“The Big Bluff” is undeniably great art, but masterworks like this probably shouldn’t receive government subsidies.
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On Feb. 7, state
Sen. Shirley Johnson, R-Royal Oak, proposed legislation to impose a 5 percent
tax on entertainment-related event tickets and admission fees. The legislation
is designed to generate more than $50 million in additional tax revenue annually
for government arts and culture expenditures.
Using tax dollars to fund artistic pursuits is not in the best interest of Michigan citizens.
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 prefer 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
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.
program hurts artists. The arts are too important to depend on 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 restrictions that limit the artistic license afforded to
politically sponsored works.
Fourth, 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
Let us consider
just one example of state spending on the arts. The state of Michigan subsidizes
the Ann Arbor Film Festival through the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural
Affairs. MCACA’s line item in the fiscal 2005 budget was $11.7 million.
Last year’s AAFF
event, according to the festival’s Web site and related materials, featured,
among other works:
Workers Art Show," which included live performances from people who work in the
sex industry, such as "Miss Exotic World 2003 and Diva of Danger Miss Satanica."
"What is it?," which 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 [man] in a full-length fur coat."
American Dream," a video diary of the director’s months in the United States
filmed while she was 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
Films shown in previous years at the AAFF included such
titles as "The Arousing Adventures of Sailor Boy," "Soggy Penis Syndrome" and
In fiscal 2005, the AAFF received $17,400 in state tax
funding. Relative to the state’s $40 billion budget, such an appropriation is
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 proposed legislation reaches
deeper and takes more.
reason legislators may have approved such arts spending is because they may have
been unaware of its existence. The grant to AAFF is just one of about 300 doled
out to arts- and culture-related organizations across the state. The Johnson
legislation could expand this tally.
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.
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.