Blasphemy and Public Funding of the Arts

Is there really such a thing as "secular art" and is it as sacrilegious as so many conservative believers insist it is?
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Defund NPR! Defund PBS! Defund the NEA! Defund the NEH!

Defund it! That seems to be the not-exceedingly-cost-effective solution that certain conservative politicians have identified as a means of simultaneously : 1) reducing the deficit and 2) stifling forms of creative expression with which they disagree.

The literary, artistic, intellectual, cinematic and mixed-media work that these conservatives so abhor is often accused of being part of a broader scheme to de-Christianize or to secularize America.

But is there really such a thing as "secular art" and is it as sacrilegious as so many conservative believers insist it is?

Conservatives are correct that some forms of art that are colloquially called secular do frontally, as it were, criticize a religion or religions in general. Whether federal funding should be made available to support such work is a very tricky question.

Those who want to answer in the affirmative might ponder this scenario: What if the extremely well-organized and strategically savvy folks on the religious right had some of their own platoons of painters seek government grants for work celebrating our "Christian Nation"? If they did receive funding wouldn't that be as constitutionally dubious as a mixed-media piece lambasting the pope supported by taxpayer dollars? (One possible way of out this is to have the government support training in the arts, as opposed to specific artists.)

Yet, it seems to me that we need to be cautious about what we refer to as blasphemous art. And that's because some artists accused of blaspheming vigorously deny the charge.

The case of Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" (destroyed recently by Christian fundamentalists in France) is perennially instructive. The controversial 1987 piece embroiled Serrano and others in the "NEA 4" in all sorts of debates about public funding of anti-religious art.

Complexifying matters is that the artist himself observed, "I have always felt that my work is religious, not sacrilegious. I would say that there are many individuals in the Church who appreciate it, and who do not have a problem with it. The best place for Piss Christ is in a church." So if a work deemed by some to be sacrilegious is produced by an artist who claims to be working from, in part, religious convictions, is that blasphemous art? Is that secular art?

Another way of going at the question is to think of art that seems not hostile, but oblivious, to religious concerns. I cite in the video above the architecture of LeCorbusier and the paintings of Mark Rothko.

Surely a secular government could fund work of that kind. But here as well we run into a difficulty. What is to be done if the artist and/or the artist's audience find religious or spiritual significance in the supposedly secular art in question? For what it's worth, I have always found that reading the novelist Philip Roth is a spiritual experience. Though I am pretty sure that Philip Roth would not describe his compositional process or overarching worldview as "spiritual."

A final way of thinking about secular art is to consider work that is human-centered. In other words, it takes no position on the existence or non-existence of God. Rather it focuses exclusively on the human -- her strengths, passions, frailties, heroisms and so forth.

I, personally, have always thought of jazz as secular art. Mainly that's because of the awesome artistic heights these musicians have to scale. To master an instrument, to improvise on the spot, to fabricate melodies and rhythms out of nothing, to communicate with other players so thoughtfully (and jazz is the ultimate art of communication), well, what could be more human than that?

Of course, none of that explains why so many great jazz artists were initially schooled in the melodies of the Church and see their music as exulting God.

So I confess to being a bit stumped. Though of this much I am clear: before trying to defund secular art, critics should spend some time trying to define it.

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