Fraser Forum

Free expression vs. expression for free

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In an earlier post, I argued that government should not fund the arts because works of art can easily be used to exploit highly ideological state interests—interests that may stand in direct conflict with the very people funding the art in question.

But the highly subjective nature of art also creates problems in aesthetic and moral terms as well. What might be a brilliant artistic exploration of someone's unlit basement (say, by painting a black canvas) might be pretentious nonsense to others. In a similar way, there is a consensus that many works of art—especially abstract art—are simply instances of the emperor having no clothes.

Many don't see the point of monochromatic abstract paintings, blotches of colour, signed urinals or jumbles of welded metal. Others may object on stronger grounds, finding certain works of art in bad taste and visually or morally offensive, such as Serrano's crucifix immersed in urine ("Piss Christ"), or Manzoni's cans of human excrement ("Merda d'Artista").

Many assert that’s essential to protect freedom of expression in the arts, and I would certainly not oppose this. The issue is not about free expression, which most agree is an essential part of a free society, but rather, whether or not artists have the right (or privilege) to express themselves for free. In other words, should artists have a special status (unlike plumbers, bankers, insurance agents) and be supported through the non-voluntary mechanism of government subsidization to express themselves?

For artists to create without making claims on others, they have to do their work and find willing supporters in the free marketplace. Anything else amounts to an involuntary transaction. In the language of natural rights, this is referred to as "compossibility.” If an artist wants to claim the right to be free to make works of art (however offensive), then he or she must also respect the rights of others to pursue their projects without interference. As soon as one appeals to government, one automatically interrupts the life-projects and freedoms of others because one activates a mechanism of seizure (commonly known as taxation).

Few would argue that art should be inoffensive, and none would believe any work of art could find universal admirers. On the contrary, art is expected to stir emotions, rally political sentiments, provoke philosophical questioning and test conventions about propriety and aesthetic acceptability. All of these things should be defended in a free society. What should be challenged is public funding of all art, especially when taxpayers must foot the bill for works of art that they may find ideologically flawed, morally depraved or aesthetically worthless.

Funding of arts and culture are unique, contentious and disputable in the way that funding for roads, cholera vaccines or health care simply is not. It is due to this difference that we must leave the arts to the free market, where willing producers can find willing buyers.

Want to buy a red stripe flanked by two blue stripes (see top of page) for a few million dollars? You already have. It’s hanging at the National Gallery of Canada.


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