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The Separation of Art and State

An article in todays 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 governments 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 Amendments 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 Courts 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 meaningswhat 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 religionspecial mention in the Constitutionso that, like religion, art too, by constitutional privilege, may learn and keep its proper, private, marginal place.

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I am not sure whether you are serious or not. Assuming that you are, this sounds like a recipe for anti-intellectualism. It would lead to a poverty of art, just as the American separation of church and state have led to a poverty of religion. When there are no social standards related to art, every artist will treat "free expression" as a licence to be as different and distinctive as the next guy. While this will probably lead to a wide diversity of artistic expressions, it is not clear whether any will have any great depth. Just like American religion, the public face of art will display its distinctiveness, but under this veneer there will be a common value that is not particularly artistic at all. Art will be co-opted by an elusive search for freedom, just as religion has. Freedom is not antithetical to religion or art, but neither is it the purpose of religion or art. It is a necessary context for certain forms of artistic expression, just as it is for certain forms of religion. But freedom should never become an idol of religion or art.

A familiar argument for direct public subsidies emphasizes alleged positive economic externalities associated with the arts - foreign tourists are attracted, neighborhoods redeveloped, upper income suburbanites patronize inner cities, etc. Some studies claim there are powerful multipliers, i.e. every dollar spent on the arts stimulates much more than a dollare in further spending.But its rare that comparisons are ever made with alternate ways of spending (on stadiums, shopping malls, or public transportation, say) and these studies are frequently conducted by the sponsoring institution. And when there are positive externalities its often the case that one neighborhood benefits at the expense of others such that the larger region is no better off. The economic argument is popular, however, because it avoids any focus on the often controversial content of the arts.One perverse argument for direct subsidies of modern art might adapt the popular theory that historically established churches ultimately suffered from the official embrace of the state and lost out to the more entrepreneurial sects. Likewise subsidized modern art would be less likely to seek support in the marketplace and thus in the long run fail, producing many critical successes but commercial failures.

Fr. K,I suppose the Times didn't publish it because they didn't get it! I think it is great. Thanks for sharing it with us.I'm curious, then, what do you imagine the role of religion should be in the public square today? Seriously, if you please.

JC: I'm glad that you got it! David Tracy and I have thought of trying to introduce a punctuation mark that would indicate that irony is about to be committed. I titled it "A Modest Proposal," but that may not have been enough for the NY Times...Can we restate your question in this way: What is the role of religious people in the public square today?

No doubt it's a general human failing which we all share, but irony (and the need for self-examination it implies) is generally neither recognized nor appreciated by those who suspect someone might be tweaking their own self-important tails. Try being ironic about the institution of academic tenure in a faculty meeting, for example, and then count the minutes till you're ridden out of town. The press is a particularly apt example, and I'm not surprised the Times wouldn't publish this. Had you re-written it so that the target was Southern evangelical Republicanism, no doubt it would have appeared in print. But then, of course, it would not have been truly ironic. We can imagine with little trouble Luke's publican in back of the Temple capable of irony about himself. But the Pharisee up in the first row of pews? Unlikely.

Idon't know what "ironic" means snymore. I've seen it used wbere I would use 'sarcastic" or "paradoxical" and other words expressing opposition. Of course, I can't define my meaning exactly. Maybe it does have lots of meanings. One meaning is about ironic events., some meanings relate to ironic speech. The latter is often hard to decifer because, I think, we can't tell what the speaker really intends.The punctuation mark would be a good idea if we could settle on a meaning. How's about the Bronx cheer cheer symbol -- P -- for 'I don't really mean this"

That smiley face that people can make with typographical symbols appears to have come into use because people don't recognize humor where it is intended. We got along without it for centuries (millennia?); why it is thought necessary now escapes me.

Maybe people in the olden days wrote more carefully than we do on the Internet. It took a lot more time to write by hand than to type. Maybe people had more time to think about how they would be interpreted even as they wrote it. And of course, phone calls then took the place of letters, and the human voice is much expressive than mere written words. At any rate, it seems to be a fact that emails and posts are easy to misunderstand. So I'm for the punctuation mark.

I suspect the smiley face is used now for much the same reason as question marks or exclamation points. People lived without them for centuries, but eventually decided it made communication clearer when they are used.They are used?They are used!They are used :-)

I was thinking more of the great literature. Swift or Pope or Waugh didn't have to announce to the reader that what he was about to read was a satire. Shakespeare or Dickens didn't have to announce that a humorous moment was coming, or had already passed! Some of us can remember when great comedians were live on radio and TV, and people laughed spontaneously and genuinely (or didn't, and then the show was a flop), and then came taped shows and canned laughter, perhaps out of fear that people wouldn't laugh enough or at the right time. Maybe the general public has forgotten how to laugh--has the part of the brain alert to the humorous atrophied?

i'm quite sure that the reason we're not as funny as Shakespeare and Waugh is because they were great talents and most of us have relatively little talent with words. Shakespeare was said not to revise his writing, but I bet the rest of them did. By the way I'm reading a laugh-out-loud funny novel -- "Straight Man" by Richard Russo. I know he revised his last novel - said he had trouble finishing it.About losing our capacity to laugh, it seems to me that humor flourished when there were serious troubles. Times here were relatively good for a long time. Now with the current troubles the humor might improve. It's a great defense against fear and despair.

I've read it three times and the only thing that keeps occurring to me is that the Thirty Years War and the English Civil War were not fought over differences in aesthetic tastes in painting or sculpture. Pretty sure this isn't irony, though I could never keep the categories straight and there is overlap. I think a good example of a work that uses irony is the novel Emma by Jane Austen, in which the heroine's thoughts about the motivation and awareness of others (or lack thereof) are really comments on the heroine herself -- so that each time she feels a little triumph of superior understanding, indeed, she is the one who has been duped. Good irony is extremely sly.

Yes, Barbara,, I would call "Emma" highly ironic. "Pride and Prejudice is also about a certain kindof blindness (prejudice) but I wouldn't call the basic plot ironic at all. I know they're different, but I still can't put my finger on what makes irony ironic. There's a sort of boomerang effect that is typical of irony, but not exactly a boomerang effect. It's kind of like obscenity == I know it when we see it.

Sure. "What is the role of religious people in the public square today?"So...Barbara, did you know that Catholic France and Lutheran Sweden fought together against the Catholic Hapsburgs in the 30 years war? Do you find that ironic?

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About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.