The Left’s Inconsistent Stance on Provocative Art

By Jonah Goldberg Published on May 9, 2015

Note: Some may find language and imagery in this column offensive.

Why aren’t liberals offering Pamela Geller a federal subsidy? Geller is the blogger-activist who organized the “Draw Muhammad” exhibition in Garland, Texas, which inspired some DIY jihadists to attack the event. The would-be terrorists chose poorly: They were cut down by Texas lawmen shortly after wounding a security guard.

Let’s hop in the WayBack Machine for a moment.

In 1986, the National Endowment of Arts paid about $20,000 for Andreas Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” Serrano peed in a glass, plunked a plastic icon of Jesus on the cross into it and then snapped a picture. I will say the lighting was lovely. But, as strange as it seemed to the “arts community,” some people were offended.

In 1989, the Corcoran Gallery of Art agreed to host a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit. Mapplethorpe’s work was edgy, particularly going by the attitudes at the time. There were the obligatory sexual bondage scenes, urine-drinking (artistic urine: is there anything it can’t do?) and, of course, his most famous work: a self-portrait showing a bullwhip going someplace the sun reportedly does not shine.

Many social conservatives flipped out. They asked: “Why the h*** are we paying for this?!”

Now, personally, I think this is a reasonable question even if you are a huge fan of Mapplethorpe’s hide-the-bullwhip oeuvre or enjoy seeing the Christian God incarnate lose in the urine dunk tank.

Federal subsidies for “art” — or even art without scare quotes — are legitimately controversial for all sorts of reasons: Surely the government has higher priorities; bureaucrats shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners and losers — in the marketplace or the art gallery; it’s particularly annoying to be asked to fund expression you find inartistic and obscene.

Thomas Jefferson said it well: “To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.”

But whenever Congress attempted to curtail funding of offensive art, editorial pages, faculty lounges and museum boards launched a nationwide elite freak-out. In 1989, when the Senate voted to restrict some funding for offensive art, Richard Koshalek, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, told The New York Times that he felt that the vote was “a form of psychological tyranny, trying to put the art world into a state of terror.” Painter Robert Motherwell exclaimed that “for Congress to act as censor is outrageous. The ultimate end is fascism.”

Similar reactions sprouted up like mushrooms on manure throughout the 1990s. For instance, in 1997, the Miami Herald editorialized that having a legal standard of “decency and respect” for arts funding was a possible invitation for the Supreme Court to “scuttle the First Amendment.”

Speaking of manure, there was the time the taxpayer-subsidized Brooklyn Museum of Art ran an exhibit in which a portrait of the Virgin Mary was partly comprised of pornographic pictures and elephant dung — because, you know, art.

Note: None of the critics said such work should be banned. They said it shouldn’t be publically showcased on their dime. And yet, opposition to a taxpayer subsidy was almost universally seen as unambiguous censorship and violence against the First Amendment.

Another interesting tidbit: Christians didn’t try to murder these artists. Nor did Christian organizations exhort their members to do so.

Which brings us to Pamela Geller. I’m consistent: I didn’t like “Piss Christ,” and I don’t like insulting drawings of Muhammad. If Geller wanted an NEA grant to dunk Muhammad in beautifully illuminated urine, I would disagree quite strongly.

But that’s not what she’s doing. She’s contending that in America, people are allowed to say offensive things without risking execution. I am at a loss as to why anyone would disagree with that. But I am utterly baffled how people who think it’s censorship to withdraw funding for anti-Christian “hate speech” can argue that private individuals have no right to express anti-Muslim views.

“While we have freedom of speech,” a New York Daily News columnist insisted, “we also have freedom of religion, which shouldn’t be impinged upon.” CNN’s Chris Cuomo, a law school grad, tweeted that Geller’s “hate speech” isn’t protected by the Constitution. At first Cuomo suggested proof of this could be found in the Constitution itself. He then hastily clarified that it fails the “fighting words” doctrine of the Supreme Court.

I’m dubious about that. But if he’s right, the lesson is clear: Violence pays. I doubt that’s what he intended to say. But what do I know? I think these people are nuts.


Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at [email protected], or via Twitter @JonahNRO.


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