to Thorneycroft for the installation of her work "Monstrance," an exhibit of 12 rotting rabbit carcasses strung up in a forest.

Typically the controversies have revolved around the subject matter of these pieces and demands by well-meaning but misguided moralists who object to alternate -- and occasionally disgusting -- points of views. Ignored in all the rhetoric, however, is a more important subject: Should our government be funding any artistic expression at all?

Government funding artistic expression is much like government funding one side of a political debate. The very nature of a political argument or a work of art, what it means both to the person creating it and the person experiencing it, is an important consideration. In a free society it should be an anathema.

As with philosophy in general, art is used to explain the world. Because it is a selective recreation of reality according to an artist's values, and not a literal representation, it is a deeply personal and moral statement. It contains as much of a message as any political statement, which means right or wrong, that the government is funding a moral viewpoint.

As Calgary writer Michael Miller recently wrote, "Art really is more deeply moral than morality, more political than politics; it deals with the things that moralities are built in." Of all the things that government should be prohibited from -- or should show the sense to prohibit themselves from -- it is the funding of a code of morality.

Art expresses emotions which give us a sense of life. Expressing that emotion always brings the viewer to making explicit metaphysical value judgments.

Public funding for the arts inevitably places government -- and a bureaucrat or council is the representative of government when it comes to deciding who receives that funding -- in the role of art critic and public moral authority. A government by definition cannot have an objective criteria for deciding which art project it funds at the risk of being criticized for dispensing the money in an arbitrary fashion, meaning that sooner or later the personal value judgments of those in the decision making role come into play in determining who receives funding. That has no place in a free society.

Funding of the arts must move back into the private realm where it was successful for centuries. It was private funding which brought us many if not most of the greatest treasures of the ages and government funding which brought us reprehensible morality -- such as Nazi or Communist art which glorified ideologies who placed a premium on destroying individuality, the very currency of an artist.

When government funds rotting rabbit carcasses -- which as Thorneycroft said was celebrating "the gloriousness of putrefaction" -- the government itself is celebrating putrefaction and whether they like it or not, so by extension are Canadian taxpayers. While putrefaction may have a home in Ottawa, it's doubtful that it has one with the average citizen.

As an example, pick your favourite piece of art. Mine happens to be Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2 in e minor. Listening to this piece of music reminds me of the absolute majesty of the human mind or to paraphrase Ayn Rand, it makes me feel like what "Columbus felt like when he landed in America, what the astronauts felt when they landed on the moon." It is the actualization of the highest potential of a human being. It is no less than a celebration of the human being.

Now contrast that with the feelings you get from Ofili's "The Holy Virgin Mary" or Hubert Lanzinger's "The Flag Bearer?" What type of person would you have to be to feel something other than revulsion for Thorneycraft's "Monstrance"? Writing on the same subject, Miller asked, "What is the mentality that glories in putrescence and bodily wastes?" By contrast, this art celebrates nihilism, it is an assault on the very concept of being human and on all rational values.

It is the same assault which occurred in the days before the rise of Adolph Hitler in Germany. It is a celebration of corruption in both society and the individual person. That corruption finally led to a culture which celebrated lampshades made from the skins of Jews as interior design. What does it say about our government when we celebrate the same basic ideals? What does that say where we are going?

It is not a question that should be answered by the government. Art -- and political commentary -- should be funded and experienced by private citizens. Morality is a deeply personal thing and should not be the currency of government, even if to promote an ideal, lest we end up with the equivalent of those lampshades again.

Steve Martinovich is a freelance writer and the editor in chief of Enter Stage Right

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