There’s a difference between supporting culture, heritage and the arts – something we assuredly do – and supporting a state takeover of culture, heritage and the arts – something we assuredly do not.
Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, the Cayman Islands government’s recently published “Draft National Culture and Heritage Policy and Strategic Plan for the Cayman Islands 2017-2026” is full of proposals for the latter.
Rather than analyzing its 47 pages of platitudes, buzzwords, banalities, appendices, acronyms, bullet points and footnotes, we will focus on a single aspect of the “policy and strategic plan” that has stirred up conversation and controversy locally: the idea that government may draw on public resources to subsidize local artists.
The proposal’s apparent simplicity is deceptive and defective. Attempting to put the plan into action would immediately draw officials, and artists, into a foreseeable series of practical, ethical and philosophical quagmires.
For example, who might qualify for public assistance under the proposal?
According to the government document, “‘Artist’ is taken to mean any person who creates or gives creative expression to, or re-creates works of art, who considers his or her artistic creation to be an essential part of his or her life, who contributes in this way to the development of art and culture and who is or asks to be recognised as an artist, whether or not he or she is bound by any relations of employment or association.”
After you’ve digested that unpalatable word salad (“pass the Pepto, please”), consider that the government would keep tabs on this new special interest group by establishing “a national registry of artists working across all genres ….”
Who decides who gets placed on this “national registry?” Who decides who gets public funding, how much, and for what?
Setting aside the notion of the “starving artist,” we recognize that throughout history, wealthy “patrons” have supported important artists in their creative pursuits, including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante Alighieri and William Shakespeare.
One nearly universal characteristic of such patron-artist relationships is the absence of criticism of the patron by the artist. Particularly when the “patron” happens to be the government, the potential conflicts with artistic expression and free speech should be readily apparent.
Consider, for example, the work of American artist Andres Serrano, whose 1987 photograph “Immersion (P*ss Christ)” depicted a crucifix submerged in a glass of Mr. Serrano’s urine. Funded in part by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, the photograph spurred heated conversations (not to mention death threats to Mr. Serrano) about the nature of art, religion, free speech and the separation of church and state.
Or, in present times, consider the painting by a high school student depicting a violent confrontation between police officers (depicted as pigs) and African Americans (one of whom is depicted as a black panther). Since the painting was displayed in a hallway in the U.S. Capitol building last year, lawmakers have taken turns taking down and putting back up the painting, which was surrounded by some 400 other pieces of art. The immediate dispute seems to have just ended after lawmakers pointed out a rule against “exhibits depicting subjects of contemporary political controversy.”
Is Cayman’s government prepared to slog into that sort of territory?
Not all artists are controversial. But many are.
Which brings us back to the headline of this editorial.
Sculptor and Cayman Brac resident Ron “Foots” Kynes is one of the most talented, productive, well-known and controversial artists in the country. Mr. Kynes has repeatedly drawn the ire of his neighbors with his sculptures, including a goat’s head on a crucifix with the number 666 on it, titled “Apocalypse Now.” Then there was a 10-foot statue of a demon holding a pitchfork and skull, titled, “Mephistopheles Throne.” That artwork was vandalized and smashed in 2015.
By the government’s definition (see above), Mr. Kynes certainly qualifies as an artist, and therefore potentially for public support from taxpayers, including, yes, his vandalizing neighbor(s).
We end this editorial where we began: What about Foots?