December 11, 2000

Funding Unconventional Art

The question of the extent and nature of the United States government's responsibility to provide funding for art is a difficult and involved one. Should the government provide funding at all? And if so, how are such funds to be apportioned to various groups and artists, and by whom? In light of the loud public outcry at several controversial works of art funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) throughout the last decade, these questions clearly require further investigation. I focus here on the latter problem: that of how funds are to be apportioned. Although I do not presume to offer a complete solution, I present here one crucial, necessary aspcet of any adequate one: namely, that funding should not be withheld on the basis of unconventionality. Excluding unconventional art in fact opposes our interests as a democratic society.

To discus "unconventional" art clearly, we must first know what is meant by "conventional". I take conventional values to be those values that are held by the majority. Societal conventions are then widespread rules of behavior that come about because they reflect conventional values. Table manners and sexual harassment laws are two examples of such conventions that serve the interests of the majority while conflicting with the minority interests of slobs and would-be sex offenders. Members of these minorities either accept this disparity by living within the conventions, or they face persecution in some form for defying them. However, when disparity between social conventions and some minority's values is, as Adrian M.S. Piper puts it, "such that those restrictions serve the interests of others who unfairly compete with them for the resources, power and social status necessary to gain public support for a favored ideology", then the offending conventions must change. That is, social conventions should reflect conventional values, but not to the point that they significantly oppress some minority. Excessively oppressive conventions appear throughout American history: discrimination by race, gender and sexual preference are classic cases of this phenomenon. In each case, social conventions have shifted (and continue to shift) away from the oppressive. A shift of conventions in this direction may be considered progress, as can be seen by the general acceptance of equal rights policies throughout this country. Indeed, as in the cases of the above examples, we tend to hold the government, as the servant of society, responsible for aiding such progress via legislation.

Unconventional art, like public protests and letters to congressmen, can catalyze these shifts in social conventions by initiating or promoting discussion of oppressive conventions, which is an essential step in effecting change. Consider, for example, Andres Serrano's highly controversial photograph, "Piss Christ", where a crucifix is depicted immersed in the artist's urine. As a result of this work receiving NEA funding, several congressmen received letters of outrage from among their constituency. In the ensuing debate, many a politician argued that it is not the responsibility of the government to fund offensive and unconventional art. Jesse Helms speaks for this position, saying, "Artists who seek to shock and offend can do so - but at their own expense". Patrick Buchanan goes on to justify this position, claiming that "A nation absorbs its values through its art" and furthermore that "between rotten art . . . and rotten behavior--the correlation is absolute". That is to say, according to Buchanan, unconventional art directly influcences individual values, and thus upsets social conventions. However, no evidence to this effect has been presented.

On the other hand, Serrano's work is a prime example of unconventional art stimulating discussion of oppressive conventions. Bell Hooks, in a study of several of Serrano's works, notes that in his use of "blood imagery", he "shattered the cultural taboo that prohibits any public celebration of blood that is not an affirmation of patriarchy". These bloody works, she goes on to show, provoke a reconsideration of patriarchal conventions (i.e. ones that are male-dominant, and thus oppressive to females). Art critic Margaret Sundell, quoted by Henry Hyde, similarly demonstrates that "Piss Christ" "argues for a necessary renewal of religion through contanct with the human body". Although both examples are from studies primarily of themes in Serrano's work, both authors also engage in discussion of the theme themselves, if only implicitly.

Hyde goes on to imply, however, that to the majority of the lay public, such interpretations are not apparent, and thus that such works do no more than to provoke most members of the public. Indeed, this may be the case. However, within the art community (i.e. among critics, artists, collectors), a discussion of oppressive conventions has resulted. Rather than exclude such art from public funding, should we not work to make these discussions as accessible as the works themselves? Clearly, by the intensity of the reaction to unconventional works of art, the conventional values they challenge are important, and if they conflict enough with some less popular values that some artist has chosen to challenge them, they certainly deserve public discussion.

In fact, this strong public reaction to (and discussion of) the unconventional artwork is a step towards public discussion of the controversial content that caused the reaction. It is true that often unconventional art has caused its public audience to become defensive, thus blocking in-depth discussion of content. At the same time, though, such art also becomes considerably more accessible to the public through the media coverage of the controversy (rather than, say, through a touring exhibition). It is the unconventional, offensive, controversial nature of works like Serrano's "Piss Christ" that attracts the attention of the media. If only those private discussions in the art community of the content of these works recieved such attention, public discussion would follow.

So we have seen that unconventional art provides a method for instigating discussion (prehaps limited at this time to the art community) of social conventions that may be obsolete or even oppressive. It is therefore in the interest of the government to support rather than to reject unconventional, challenging works of art and further to promote the more widespread discussion of the issues it challenges. To hope for any such public discussion is to ask that members of the public not only expreience offensive works of art, but also listen to their message. One would hope that this isn't too much to ask.

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