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Buy Your Own Art

by on April 19, 2010

This year’s Hallwalls’ Artists & Models Affair might be fun or freaky.  It could be both, too, but it should be up to individuals to find out for themselves.  Admission to the undoubtedly provocative May 1 event is 15 bucks presale or a Jackson at the door.  Either way, taxpayers are also making a contribution to the art hive regardless of whether they attend.

Specifically, their site notes that Hallwalls gets “major support” from the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, both of which my extensive research indicates are governmental agencies.  In essence, the public is paying for someone else’s idea of “art,” which should trouble all involved.

Artists’ output is by definition subjectively appealing.  What some find interesting or fun is junk to others.  You’re free to dislike the poker-playing dogs and velvet Elvises if you’d like, snob, but that’s the point: it’s a personal decision that should lead to a voluntary purchase.

But guess who doesn’t care?  The web gnomes at Hallwalls are too busy being self-righteous to worry themselves about how you would spend your money.  A passage from their history section illustrates how they equate restriction of expression with having to earn livings on their own:

After a spurt of growth in the late 1980s, public arts funding at all levels of government was cut drastically, accompanied by attacks on artists’ free speech. Hallwalls—like all organizations nationwide—was forced to cut back, both its overall budget and its staff size, while simultaneously embracing a new additional role as a fearless advocate for artistic freedom as well as innovation.

That’s nice, although the paragraph could have used some humorlessly tedious bitching about the vileness of Republicans.  Other than that, the author is rather demanding about his or her sense of entitlement to state and federal money without state and federal restrictions.  The only thing worse than a panhandler is a mugger.

What the paragraph producer doesn’t get is that the cuts took place for good reason: it’s not the public’s job to finance any particular expression.  Freedom of speech is worlds different from the freedom to have your speech subsidized.

The group’s forays into partisanship aren’t helping, either.  Take a recent event where Hallwalls screened Stop Loss, a thoroughly antiwar film that also tanked at the box office.  But they had their heart set upon pushing an agenda, as indicated by the beginning of their event description:

This first in a series of events sharing the stories of war resisters and their struggles for justice

…And so forth.  It’s always nice when groups that get your money tell you how to think.  Such brazen disregard for drawing an audience is unacceptable yet sadly understandable given the circumstances.

Ignoring commercial potential is to be expected from a group that’s set up shop in Babeville, Ani DiFranco’s clubhouse.  That company’s site also brags about the public currency it received, which is for some reason is a common theme among people with fierce aversion to authority:

Babeville is in fact two buildings: the sanctuary, which faces Delaware Avenue, and the parish house, which faces Tupper. Viewed from outside, they appear to be a single entity—which is not a bad metaphor for the way that Babeville brings together past and future, art and commerce, private and public funding.

What a rebel!  Oddly, the purportedly autonomous DiFranco wouldn’t get a loan to cover the entire cost of setting up her own business.  Antiestablishment types should be opposed to receiving government checks, but they seemingly only hate The Man until the electric bill arrives.  Meanwhile, they’ll undoubtedly suggest that Carl Paladino is a hypocrite for taking available tax credits.  Perhaps insisting on direct grants would have been preferable.

They also want the state and nation to continue propping up artists who want to inflict their work upon the community, even though many consider much of what’s produced to be a study in weirdness.  Of course, you’re free to like anything made by any creative type, as fondness for art and music is as personal as any other human experience.  That said, if you like Ms. DiFranco’s music, you’re wrong.  To be fair, she at least cornered the market on staccato feminist anthems.

But it’s still up to you whether you listen, as is your fondness for the art group in question.  It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with Hallwalls, as they should be free to sponsor and produce whatever they’d like.  And many people undoubtedly appreciate having such arty outposts in the city even if they don’t patronize them.  But they should get to opt out: the sole issue is with the mandatory backing by workers in the state and country.

Money taken from the general populace shouldn’t back a nonessential function during boom times, and the dole should certainly dry up during an era of continuous economic teetering.  Cutting funding would force Hallwalls to work harder to attract donations and an audience willing to compensate them for what they generate.  And that’s as it should be, just as with every other business.

It might mean higher admission fees for next year’s Artists & Models, which is fine and desirable, too: ticket buyers would merely be paying market rates.  Only attendees having fun ought to be charged, just as you shouldn’t have to pay for a piece you wouldn’t hang in your den.

It’s no better to use public cash to fashion supposedly edgy installations than it is to buy Thomas Kinkade calendars for everyone.  If he is indeed the Painter of Light, then it’s best to wallow in the darkness.

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