(Note: The Ann Arbor Film Festival is hosting a fundraiser for its annual event. The author wishes them well in this endeavor. Unfortunately, in describing a controversy surrounding the loss of state subsidies for the festival, the AAFF Web site erroneously reports that the following essay equates government funding of the arts with “funding ‘pornography.’” This is simply untrue. The following essay contains no reference to pornography and never has.)

On Feb. 7, state Sen. Shirley Johnson, R-Royal Oak, proposed legislation to impose a 5 percent tax on entertainment-related event tickets or admission fees. The legislation is designed to generate millions of dollars annually for the arts.

The tax would be placed on a wide array of entertainment options, and the revenue would accrue to a new "entertainment and cultural events fund," the first $30 million of which would be spent by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

There are at least four significant shortcomings to the Johnson proposal. First, it is unfair. Far more people prefer baseball to Bach or watching Detroit’s Lions to Puccini’s La Boheme. Yet under this proposal sports fans will, in all likelihood, disproportionately carry the financial burden of new state arts and culture funding.

Second, Michigan’s economy is sputtering relative to the rest of the nation. Raising taxes may only make the Great Lakes State’s employment problems worse.

Third, the program hurts artists. The arts are too important to depend on politics and politicians for their sustenance. Time spent by artists writing grant requests is time not spent honing their respective crafts. Moreover, "with the shekels come the shackles"; government may mandate tax-dollar spending restrictions that limit the artistic license people or groups may take.

Lastly, art is a highly subjective enterprise. One person’s highpoint of artistic achievement may be deemed a cesspool of silliness by another. But when government intervenes in the market for culture, one person is forced to subsidize the preferences of another.

Let us consider just one example of state spending on the arts. The state of Michigan has for years subsidized the Ann Arbor Film Festival through the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. MCACA’s line item in the fiscal year 2005 budget was $11,771,300 according to the state’s House Fiscal Agency.

Last year’s AAFF event, according to the festival’s site and related materials, featured, among other works:

    • "Chests," an experimental short film showing two men repeatedly bumping their bare chests together. The two-and-a-half-minute film is shot from the waists up and the necks down. Click here to see still photos from "Chests."

    • "No American Dream," a longer feature and autobiographical in nature. It was a video diary of the director’s months in the United States while marketing a previous documentary called, "Sexjunkie." The filmmaker notes that "the desperate search for the American Dream increasingly turns into a race against time to get at least one good [expletive deleted] in New York." See a clip of Ann Arbor’s "Billy" (presumably a University of Michigan student) explaining why there is No American Dream. The filmmaker, Julia Ostertag, graciously permitted this author to place the clip on the Mackinac Center Web site.

    • "What is it?" is a movie by Crispin Hellion Glover. Glover is best known for his portrayal of George McFly in the 1985 blockbuster movie, "Back to the Future." "What is it?" is described in the AAFF brochure as a "film (which contains graphic sexuality) [that] flows between controversial imagery and story lines: a minstrel in blackface who aspires to be an invertebrate by injecting nail enzymes into his cheek; a Shirley Temple dictator in Nazi garb; a naked man with cerebral palsy lying on a giant seashell, being fondled by a naked woman wearing a monkey mask; talking snails getting repeatedly salted; and watching over all, an enthroned Glover in a full-length fur coat."

See a clip by clicking here. WARNING: This film clip contains graphic images and may be deemed offensive by the viewer. It may also violate school and corporate policies against viewing such material.

    • The "Sex Workers Art Show" included live performances from people who work in the sex industry, including, among other performers, "Miss Exotic World 2003 and Diva of Danger Miss Satanica." For more on the Sex Workers Art Show, visit the official web site. WARNING: This site contains images that may be deemed offensive by the viewer. It may also violate school and corporate policies against viewing such material.

Author's note: On August 1, 2006, during a radio fundraiser for the Ann Arbor Film Festival, an on-air guest mentioned Mackinac Center research related to the “Sex Workers’ Art Show,” which resulted in a false charge of poor research by an in-studio host.

The Sex Workers’ Art Show guest noted that the Center’s essay mentions performers that were listed in the complaint “that were supposed to be part of the Sex Workers’ Art Show, but neither one of those performers named was present.”

Another guest used the opportunity to drive home the point:

“… about the Mackinac Center’s report about the Sex Workers’ Art Show … it is completely inaccurate and you know that they didn’t do much research because the two, you know, the two artists, [unintelligible] the performers they said were there weren’t there.”

    On the contrary, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy did do its research. The fact is that this author obtained marketing documents for the Ann Arbor Film Festival that advertised the Sex Workers’ Art Show’s March 6, 2005 performance. The document details an “incredible lineup of performers,” including “Miss Exotic World 2003” and “Danger Miss Satanica.” For a copy of this document please feel free to contact the author at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy directly.
  • "America’s Biggest *ick" featuring Dick Cheney speaking at the Republican National Convention. The film short lays an audio track from Al Pacino’s Scarface over Cheney’s actual words. "Say hello to my little friend ..." by clicking here. This film was last year’s "Tio’s Red Hot & Spicy Award" winner, an honor worth $500. WARNING: This video contains graphic language and may be deemed offensive by the viewer. It may also violate school and corporate policies against viewing such material.

Films shown in previous years at the AAFF included such titles as "The Arousing Adventures of Sailor Boy," "Soggy Penis Syndrome" and "Boobie Girl." For a more complete listing of previous AAFF films, along with a description of each, download the following PDF document. WARNING: This document contains graphic language that may be deemed offensive by the viewer. It may also violate school and corporate policies against viewing such material.

In fiscal year 2005, the AAFF received $17,400 in state tax funding; this amount dropped to $13,300 for the 2006 festival, which begins March 21. Relative to the state’s $40 billion budget, such appropriations are small, but the principle is significant: Legislators have no business reaching into the pockets of Michigan citizens without first squeezing questionable expenditures from the state budget. Sen. Johnson’s legislation reaches deeper and takes more.

Several AAFF subsidies were approved during the same budget cycles that saw state legislators raise cigarette and property taxes, and Lansing officials claimed there were simply no more cuts to make.

One possible reason legislators may have approved such arts spending is because they may have been unaware of its existence. During the appropriations process, legislators frequently don’t vote for a particular line item within a department’s budget. The grant to AAFF is just one of about 300 doled out to arts- and culture-related organizations across the state. It is even possible that Department of History, Arts, and Library bureaucrats overseeing the program don’t know how the money is used. The AAFF grant application, for example, speaks only of "avant-garde" and experimental films, not cinematic themes that include gay rodeos and the "Warhol Transvestite Superstar Jackie Curtis."

It would appear that both grants and entire budgets are often designed for obfuscation — that is, to disguise the true nature of spending — in order to preserve it. The appetite for government arts programs among legislators might be quashed if the public knew precisely how their money was being spent. The difficulty in exposing such expenditures lies in the size and complexity of the budget. Indeed, identifying precisely how this single $17,000 art grant was used took Mackinac Center scholars about 20 hours and hundreds of dollars in research. Most voters just don’t have the resources to play spending watchdog and government over-spenders probably prefer it that way.

Using tax dollars to fund artistic pursuits is not in the best interest of Michigan citizens. It is unfair for those who prefer not to patronize the arts voluntarily; it hurts artists by encouraging them to be wards of a state that may ultimately dictate what type of art they can produce; and it hurts economic growth by redistributing wealth to uses that are probably less productive than others on which the money could be spent.

For more on government funding of the arts, see "Ernest Hemingway and Arts Subsidies: A Farewell to Alms" and "Show Me the Monet! Why Not Privatize the Arts?"

Did your legislator vote for or against these funds by approving the History, Arts and Library budget? Visit http://www.michiganvotes.org/2005-SB-274 to find out.

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Michael D. LaFaive is director of the Morey Fiscal Policy Initiative at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.