The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which successfully attacked public funding for the Ann Arbor Film Festival this year, believes government should not spend a penny to support the arts. Fortunately, however, most Americans – and the majority of state and local legislators – take a different position. They recognize that the arts are essential to the life of the community and shouldn’t depend solely on the whims of private or corporate sponsors. Indeed, a small public investment in the arts pays significant dividends by fostering creativity, preserving historical heritage, generating economic activity and even helping to reduce crime.
But does government funding for the arts also mean government control? In 1940 the government required loyalty oaths from Federal Art Project artists. Today, while such oaths would be considered an outrageous violation of the First Amendment, some legislators advance an idea that is not so different, arguing that tax dollars should not support art that someone might find disturbing or offensive.
The Michigan History, Arts and Libraries budget for 2006-2007, for example, prohibits the use of public funds to support or promote work that includes depictions of flag desecration, sex acts, or human waste on religious symbols. These restrictions have quietly appeared in every Michigan budget bill for more than a decade, but have suddenly been called to attention by the Mackinac Center’s attack on the Ann Arbor Film Festival.
Out of the hundreds of films shown at this internationally-renowned festival over the years, the Mackinac Center singled out for criticism a handful of films with references to sexuality or politics, including a film featuring Dick Cheney speaking at the Republican National Convention, while an audio track from Al Pacino’s Scarface plays over Cheney’s actual words. Under pressure from the Center, legislators accused the Festival of violating content restrictions and voted to penalize it by taking away its government funding.
The ultimate goal of the Mackinac Center is not simply to defund AAFF, but to abolish all funding for the arts. Thus, if this year the Center targeted a few experimental films, next year it might target an exhibition venue or a theater company. In conjunction with such political pressures, the content restrictions on arts funding have the potential to cripple the arts in Michigan.
The ban on "flag desecration" could, for example, be used to attack an institution for screening a documentary about anti-American protests that contains images of a burning U.S. flag, and would prohibit artwork that uses images of the flag to make a political commentary or meditate on the meaning of national unity. Few today recall Sidney Street, the black bus driver, who faced criminal charges in 1966 for burning his flag after he heard that James Meredith, the civil rights leader, had been shot in Mississippi. He told the arresting officer, "If they let that happen to Meredith, we don’t need an American flag." In 1969, in Street’s case, the Supreme Court held that flag burning was a form of expression protected by the First Amendment.
Similarly, the First Amendment protects nudity and sexual content as long as it is not obscene. This is essential if museums are to be free to display classical nudes, a Greek amphora, or an erotic Japanese woodcut without fear that their funding will be withdrawn. Otherwise art institutions can never be sure what someone might find objectionable: Rodin’s The Kiss, Michelangelo’s Leda and the Swan, and Bernini’s Rape of Proserpine all arguably depict sexual acts.
The final prohibition – on "displays of human waste on religious symbols" – is clearly directed at a single work: Andres Serrano’s controversial 1989 photograph Piss Christ. While this prohibition affects a very narrow range of material, it is a disturbing violation of the principle that, in a secular republic, there cannot be any government-enforced orthodoxy in the depiction of religious symbols.
In 1990, an independent commission established by Congress recognized the dangers in tying public funding for the arts to content restrictions and reaffirmed the constitutional principle set out by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943: "if there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion. . . ." West Virginia State Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette, (1943).
It is not the role of government officials to leverage public funds to suppress what they find disagreeable. On the contrary, art and cultural institutions are entitled to the freedom to exercise their professional judgment to determine artistic merit and cultural relevance, and the audience is entitled to be exposed to art and ideas that are not pre-screened and officially approved by the government.
National Coalition Against Censorship