Sponsors Like Delta May Not Demand Squeaky-clean Art, But We Shouldn’t Expect Them Not To

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Delta says, “Don’t do this.” Photo: Joan Marcus/©2016 Joan Marcus

I sent an arts organization a $50 check the other day, in the hope that it might add to a lot of other drops and eventually, if not quite fill the group’s bucket of debt, at least coat the bottom. That donation did not of course give me the right to call up the management and demand a say in its programming, but had I not wanted the group to do what it does, I would have kept my 50 bucks. A similar calculation has always guided those who anoint the arts with money, whether with an eyedropper or a fire hose. Church fathers, sovereigns, governments, foundation boards, philanthropists, corporate donors, penny-ante supporters like me, and ticket buyers everywhere — all weigh the artistic and social value of the artistic endeavors that get their cash. Making those judgments is neither censorship nor meddling; it is a central responsibility of those who can and feel they should throw money at creative work.

On Sunday, after a volley of criticism from Eric Trump and Fox News, both Delta Airlines and Bank of America pulled promised funding from their support of the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar because the Trump-like potentate is stabbed to death. Apparently political assassination does not jibe with the marketing missions of major corporations. Who knew?

Twitter erupted in scorn: Had none of these people read the play in eighth grade? Did the killing come as a surprise? Did they not realize that it’s supposed to be tragic, not celebratory? Didn’t they remember that in a different production, in 2012, the Romans murdered an Obama-like Caesar, and nobody flipped out? And where does an immense bank or a widely unbeloved airline get off expressing moral qualms about a play?

By all means, let us inveigh against Philistinism and puffed-up self-interest (always worthy targets), but we should also recognize that neither art nor money is a neutral force. It’s a wonderful thing that Shakespeare’s works continue to excite and enlighten after four centuries. Their relevance, though, is not free. Ours is a dramatically polarized moment in which every utterance gets scrutinized for its political import, and that is hardly new. In the 1850s, Giuseppe Verdi wrote an opera that depicted the assassination 60 years earlier of King Gustav III of Sweden. Censors objected to showing the murder of a European sovereign, so the commissioning house forced the composer to neutralize the political overtones by shifting the action to a distant exotic land: Boston. (We now know this sanitized version as Un Ballo in Maschera.) To pretend that people who write checks have an abstract duty to fund an artistic enterprise without caring about the result is naïve. Most of the time the decision whether to fund a novel, a new piece of music, or an exhibition is made long before these works see the light of day. The Public’s Julius Caesar is a rare instance of a donor’s after-the-fact judgment, but that doesn’t make it outrageous.

Marketing through arts philanthropy also carries a cost that is borne both by donors and recipients. Corporations often fund the arts as a way of cleansing reputations they have sullied through their business practices or products, and money-hungry organizations have to decide how willing they are to play the game. Twenty years ago, the debate over art-washing raged around whether to take tobacco money from Philip Morris. These days, the Koch brothers are the ones making liberal audiences queasy about enjoying the fruits of their largesse.

We who care about music, theater, dance, and so on regularly bemoan the lackluster public support of the arts (and fret about the possible demise of the NEA). But in more generous European nations, taxpayer support fluctuates too, and it is hardly a guarantee of creative freedom — especially when politicians demand that art’s social impact be quantified. The safest funding is the most diversified. If you could run a theater company or a museum on $50 donations, nobody would have the power to interfere and the experts could do what they wanted. In practice, organizations slaver over big-ticket philanthropists who can jump-start a construction project, ensure a blockbuster exhibition, or pay for a production by writing a single check. Pursuing them usually means arguing that the work they’re paying for will exhilarate more people than it will anger. Dependence on donors, by its nature, nudges the arts toward traditionalism and conservatism.

So, yes, the Julius Caesar showdown represents a conservative rear guard’s hostility to the arts, to overt political challenges, and certainly to the flammable mixture of the two. (Also, one suspects, toward New York City.) But it also embodies the eternal, and constantly renegotiated compact between those who make art and those who fund it. So long as some creative enterprises can’t pay for their work just by selling tickets — which is to say, so long as they are not completely commercial — they will need to embrace moral compromise and the possibility of financial retribution. Play on.

Can Corporations Like Delta Demand Squeaky-clean Art?