Who Should Decide What is Art?

by Jeffrey Miron on December 1st, 2010
4 CommentsComments

House Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Tuesday called for the dismantling of an exhibit in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery after they learned that it contains video of a Jesus statue with ants crawling on it, as well as works of art with strongly sexual themes.

If Boehner and Cantor want to oppose all government funding of art, I will cheer them from the highest rooftops. But they are not taking a principled stance here; they are helping the government dictate what constitutes art.  That is bad for freedom, and bad for art.


The National Portrait Gallery agreed to remove one of the artworks from the exhibit late Tuesday. “A Fire in My Belly,” the video installation that depicts ants on a cross, was taken down.

Museum director Martin Sullivan said in a statement, “I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious.”

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  • Scott

    Granted that the first-best outcome would be eliminating all government sponsorship of art, this is still a step in the right direction. If government must fund art, I think it’s better that elected officials decide the kind of art than unelected Smithsonian bureaucrats.

  • dave v

    Are we seriously getting huffy over “government censorship” of tax- payer subsidized art? That’s a fascinating example of failing to see the forest for the trees. Where’s the outrage that a federally funded instution of art exists in the first place?

    This is analogous to the NPR/Juan Williams kerfuffle. As long as an institution receives tax subsidies, i.e. it is unable to independently survive in the free market, it has a duty to uphold objectivity be it free speech, separation of church/state, etc. It’s mind boggling that a particular opinion on politics or religion can be promoted at the citizens’ expense in this country. Most ironic of all, in a nation where we contort ourselves silly to purge ANY form of religion from ALL public institutions (the 10 commandments, Christmas trees, the colors red and green!), we are somehow permissive of a gov’t sponsered gallery degrading a specific religion.

  • Brian

    Let the Republican overreach begin, and we haven’t even gotten out of the lame duck session! Its either classic Republican hypocrisy, or their inability to see that political goals that have trade-offs have to be ranked. Moreover, this move is making a ranking that is NOT what the recent election gave them mandate for

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