Just when you thought it couldn’t possibly get any worse, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy has done it again. The think-tank known for its staunch conservatism and extreme free-market ideas recently concluded that funding the arts in Michigan should not be the responsibility of the state or its taxpayers. But rather than being upfront about its intentions in the state legislature, the center hid this agenda behind obscure “protection from obscenity regulations from the Engler era.
Is it too late to tell them that funding the arts not only contributes to the intellectual culture of this state but may also help spur a fading economy by making the state an attractive destination for burgeoning companies?
The target of the center’s attacks is the Ann Arbor Film Festival. Founded in 1963 by a University professor, the festival has showcased many fascinating films over the years. According to officials, the festival has no plans to showcase pornographic films or anything of that nature, and neither has it done so in the past.
In a policy paper last year, “Entertaining Art: To Tax or Not To Tax – That Is the Question,” Michael LaFaive, director of the center’s Morey Fiscal Policy Initiative, explicitly called out the festival as an example of exorbitant state funding of the arts. But rather than explain how exactly the economy is hindered by such funding, LaFaive produced a list of past films that he determined objectionable.
That was all that it took. Last May, when the state House of Representatives was determining the budget for the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, the state agency that oversees grants for arts projects, Rep. Shelley Taub (R-Bloomfield Hills) suggested a complete revocation of funding. Using LaFaive’s essay as a playbook, Taub and her Republican minions dug out 10-year-old regulations to justify the cuts. That this occurred during an election year should provide clues to Taub’s true motives.
The Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs was formed in 1991 after former Republican Gov. John Engler completely dissolved its predecessor, the Michigan Cultural Commission. Engler, like the Mackinac Center believed funding for the arts was not the state’s responsibility. When people protested his move, he founded the Michigan Council of Arts and Cultural Affairs, with half the funding of its predecessor.
In 1996, the state House passed three guidelines for any artist to receive a grant through the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. One of the regulations, which so far remain unchallenged legally, prohibits any union of human waste and religious symbols, desecration of the flag and depictions of sex acts. While it is understandable that the state should have some discretion over the allocation of its funds, the problem is that these guidelines happen to be unconstitutional.
In a principally secular country like ours, providing sanctity to religious symbols is a violation of the establishment clause and the first amendment. Desecration of the flag is also protected speech; see Texas v. Johnson and U.S. v. Eichman. The third regulation is the most insidious. Without a definition of what constitutes a sex act, it is difficult to determine if a production violates that clause, leaving it entirely up to arbitrary judgment.
Regardless, this year the festival had to seek out other sources of funding. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which has a pretty big night on Sunday) pledged $10,000 to be used for programming about the issue of censorship.
While there are many who believe that cutting arts funding is just a way for the state to eliminate waste, there is a political dimension to it. To conservative puritans in Lansing and at the Mackinac Center, attacking the festival is an easy way to confront Ann Arbor liberals and their ideology. Furthermore, the film festival itself, while non-partisan, has seen an increase in the number of films expressing a political opinion that leans left-of-center.
The saddest part of the whole controversy is the effect it potentially has on Michigan’s economy. While free-market extremists preach the job-making potential of tax cuts – a theory clearly disproved by Pfizer’s recent departure – it is culture and the arts that bring and keep jobs in a state. Companies like Google have stressed how important the character of an area’s lifestyle is in a decision to locate there, and the arts are a big part of that lifestyle.
States with well-established and unique arts cultures like New York and California are the ones that businesses flock to, even if they have to pay a little more in taxes. Film production in itself can also bring much-needed revenue. As a filmmaker, would you shoot in a state with such ridiculous guidelines for receiving artistic grants as Michigan? Our theocratic legislators in Lansing would be wise to open doors to events like the AAFF not close them.
Jared Goldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.