Piss Christ, Andres Serrano, 1978
Anyone who has followed the periodic “culture wars” that break out whenever some outraged congressman attacks a piece of government funded art he or she finds offensive and is counter-attacked by an equally outraged critic who defends artists’ freedom to do anything they want will find this book a welcome relief. Instead of the usual pieties about our need for high art’s “challenges” and “subversions,” Zuidervaart offers a philosophically sophisticated reflection that exposes the false assumptions shared by both “traditionalists” and “transgressivists.” In the process, I believe, Zuidervaart gets to the heart of the deeper cultural and political issues at stake. The present book is actually a sequel and extension of his earlier work Artistic Truth: Aesthetics, Discourse, and Imaginative Disclosure (Cambridge University Press, 2004), and together the two aim at a general theory of art and its place in society that will break “the grip of modernist aesthetics without discounting the importance of modernist ideas.” (ix) Art in Public focuses on social and political theorizing of the arts’ role in society as Zuidervaart tries to uncover the often implicit conceptual frameworks that hamper our transcending the familiar oppositions over government funding for the arts.
The book starts off with a critique of three assumptions that both the advocates and opponents of government funding share. The first shared assumption is their framing the issue as a problem of the arts’ economic survival, with one side claiming a need for government support and the other arguing for reliance on the market. Here, Zuidervaart says, both advocates and opponents skirt the crucial issue of whether art is a social good whose support is in the public interest. Secondly, both advocates and opponents of government funding share a view of artists as isolated individuals rather than seeing them as participants in art institutions and cultural communities. Finally, both sides accept the modernist idea that art must be in the vanguard, advocates of funding viewing artists as the prophetic figures who goad us toward progress, the opponents viewing artists as a narcissistic and decadent threat. But, as Zuidervaart says, this shared romantic idea of the modern artist as the individual genius and rebel is simply untrue for the vast majority of artists. Similarly, the idea that art is the privileged locus of society’s vanguard is grossly exaggerated since many other fields contribute as much or more to foretelling and bringing into being our collective future. Above all, the focus on provocative content by both advocates and opponents of government support overlooks the more important role the arts can play in nurturing a democratic culture. These points, made by Zuidervaart in the first chapter of the book, are in my view one of his most important contributions to helping us break out of the usual clichés used to attack and to defend state support of the arts.
Zuidervaart devotes his next two chapters to a critical examination of current economic and political justifications for government support of the arts, finding most of them inadequate. The problem with most economic justifications, whether they argue from external benefits, from the demands of equity, or even from “merit good” positions, is that all suffer from a “culture deficit,” that is, they end up treating the arts more or less as a type of consumer commodity rather than arguing from the idea that art is a sociocultural good.