With the recent release of the proposed federal budget for the upcoming year, the arts have drawn a considerable amount of attention. Budget cuts are planned to various arts-related programming and organizations, and there has been significant outcry from directly affected parties and connoisseurs, alike.
Setting the Stage
Although the degree to which governments should be funding various projects or causes is up for debate, an obvious recourse to such cuts is the creation of arts-related nonprofit organizations. Such organizations have been popular for some time and enjoy the support of private donors, generous tax subsidies, and, in some cases, even direct grants from government(s). While third sector organizations oftentimes serve niche groups or select populations, as long as an organization is engaged in some type of religious, charitable, literary, educational, or scientific activity and is not attempting to explicitly influence legislation or a political campaign, there is a good chance that tax-exempt status may be granted and maintained.
In recent times, questions have been raised regarding the definition of art in relation to the aforementioned “literary” and “educational” causes that certain nonprofit organizations engage in, as well as the kinds of actions that constitute the spreading of propaganda.
New York City’s the Public Theater organization was founded in 1954 and works to provide an avenue for “showcasing the works of up-and-coming playwrights and performers.” The organization is registered as a 501(c)(3) organization and enjoys the tax-exempt benefits that accompany this designation, while also benefitting from millions of dollars in direct government support (via grants) that have been collected over the years.
From May 23 through June 18, the Public Theater ran an original production of Julius Caesar that had been adapted for a modern-day context and setting. In this production, the character of Caesar had been replaced by an actor sharing a very similar likeness to President Donald Trump. Like the Ancient Roman politician, the “Trump-Caesar” is violently murdered in the play’s climactic scene.
Throughout the production’s run, questions arose in relation to the appropriateness of the production and the possible linkages to the promotion of political violence. While such connections are probably best left to discussions of what exactly constitutes “art” in modern times, less abstract questions remain regarding government sponsorship of potentially incendiary symbolism. Although the titular character is never referred to as “Trump” (a key line is changed to reference a previous Donald Trump quote) the likeness of the character (as well as his wife’s heavily-Slavic accent) makes the association impossible to dismiss.
To what extent should third sector organizations, which are, in this case at least, receiving favorable tax benefits, as well as direct and indirect government funding, be allowed to promote even abstract political violence (or any implied violence) against a sitting politician or other significant public figure?
Although there are likely always going to be disagreements in political stances and preferences, implied violence against the President of the United States is bound to draw attention and criticism from much of the population that ultimately contributes (in most cases, involuntarily) to these organizations.
(Too) Liberal Arts?
The ultimate question may be in relation to the definition of activities that allow an organization to be officially classified as a nonprofit as well as the standards to which these organizations should be upheld in order to maintain such status. As mentioned previously, the activities that organizations must be involved with in order to qualify for tax exemptions are pretty broad and the interpretation of any number of organization activities make the qualification process easier than it maybe should be.
During the final nights of the performance’s run, attendees regularly stormed the stage, protesting what they perceived to be a government-funded production promoting and propagandizing political violence. Although regulating authorities should be mindful of altering existing practices in order to appease such individuals, groups, and interests, perhaps it is time to re-assess and to possibly better regulate the citizen-funded organizations that comprise the third sector.
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