The Separation of Art and State
An article in today’s New York Times, reporting increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, reminded me of a piece I wrote ten years ago but which the Times declined to publish as an op-ed piece. I entitled it: “A Modest Proposal for Ending the Culture Wars.”
Art and religion were once considered public matters, expressions not simply of personal experiences and beliefs but of sentiments and convictions that both united large communities of people and sought to convey how things are in the universe and how people ought to act, individually and communally, within a universe so defined. That is why for centuries states sought to sustain political unity by imposing religious unity and artists sought and some of them received the munificence of the state.
Religion, of course, has long since been privatized, at least in states that like to consider themselves advanced democracies. An early political expression of this narrowing was the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which forbade the Congress from making any law that respects an “establishment of religion,” this latter phrase referring to the singling out for state support and financing of any one of the then still public and communal religions, to the disadvantage of others. This constitutional disestablishment was extended into the realm of culture to the point that William James could define religion as “the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude.” Religion has become what some people do when they are alone; it is now a matter of personal taste and decision, without public warrants, the sort of thing into which, on grounds of privacy, government should not intrude and over which it has no competence. People are free to adopt and express religious convictions, but they should not expect the state to support them or to decide among their great variety.
Art has not advanced as far along this path of progress. Here the cultural privatizing came first, aided by the romantic notion of the lonely tortured artist whose genius puts him in the avant-garde of the march of progress and sets him over and against his culture and who often suffers from the criticisms of unenlightened contemporaries. Later generations, however, enabled by cultural progress to recognize his precocity, appeal to his eventual triumph in order to keep alive the older notion of the public significance of art. On that basis museum directors solicit public funding and American art critics bemoan the poverty of our government’s aid to the arts, contrasting it with the practice of governments elsewhere, particularly in Europe, where ministries of culture survive long after establishments of religion have disappeared. So on the one hand, art is considered intensely private and not bound by common cultural norms, and on the other governmental support for it is sought. The result of this contradiction is our recurrent culture-wars.
Surely it is time for art to catch up with religion and accept its complete privatization. How better could this be done than by a constitutional amendment modeled on the First Amendment’s statements about religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of art or prohibiting the free expression thereof”? Many things would be clarified at once. It would be clear that, to adapt what Justice Black said of religion in the Supreme Court’s 1948 McCollum decision, all laws and actions are invalid that “aid one kind of art, aid all kinds of art, or prefer one kind of art over another.” It would be clear that it is no more the business of government to decide what is true art and what is not than it is for it to decide which religion is true and which is not. It would be clear that it is unconstitutional to have a National Endowment for the Arts that grants taxpayers’ money to some artists but refuses it to others. It would be clear that New York City has no more right to finance the Brooklyn Museum than it does to finance a church, a synagogue, or a mosque. It would be clear that the government may not favor an art-establishment that prefers one kind of art to another, that continues the discrimination evident in the preference of government-supported museums for old works by dead white European males and, among contemporaries, provides a home for a Mapplethorpe or an Ofili but not for the poor struggling artist whose works on velvet he is forced to exhibit and sell in the parking-lots of strip malls.
The problem with art today is that it suffers from a culture-lag. Defenders of continued or increased government-support for the arts are like the last-gasp defenders of a union of Church and State: they do not recognize that progress has passed them by. If art is the quintessence of the free expression of private meanings–what artists do with their solitude–, it should, of course, be free, not only from restrictions by government but also from what religion has long since known to be the suffocating embrace of its support. If art wishes to have public significance, let it earn it, as religions must. As it is not the business of government to choose among competing ultimate truths, it is not its business to choose among competing private meanings. A constitutional amendment would end a series of wars which resemble nothing so much as those that once pitted theology against theology. As those conflicts long ago led to the constitutional separation of Church and State, it is surely time for the separation of Art and State. Art should now be granted the honor long since bestowed on religion–special mention in the Constitution–so that, like religion, art too, by constitutional privilege, may learn and keep its proper, private, marginal place.