Duty free – art and public policy

Duty free – art and public policy

Brian Doherty

Art oughtn’t kowtow to politics.

If the majority leader of the Senate condemned the Episcopal Church for doctrinal looseness, we might think it strange. If political pundits concentrated great polemical energy questioning Mormons’ claims about their scripture’s history, and the Mormons’ ethics in spreading such apparent fibs, it might seem curious. If the president made a public proclamation about how potentially dangerous the religious practices of charismatic Christians are, it might seem grossly inappropriate.

We recognize, both constitutionally and in our public mores, that certain aspects of life ought to be beyond political meddling – even beyond political concern.

Yet political commentary recently has been rife with talk of the duty of artists. Bill Clinton and Bob Dole lecture that those who make and sell popular art have a duty to ensure that the art is appropriate for kids. Political pundits harangue film maker Oliver Stone on his duty not to add dramatization to his drama. No one is surprised, since links can be imagined between those statements and seemingly legitimate matters of public policy.

But you don’t have to buy into the early modernist conceit of art as the new religion to see dangers in that trend. No, art is not the same as religion. But when politics noses in on either, the similarities are more important than the differences.

Both involve the individual’s emotional and imaginative life. Both deal with hope, insight, ambiguity, pleasure, and release on levels that politicians not only seem unable to understand, but frankly have no business dealing with.

It isn’t that art can’t affect the polity. The aesthetic can and does intersect with the political – as, of course, does the religious. No one ever seems satisfied with the results of such intersection. From the comparatively mild problem of using illegal drugs in religious ceremonies to violent confrontations like Waco, experience indicates it might be best for government to keep out of those areas where individuals privately seek meaning, understanding, and pleasure in life.

Anyway, the nature and extent of how art affects people’s behaviors and attitudes – the question that Clinton, Dole, and the enemies of Nixon seem to think they’ve answered – is still unknown, and possibly unknowable. Art shows, delights, entrances, suggests – and often bores and annoys. But no clear, unambiguous connection between social decay and dirty pictures, violent music, or historically inaccurate movies has yet been detected. When the social repercussions of an action are as complex and unpredictable as the link between art and the real world, it behooves the government to err on the side of caution – and stay out.

So government shouldn’t have the power to enforce aesthetic decisions. Even Clinton and Dole might agree with that – on the surface. But surely one can’t object to politicians talking about the duties of art to society – bringing the issues to the national conversation through judicious use of the bully pulpit.

Yet the national conversation was humming along just fine before Dole and Clinton butted in with the banal observation that a lot of American popular art deals with adult themes in adult manners. This oughtn’t be a shock. America, all evidence to the contrary, is full of adults, and it insults them to demand that all of their pop culture be adulterated so that even the most innocent of children wouldn’t be puzzled or discomfited by it.

The reason it’s dangerous for politicians even to discuss matters of art and culture is that the self-restraint Clinton and Dole demand won’t achieve their goals. Dole asked for self-restraint from Time Warner regarding the naughty rap of its affiliate Death Row Records. Warner dutifully divested its interest in Death Row’s parent company, which was then bought by MCA – whose parent company is the Canadian Seagram Co.

So now what? Time Warner behaved like the good corporate citizen Washington demands (with more money than Snoop Doggy Dogg will ever generate at stake with telecommunications deregulation, it wasn’t that tough a choice). Now the consumer demand Time Warner met is being served by someone else. Cultural cleansers won’t get the art they want by just pandering to the public’s supposed elevated taste, implying that only the supply side of sinister smut need be addressed. Plenty of Americans in fact want the adult-themed popular art Clinton and Dole condemn.

And that’s what makes politicians’ complaints about that art especially ominous. Many Americans, both politicians and citizens, can’t always distinguish between the law and moral approval. (See arguments about the moral hazards of legalizing drugs or prostitution.) Politicians harping continuously on the evils of popular art sound uncomfortably like the Big Bad Wolf sweet-talking Little Red Riding Hood before leaping to devour her.

I just finished reading what Bill Clinton has alleged to be his favorite novel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. It has a lot of violence, much incestuous sex, and plenty of anti-capitalism and anti-clericism. I can imagine neither what Clinton might have learned from it nor what he might expect some random child or teenager to learn, or be influenced toward. But it is a fine, detailed, nuanced novel that offers riches above the didactic level to which politicians like to reduce art. Politicians and children are both often strangers to the aesthetic. And politicians’ concerns for children shouldn’t mess things up for the rest of us adults.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Reason Foundation

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