Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Government, Art, Free Speech, Etc.

The big controversy in town today is over the loss of an expected $13,300 state grant for the Ann Arbor Film Festival, a celebrated annual event for the past 44 years. Radio station 107.1 is having an all-day drive to help raise private funds to make up the shortfall in the festival's $192,000 budget. Here is some backstory from the Detroit Free Press.

First, let me say I commend 107.1 for its local civic-mindedness and appropriate response, especially since it's an affiliate of Texas-based radio megacorp Clear Channel. Also, I'd like to note I have a lot of respect for Martin Bandyke, the former WDET deejay who now hosts the morning show on 107.1. In fact, he is my morning alarm.

The Real Issue

But I've been listening to the fundraising drive today and I have to object strenuously to the hysterical, sanctimonious misrepresentation of the issue by some of the personnel of, and guests on, the radio station, to wit: OMFG CENS0RSHIP THEIR TRYIGN 2 TAKE DE ARTZ AWAY FR0M US!11!!1. I'm not exaggerating: Some have gone so far as to suggest that there is an active attempt to "shut down" the festival, and that it's just the beginning of a domino effect that will "shut down" other festivals like it in the country.

That's pure, unadulterated nonsense.

Here is the precipitating issue, and nothing more: Earlier this year, the Ann Arbor Film Festival, by exhibiting a film or films that depicted sexual acts*, violated the conditions upon which its 2006 state grant was to be given.** This violation was brought to the attention of the state legislature, which initiated an investigation. Rather than deal with the political hassle, the festival wisely declined the state grant (a small part of its overall budget) and decided, again wisely, to appeal for voluntary support to make up the unexpected shortfall. So that's that.

Three Lessons

Now, the wider, more important lessons to be drawn from this incident are being completely missed in the fundraising drive.

The first lesson, which is often pointed out by folks like me who enjoy artistic and creative endeavors but oppose state subsidies for them, is that when you take money from the government for something, you make that something answerable to the political process. Art, an especially subjective matter, is no exception, and people who miss this simple point and act surprised when the politicians get involved are either stupid or naïve.

The next lesson comes to us by way of Thomas Jefferson, whom I think is still highly regarded by most as an icon of political wisdom. He said, "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical." Like it or not, there really are people who don't take kindly to having their tax dollars used to promote things that offend their moral sensibilities. In fact, it's usually when they are forced, via taxation, to promote such things that the politicians are prompted to get involved. Conflict therefore becomes inevitable.

Finally, the very existence of the fundraising drive shows you don't need the government to put on a film festival; the support is voluntarily there, especially in a place like Ann Arbor. And when the state money goes away, so does the state scrutiny as well as a huge potential source of conflict. It's just that simple.

This last lesson isn't a trivial one, but it's ironically lost on the people in charge of the fundraiser, who still somehow manage to draw the exact opposite conclusion. Quoting from the Free Press:

For Bob Bolak, the general manager for Ann Arbor Radio (WQKL 107.1 FM), the Tuesday fund-raiser sends a message about the need for government arts funding.
Illogical and Dishonest

Mr. Bolak is one of far too many folks who have an illogical and/or dishonest take on the relationship between art and the state. The station's recorded spot for the fundraiser typifies the muddle-headed thinking on this issue: "Support government funding for the arts, freedom of speech, and independent cinema."

I'm all for the latter two things, but the first makes them impossible. It's a lot like saying, of the Michigan-Notre Dame football game, that you are going to root for Michigan and Notre Dame to win. You can't; the two sides are opposed.

In other words, to make the obvious even more explicit, if something requires for its existence the intervention of the state, in the form of forcibly extracted tax monies, it is neither free nor independent, certainly not in any political sense.

So much for the illogical; now for the dishonest. The perpetual portrayal of people who argue against state interference (even in the benign guise of "support") with artistic and creative endeavors as all unenlightened, knuckle-dragging, Bible-thumping philistines is tired and simplistic. There are no doubt some folks who do fit that description, but in my opinion and experience, it's mostly a caricature dragged out to galvanize the usual crowd of self-righteous poseurs and sophisticates into another periodic crusade of the sort necessary to justify their own sense of superiority (and sense of entitlement).

I suppose it also lends an artificial sense of urgency to the fundraising drive in an effort to help boost donations. But isn't the cause of actual independent cinema worthy enough without the Chicken Little rhetoric? Why cheapen that cause with base, politically charged palaver?

These foolish misrepresentations and the accompanying illogical reasoning make it difficult for me to want to ally with people with whose stated goal I might otherwise agree. The fact that they either don't really believe in or don't understand that goal really puts me off.

I don't take in many movies at the theatre these days, experimental or otherwise. But I still hope the Ann Arbor Film Festival continues for another 44 years and more. It's a great tradition, and it's part of what gives this town its vaunted "cool" reputation. And with the state grant accounting for less than 7% of the festival's total budget, it's hard to imagine there is a real danger of it not surviving, even if the fundraiser doesn't meet its goal today (and I'll be very surprised if it doesn't).

Standard Disclosures, Disclaimers, and Etc.

Economist Mike LaFaive, who testified before the legislature against state funding of art, is a good friend of mine, and I can personally attest to the fact that he is no unenlightened, knuckle-dragging, Bible-thumping philistine. Heck, the guy's even more of a Shakespeare aficionado than me. You can also read his original editorial on the same topic here.

I know most of the people who bother to read my blog probably won't agree with this post, but then again, I've never pretended to be "progressive" or "liberal." I just avoid talking much about politics these days because a) it bores me and b) I generally disagree with everyone about everything, and I don't normally like to be disagreeable. But I welcome comments, especially if anything I wrote wasn't very clear.

In conclusion, it's been super cool to hear Me First and the Gimme Gimmes and other awesome bands on the radio today. 107.1 should let listeners request stuff every day so we can hear more than their usual boring playlist. Because if the station doesn't, OMFG CENS0RSHIP!11!1

* This is unquestionably true. At the festival, I saw the film Proteus, which featured a number of, uh, racy liaisons between two dudes. These scenes would have to be categorized as soft-core in content; however, there is no doubt they qualify as explicitly sexual in nature.

** The relevant language from Section 401(3) of the budget for the Department of History, Arts, and Libraries, which oversees the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, says "The MCACA shall not award grants for projects or activities that include displays of human waste on religious symbols, sex acts or U.S. Flag destruction."