Censorship versus Patronage

A lot of the behavior that elicits cries of “censorship” is actually nothing of the kind; it’s actually denial of patronage. It is to the advantage of artists — particularly the ones whose oeuvre consists entirely of pretentious, morally outrageous (and sometimes literal) crap — to conflate these two categories. It is very much to the disadvantage of the rest of us to let them get away with it.

Censorship is when someone with a degree of regulatory authority uses that authority against the work. This is the stuff of obscenity laws, book burnings, and so on. It is *not* the same thing as someone in the production/distribution chain refusing to participate, e.g., a gallery refusing to display a painting, a bookstore refusing to sell a book, or a member of the public refusing to buy, or even look at, either one. It is also not the same thing as refusing to give the artist a grant, whether of private or public funds. These are all denial of patronage, not censorship.

When an artist comes to someone with hat in hand, asking for something — a wall to display his work, shelf space to sell it, the purchase price of a sculpture, money to support himself while he works on his next project, etc. — he is asking for patronage. Whether he gets it depends on what the patron is willing to pay for. For his part, the patron isn’t obligated to pay for any particular project; he may choose to support this project and not that one, or even decide that he doesn’t want to support anything by this particular artist. Most importantly, patronage is very much an at-will relationship. Noblesse oblige may perhaps require patronage of the arts in general, but nothing requires a given patron to support this particular artist, or this particular work.

Of course, the artist-patron relationship has its own venerable traditions, and one of them is for the artist to alternate between periods of fawning adulation and and periods of heaping abuse on the patron’s head. During the latter, the artist invariably pictures the patron as a dolt of the first order, a cheapskate and a philistine whose only redeeming quality is his miraculous ability to overcome all these shortcomings and support, in however paltry a fashion, the pinnacle of artistic achievement in this age (coincidentally, the very artist who is speaking.)

All this has historically been well-understood, but in recent times confusion has arisen because those with the power to censor (i.e., the government) also take on the role of patron. I should say at the outset that government patronage is not always a bad thing. (Solomon’s temple comes to mind as a wonderful example with which to choke Christian libertarians.) Insofar as there must be public buildings, parks, and so on, there is no reason for them to be ugly. But these things are not the sort of patronage I am talking about. It seems to be generally understood that the sculptor hired to make a bust of George Washington for a public park is not to put George’s nose on the back of his head in the name of artistic freedom.

The problems arise when the government takes upon itself the role of arts patronage in general, allegedly in the public interest. When the federal government (perhaps via the NEA) extends patronage to a great number of artists, either directly by cutting a check or indirectly by financing art exhibitions, then consider the result when it denies said patronage to a particular artist, particularly if the artist in question is controversial. Now it is the one with the power to censor that is “obstructing” his art, and this lends a patina of credibility to the artist’s inevitable complaints of censorship.

Of course the complaints are groundless; as long as the artist is free to peddle his work to anyone that wants it, he cannot meaningfully claim to have been censored. However, the fact that he is being denied access to the public trough, when so many other artists are not, makes this difficult to see. Even for us. When a scientist doing intelligent-design-friendly research is denied an NSF grant to continue his work, don’t we holler about censorship? What’s the difference?

Does this mean we should say nothing? Of course not. There’s no such thing as “government money” — it’s all taxpayer money, that is to say, our money. If we must have our wages garnished to support the arts and sciences regardless of our wishes — please note the qualification — then we certainly ought to insist that our money support projects of which we approve. But let’s be clear about what it is that we’re doing. When we lobby for or against particular disbursements of public funds, we are not thereby insisting that anyone be censored, nor (taking the other side) are we objecting to censorship, either in principle or in that particular case.

Rather, we are insisting that our collective patronage be extended where we think it will do the most good, and that it be denied where we think the project objectionable, unworkable, or just plain stupid. Deciding what to pay for, and what not to, has always been the right of the patron, and we ought not to allow muddle-headed cries of “censorship” to dissuade us exercising it.

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