For the past 45 years, the Ann Arbor Film Festival has cultivated creative expression by giving experimental artists a way to screen their work. Although in the past the festival screened films that may have offended some people, it serves a vital purpose in the cause of free artistic expression and in building up the socially creative, lively atmosphere for which Ann Arbor is known.
Many state legislators, however, have found some material at recent festivals inappropriate; they go so far as to call it “pornographic” and demand that funding be denied to the festival until all its films meet decency standards currently on the books. In order to avoid getting stuck in the middle of this election ploy before the 2006 midterms, the film festival decided to forgo all state funding each of the last two years.
Many lawmakers feel the arts should not be funded publicly because some pieces are inherently objectionable and by eliminating funding altogether, there is no need to debate censorship issues. We agree that art is subjective and may offend some people, but art and the Ann Arbor Film Festival are necessary public goods for the state. Eliminating funding to avoid political controversies over subjective standards of decency and funding issues is destructive to the vibrancy of Michigan.
The concept of judging decency is relative. Never should the state be able to decide what people can or cannot see by tying funds to content requirements. Art continuously evolves from grassroots influences and free thinking and these state controls of expression would stifle further development. But perhaps even worse is the suggestion that art should not be funded by the government at all.
The fundamental reason governments fund art is that art itself is an intangible public good. Besides the revenue that events like the Ann Arbor Film Festival generate through jobs and tourism, they improve the quality of life for local residents by building up their communities to lively places of cultural expression. Cities worth living and working in not only have a strong local economy and safe streets, they have means to stimulate the mind.
Art is a necessary factor for growth. Events like the Ann Arbor Film Festival are a big part of what makes Ann Arbor enticing to forward-thinking companies who might want to move here, like Google. Even from a student’s perspective, many choose Ann Arbor after they realize that other college towns have little to offer beyond either high rises and urban monotony or cow tipping and rural seclusion.
The recent debate over the Ann Arbor Film Festival highlights the broader issue of the role of government in revitalizing Michigan. Legislation that represses artistic expression makes it indefinitely more difficult for outsiders to see this state as a place where they would want to live. Similarly, tax-exemptions alone cannot attract development if the area is unappealing to residents and a burgeoning business’s potential employees. And activities such as this pointless bickering among legislators further embarrass the state by scaring away progressive and creatively inclined residents and potential employers.