by Ari Armstrong
The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on August 11, 2005.
For quite a while I thought the most bizarre example of a wasteful state arts grant was $10,400 for a film about the Big Blue Bear. Then came the dildos.
I'm currently working on a paper for the Independence Institute about wasteful state spending. Art grants are just a small portion of the $14.61 billion 2005-06 budget (which is, by the way, the largest budget in state history and the reason why we need a massive tax hike). But the art grants have been the most fun.
In 2003, the Colorado Council on the Arts awarded Tsehai Johnson of Denver a $5,000 fellowship based partly on her work, Twelve Dildos on Hooks. The Council proudly displayed the dildos, tastefully renamed Large Implements on Hooks, on its Web page. That is, until an intern with the Institute discovered the page and 9News did a story about it. Then the Council deleted the dildos.
The best part about the Web page was that, right above the photo of the dangling dildos, the Council proudly displayed its motto: "Stimulating local arts initiatives throughout Colorado." Indeed!
Another $44,100 Council project for high school students accessed material about female orgasms and sex among lesbian sheep. After all the sex promotion, I guess it's a good thing that the state spent $55,094 for fun-colored condoms. Unfortunately, The Denver Post reported, the condoms were not rated the best by Consumer Reports. The Council's project also linked to a work that glorifies self-mutilation and funded anti-war classroom exercises. The Council pulled those Web pages, too, after a reporter from the Rocky Mountain News called about them.
We handed Johnson enormous publicity. I even tried to buy three of the dildos (admittedly as mementos), but the gallery that sells her work said it was inundated with calls following the media attention. The dildos were selling for $500 and $600 (depending on size), which proved too great a strain for my "sex toy" budget.
I regard the ceramic dildos as stylish artistic design. I'm all for undermining Puritanical hangups about sex. While some religions regard masturbation as a sin, I'm all for it. I'm glad my married life is full of sex, but in a pinch...
I question some of Johnson's sentiments. In the July 28 Westword, she says of the dildos, "[T]hey hang on the wall rather than hide in the drawer... [They] demand to be hung in the bathroom and be viewed in a manner similar to a toilet or sink. Thus, they bring out questions about the traditional divisions of our bodies into public and private activities." But throwing off hangups about sex doesn't mean we have to lose our privacy, make our sex lives public or equate sex with using the sink. Dildos are great and all, but most people don't want to hang them in the bathroom.
My only big problem with the dildos is that they drew a tax subsidy. Some Coloradans do not wish to spend their money on dildos, and it's wrong to force them to do so.
Not all the criticisms of the dildos were as nuanced. As 9News reported, Governor Bill Owens said, "Obviously, this is offensive and in extremely poor taste." Elaine Mariner, who currently heads the Council (but did not when the award was handed out), said, "Frankly, it did shock me, and I did find it inappropriate." Jon Caldara of the Independence Institute said, "It's hard to say we're in a budget crisis when taxpayers are paying for this kind of smut."
I think the main reason Caldara said "smut" is that they wouldn't let him say "dildo" on TV. He subsequently joked that at least the state should have solicited competitive bids for dildos. Having attended Caldara's Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) party this year, I can attest that he's of the "live and let live" school.
Approving of something doesn't mean approving of tax subsidies for it. I like Wal-Mart, but I don't want the store to receive corporate welfare. Denying something a tax subsidy is not the same thing -- is not even remotely similar -- to getting rid of it.
It was thus disheartening to read Mariner's comments when the second round of examples were reported. She told the Rocky Mountain News, "This is clearly a witch hunt by the Independence Institute and an attempt to censor artists, teachers and students in the interest of fighting a tax-reform initiative that has broad-based support."
Mariner is attacking a straw man. Nobody in this debate is trying to censor anything. Censorship means using political force to prevent a person or group from expressing some view. Censorship is a blatant violation of individual rights. Censorship has nothing to do with whether something is subsidized by taxpayers. (It also takes a lot of nerve for Mariner to take down the Council's Web pages and then accuse my side of censorship.)
Indeed, rights are violated precisely at the point when politicians and bureaucrats force unwilling taxpayers to subsidize ideas with which they disagree or art of which they disapprove.
Artists who grovel for money from politicians then act surprised when their work becomes political. Keeping politics out of art requires just that.