The Swiss have entered political territory familiar to many Americans about the role of government in supporting the arts, especially when artists go out of their way to repulse and insult their sponsor. AFP reports that Pro-Helvetica, the Swiss arts council, faces demands for cuts in funding after presenting a controversial and tasteless display in Paris:
An exhibition at Switzerland’s cultural centre in Paris, which sheds the more common image of orderly Swiss society in favour of political rebellion and a vomiting actor, triggered an uproar in Switzerland.
The “Swiss-Swiss democracy” exhibition by avant-garde artist Thomas Hirschhorn, which opened in the French capital over the weekend, includes photographic paste-ups, graffiti slogans and tracts.
It also features an actor feigning vomiting while another urinates on the photograph of the right-wing Swiss justice minister, Christoph Blocher.
It typifies the artistic communities in both countries that they only honor the process of democracy when it results in their candidates getting elected. Otherwise, quite literally in this case, they piss all over it. Not too surprisingly, Blocher’s party has called for the Swiss government to cut all funding to Pro-Helvetica, which issued an unfortunate explanation:
Pro Helvetia backed Hirschhorn in a statement Monday, saying the artist had a right to question democracy and insisting that the exhibition was not meant to target the minister specifically.
I hope they used the word “target” specifically, because its use just adds a dash of comic irony to the image of hitting Blocher’s photograph with a stream of urine. If that doesn’t represent targeting, then are we to assume that the artist simply dropped trou and got lucky … er, so to speak? Apparently, Pro-Helvetica cannot operate with any intellectual honesty, which alone should cause the Swiss to question its funding priorities in the arts.
This demonstrates once again the problem with governments becoming patrons in the arts. As with the Robert Mapplethorpe display, what taxpayer money usually buys winds up infuriating most of the people who funded it — for example, the infamous “Piss Christ”, which was a crucifix dropped into a beaker of urine. (What is it with artists and bodily fluids, anyway? Didn’t most of us get over that obsession at potty-training?) Artists demand artistic freedom and subsidies, a ridiculous position at best. If government funds art, it has every right to dictate its terms, and if artists don’t like the terms, they should seek funding elsewhere.
Ideally, in a free-market economy such as ours and in Switzerland, artists shouldn’t want government money; they should create art on their own, and if successful in the open market, they can thrive. If not, they can find another, more useful manner in which to contribute to society. So often we find that government funding amounts to nothing more than subsidizing the mediocre or worse, which in this case sounds like a precise diagnosis.
I don’t hold much hope that the Swiss will reach these conclusions, seeing as how these truths have escaped Americans for years. The legions of mediocre artists will do their best to milk the public trough for all the money they can get.