Federal subsidies for “art” — or even art without scare quotes — are legitimately controversial for all sorts of reasons: Surely the government has higher priorities; bureaucrats shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners and losers, in the marketplace or the art gallery; it’s particularly annoying to be asked to fund expression you find inartistic and obscene.
Thomas Jefferson said it well: “To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.”
But whenever Congress attempted to curtail funding of offensive art, editorial pages, faculty lounges, and museum boards launched a nationwide elite freak-out. In 1989, when the Senate voted to restrict some funding for offensive art, Richard Koshalek, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, told the New York Times that he felt that the vote was “a form of psychological tyranny, trying to put the art world into a state of terror.” Painter Robert Motherwell exclaimed that “for Congress to act as censor is outrageous. The ultimate end is fascism.”