As an example of a transgressive or disobedient aesthetic act, Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" is a famous focus of public controversy involving public funding of the arts. Exhibition of the piece caused a scandal when it was shown in 1989. The photographic (Cibachrome) image is of a small plastic crucifix submerged in a golden yellow liquid, which Serrano declared to be his own urine. Were he not to have made this claim, the liquid might have appeared to be, or be seen to be some other fluid. Serrano also stated that the work refers to the commercialization or compromising of Christian icons in contemporary secular culture. The image itself is diverting and strange, though not formally very innovative. It bears comparison with religious imagery from across the historical spectrum of art. While it is not overtly critical of religion per se, it does resonate with unsettling energy, and, taken together with the artist's descriptive captioning, is clearly meant to arouse viewers in ways that certainly include negative intuitive feelings about Christianity--though, again, what those negative feelings might be directed toward, or against, remains stubbornly non-distinct (ambiguous).
Enlightened members of any democracy want to preserve the letter and the spirit of free speech. It is the foundation of our political system, and any attempts to abridge or curtail it--no matter from what quarter, or for what purpose--are to be regarded with suspicion and resistance.
But tolerance and encouragement are not the same thing. The National Endowment for the Arts, which began in 1965, is intended to encourage artistic activity through direct financial support to organizations, communities and individuals--"to help create and sustain . . . a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry." The Congress, concerned that NEA not become a kind of cultural czar, urged that "there be given the fullest attention to freedom of artistic expression" and that "the standard should be artistic excellence."
During the 1930's--the period of the Great Depression, and the Administrations of FDR, the Works Progress Administration [1935-43] was created to support artistic activity in America during a time of social and economic hardship, and also to facilitate the creation of documents and events which would dramatize and bring to public attention, conditions which would awaken the national conscience of the electorate to the difficulties of the period, and inspire pride among the citizenry in our homegrown cultural accomplishments. By most accounts, the WPA was a signal success.
Government support of the arts is not a new idea. Noble and religious patronage has been going on for centuries. Pre-democratic support of the arts sustained the Renaissance, and religious and secular glorifications of all kinds have kept painters, artisans, performers, writers, sculptors busy for thousands of years. The question today, of course, is a different one. In a time when kings and bishops and generals ruled, responsibility and justification for support of artistic activity began and ended with vested authority--it was an expression of power. Since the inception of parliamentary democracy, with its power, theoretically at least, vested in the people (or the people's majority, or the people's organs of popular representation), the right and privilege of patronage of the arts has an entirely new dimension.
If the power to tax and regulate and fund commerce and standing armies is extended to cultural realms, the question of how that power should be administered is always under dispute. In aesthetics, there can be no fixed dogma. No one can define the public's interest as a judgment of taste in artistic enterprise.
Any kind of entertainment, any kind of artistic product or artifact is an expression of a specific and individual talent, creative energy, and taste. Though it may well be "in society's interest" to foster an environment in which the free expression of artistic production can occur, the manner in which such encouragement is to be carried out is fraught with contradictory interests and factions. Who is to say what the public's interest should be with respect to the production of art or literature or entertainment?
Writers, artists, performers all are free, in a free society, to express themselves through their artistic media. Private philanthropy and support owe no allegiance to any public interest. It is free to encourage any kind of artistic activity, without limit, as long as it doesn't tread on the rights and freedoms of other members or groups in society. But when government sets about trying to decide whom or what to support--in the public interest--contradictions abound. It is not the business of government to determine public or private taste. Taste is a matter of fashion. It changes over time. There are vast disagreements about what constitutes the value and purpose of all artistic activity. Art and literature and music and performance are, in fact, luxuries, which do not sustain humankind's need for food, shelter, and safety from harm. Nor does art serve a purely political interest. The public's right to be informed and consulted through media does not require that it should necessarily believe in, or invest in, any form of public speech or expression which arises from private, personal or limited ends.
Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" is a legitimate form of personal expression which is protected by the 1st Amendment. It does not follow, however, that the public, through its elected officials and administrators, has any obligation whatever to support such forms of expression. Serrano's work is a private, personal vehicle of artistic expression. Not one penny of the public's wealth should go to support its creation, or the life of its creator, or any institution which supports it (or him). There is no argument that can be brought forward to defend Mr. Serrano's dependence upon the public purse. If he is independently wealthy, or enjoys private patronage, or is a letter carrier, or a teacher of art at a private college, or sells his art on streetcorners--it matters not, as long as the public is not obligated to judge the value of his art through financial or quasi-financial support. Because it cannot judge. It doesn't have that authority, and it doesn't have that mandate. No one can take the public's tax money and decide--by whatever means--who or what constitutes "the standard of artistic excellence." There can never be agreement about this, and that is a very good thing.
That art is strongest which carries the fewest obligations, which is most free of encumbrances. If artists wish to criticize government, or anything else, they should be free to do so. But they cannot be supported by government. Government support of the arts is by its nature backward and oppressive. It should never be permitted. Not one tenth of one percent of the public's treasure should be given to it. In fascistic, or monarchical, or communistic societies, artistic control is from the top down. In a democracy, in which the arts (and religion, and business) are intended to be separate from governance, there can be no official patronage.